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Captiva to co-host first regional songwriters festival

February 4, 2014
By MCKENZIE CASSIDY ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The life of a songwriter isn't easy.

Although serious about their art, they struggle to make ends meet - taking side jobs with low pay, sleeping in cars, and playing in dive bars - until that one day when their song gets "cut" by a Brad Paisley or Kellie Pickler and ends up on the Billboard's top charts.

Experienced songwriters pen more than 150 songs in the course of one year and only a handful of those ever go under contract, while the vast majority take up space in the rejection pile. Most years they don't even sell one song, but they never quit. They keep writing and writing until the day when opportunity presents itself.

Major songwriters festivals in Florida like Endless Summer, 30A, and the Key West Songwriters Festival have brought hundreds of talented singer-songwriters out from behind the curtain for one purpose: Great music.

The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, partnering with Broadcast Music, Inc., iHeart Radio, and Clear Channel Media announced Southwest Florida's first Island Hopper Songwriter Fest on Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach this fall.

Singer-songwriters Wynn Varble and Phil O'Donnell gave a preview of the festival last week in Fort Myers, not only performing their own hits but others never heard before or taken from the rejection pile.

Fact Box

If you go:

What: The Island Hopper Songwriter Fest

Where: Multiple venues on Captiva Island

and Fort Myers Beach

When: Sept. 26-28 on Captiva Island

and Oct. 3-6 on Fort Myers Beach


Varble, raised in a small Georgia town before relocating to Nashville, had his first No. 1 song with Darryl Worley in 2003, "Have You Forgotten." With a brown cowboy hat and boots matching his southern drawl, he pointed out the duct tape on the bottom of his guitar that needed repairing after an accident at the airport.

He opened the hour-long set with "I'm a Little More Country," which was recorded by Easton Corbin and nominated as song of the year by the Academy of Country Music.

Canadian-native Phil O'Donnell, casually singing from under a baseball cap with a t-shirt and jeans, talked about his early life struggling as a songwriter before hitting it big in Nashville, and how he never gave up.

In 2005, his song "That's What I Love About Sunday" was recorded by Craig Morgan and went on to be one of the most played of the year.

Most people aren't familiar with the concept of a songwriters festival, or that many of the songs heard on the radio aren't written by the performers, but organizers are hoping to familiarize the public before it opens this fall.

Besides showcasing great music that for one reason or another didn't possess the good fortune of hitting-it-big, these festivals are also a venue for artists to share great stories and life experiences between songs.

"What makes a songwriters festival so unique is that they come up and tell the stories behind the songs and really give you some insight into the songwriting process, and the fun stories about how that particular piece of music was created," said Daniel B. Spears, vice president of Industry Relations at BMI. "We call it pulling the curtain back on the music business, particularly in country music, so many of those songs you hear on the radio you think are written by the artists who perform them, but in reality they are written by this very close-knit songwriting community in Nashville."

Spears said organizers are trying to attract people who normally wouldn't visit Captiva Island or Fort Myers this time of year, but would change their minds if they knew about the festival.

"When you do that, it has a positive impact on the economy in so many ways," he said.

Eighteen years ago, for instance, the Key West Songwriters Festival featured only four artists, while more than 100 are expected to be on the island this summer from May 7-11.

The Island Hopper Songwriter Fest in Lee County will likely host a modest number of performers its first year, yet may grow to one day rival Key West's.

Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County VCB, said this type of musical event is appropriate for the fall season and lends itself to be done in small venues. It's scheduled on Captiva Island from Sept. 26-28 and on Fort Myers Beach from Oct. 3-6.

She said September and October are difficult months for local businesses in Lee County.

"Our goal of course is always economic benefit to our community and bringing business here when we need it most," said Pigott. "This is the first year, and as we go along we can grow it and it will be all around the county in the future."

Organizers recommend that music fans book hotel rooms now because they are expected to sell out quickly.

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