When you think of music towns and songwriting havens, your head naturally gravitates toward Nashville and Austin, Bakersfield and L.A. and such. You rarely think of Key West in Florida as a musical destination for songwriting or anything else musical, unless you have a Parrothead sticker on the back of your SUV.
Even Jimmy Buffett’s early work as one of the better songwriters of the 70’s gets overlooked by the margarita-nosed spectacle that his late career became, and overshadows the fact that for years, Key West has given rise to many great songs, and offered haven to many of their authors.
There’s something about the surroundings of Key West that help stoke words from the human soul. Ernest Hemingway saw that attribute of the island, deciding to make it his home throughout the 30’s, and retained a house there as a writing retreat all the way until his death.
Though Jimmy Buffett is most commonly the singer and songwriter whose name is synonymous with Key West, a slew of other songwriters and performers also spent sizable time on the island, while others still use the retreat as a place to seek out inspiration for new songs.
Shel Silverstein, who may be best known for his children’s stories, was also a prolific country music songwriter, penning Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” an entire record of songs for Bobby Bare, along with other numerous credits, making him an honorary country music “Outlaw.” Shel also purchased a 2-story yellow house on Key West in the 80’s at at 618 William Street, and lived there until suffering a heart attack in the home and dying in 1999.
When Jimmy Buffett originally headed to Key West in November of 1971, he did so with another famous songwriter in tow—Jerry Jeff Walker. Though Walker had already enjoyed overwhelming success as the writer of “Mr. Bojangles,” the bum life that awaited the pair in Key West suited Jerry Jeff just fine. Jimmy and Jerry Jeff arrived to busk for tips in local bars, which was the way many of Key West’s early songwriters made their way, and many still do today. Walker would eventually amble over to Texas and help start the music scene in Austin, but Jimmy Buffett stuck around and became synonymous with the island.
David Allan Coe also landed in Key West for a period. His album Spectrum VII from April of 1979 has numerous references to the area, including the song “Seven Mile Bridge” about the causeway connecting Marathon Key to the latter islands in the island chain on the way to Key West. The cover of the album was a picture of Coe standing on the beach. Though in earlier times David Allan Coe and Jimmy Buffet were thought to be more friendly, it turned sour between Coe and Buffet in the Keys. Buffett claimed that Coe lifted the chorus of his 1977 song “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” for his “Diver Do It Deeper.” Jimmy Buffett stated later, “I would have sued him, but I didn’t want to give Coe the pleasure of having his name in the paper.”
Coe returned fire when he released the song “Jimmy Buffett” on the first of his two underground albums, 1978’s Nothing’s Sacred. Coe was apparently inspired to record the comical album while hanging out with Shel Silverstein in Key West, listening to Silverstein’s comedy album, Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball.
In the 70’s, country music songwriters helped make up the character of the Florida Keys of today. And since 1997, there has also been an annual songwriter’s festival on the island. The inaugural Mile 0 Fest from February 7th through 10th will try and take the island’s musical lineage to another notch, and make use of the island’s songwriting roots.
Though much of the attention is being paid to the major headlining acts such as the Turnpike Troubadours and Cody Jinks who will play Key West’s brand Truman Waterfront Park amphitheater, the festival is also just as excited about showcasing the talents of songwriters on side stages and in local venues, some of which are performers who are already well-renown, and others who are up-and-coming. Along with helping to expand the interest in Texas music and Americana to a new market in Florida, Mile 0 Fest also hopes to shine a spotlight on artists that will make up the next generation of star performers and songwriters.
So along with patrons getting their face rocked off by William Clark Green, they might discover our generation’s Shel Silverstein. Or perhaps putting all of this talent together in a place known for inspiring songs will result in timeless collaborations future generations will look back on and pin to Key West, just like the current generation does now for the songs of Shel, Jerry Jeff, Coe, and Buffett.
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For more information on Mile 0 Fest, visit Mile0Fest.com .