Popularity of Key West Songwriters Festival Did Not Happen Overnight

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By 8 p.m. last Thursday, May 9, a tightly formed line of about one hundred fans stretched from Cowboy Bill’s down several blocks on lower Duval Street. Cole Swindell, one of the biggest names—not just in country, but in all of music—was headlining a 10 p.m. show for a scheduled Key West Songwriters Festival performance. Later, names like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rising country star Adam Doleac would join Swindell on stage, creating yet another extraordinary moment at a festival that is making such moments the norm. The following day, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, was spotted with an entourage of about 25 security members as he took in the 24th annual festival. And the festivities were capped with an outdoor Duval Street show by Brad Paisley on Saturday evening.

Of course, other stars, legendary songwriters and aspiring artists were seen all over town. But the buzz around this year’s Songwriters Festival had nothing to do with the current star power over the weekend. Rather, the energy around the event has been culminating for the past 24 years. Over that time, some of the greatest songwriters in history have participated in the Key West Songwriters Festival. And yet the festival has stayed true to its roots, inviting rising stars and aspiring songwriters from the BMI network into a city that already boasts an eclectic appetite for music and performers.

In March of 2018 we published an article entitled “How Key West is Becoming ‘Music Town USA.’” At the time, we received mixed reviews, as some skeptics likened the piece to local propaganda, while others cited Key West’s density and population capacity as lacking in comparison to other musical settlements like Seattle and Austin. Within the article, we listed some of the biggest shows and performers to hit the Southernmost City over the past decade—including the likes of the Revivalists, Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen and of course, Jimmy Buffett. And we paid tribute to local promoters for changing the landscape of live music in Key West (most notably names like the Green Parrot’s John Vagnoni, the Key West Theater’s Bill Muehlhauser and the Smokin’ Tuna’s Charlie Bauer—also a pioneer of the Songwriters Fest). And yet, haters and doubters still found time to scoff at the notion of Key West boasting a national presence within the live music scene.

Since March of ‘18, the Mile 0 Fest has continued to recruit mainstream contemporary acts: The Avett Brothers recently performed two shows, The Revivalists made another appearance and big names like the Beach Boys and Michael McDonald continue to fill local venues. But for anyone doubting that Key West continues to trend towards one of the nation’s most vibrant, up-and-coming musical destinations, they should look no further than the crowds and energy around the Songwriters Festival this past weekend.

Key West is an emerging city on the national music scene. Not just because of the of the stars and performers who are now visiting on a reoccurring basis, but because of the local talent pool and artists who call Key West home. As “Field of Dreams” taught us: “Build it, and they will come.” Our local artists and promoters have built a unique cathedral that is drawing national attention to performers who are looking to play venues in cities with authentic character—and the vibe and artistry of Key West is unlike any other place on the planet.

So the next time you attend a concert or festival in Key West and see Jeff Bezos sitting beside you at breakfast, just remember he did not arrive by accident. The allure of hearing live music in Key West has been culminating for decades. It has been brewing at the Smokin’ Tuna and at Sunday soundchecks at the Green Parrot. It has been intensified by Ramshead and the Key West Theater and celebrated with mainstream shows at Tennessee Williams. Yet most of all, it has been our local artists that have defined the city’s music persona. They have built the foundation. And now more are coming.

For the rest of us—sit back and enjoy the show.

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