The Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival

I spent the past weekend participating in the Frank Brown Songwriters’ Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. My good friends and cowriters Lisa Brokop, Tania Hancheroff and I decided to take the time out of our crazy schedules to enjoy the weekend down there together as performers. The festival has been going on annually since the late 1980s, and features songwriters from all over the U.S., performing in-the-round at many of the local venues over a two-week period, many of whom are quite well-known. The location is beautiful, and the people are so warm and respectful of the visiting performers that it has grown into a major draw for Nashville songwriters.

The trip down took about 8 hours, which we managed to fill by singing every song we could think of from our childhood in three-part harmony – especially the Canadian ones, since all three of us are originally from there (even though we only met after moving to Nashville). I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life! My personal favorite was our version of “Oh Canada” sung entirely in parallel major thirds, which sounded like a mixture between Chinese music and a horror movie soundtrack. Somewhere along the way, our friend Tia Sillers called to wish us a safe and inspired trip, and told us that she was standing on the beach at Gulf Shores when she came up with the idea for the song “I Hope You Dance”. (“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean…”) It’s a magic place down there.

By the time we got there, we sounded like a bunch of basses – no top end at all, and lots of Janis Joplin rasp! But we tuned our guitars a little lower, and over the course of the weekend we played several shows for extremely attentive and supportive audiences. We even received a couple of standing ovations. That kind of reception is chicken soup to the souls of hard-working songwriters like us, who often don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labor outside of the writing room.

It’s funny – I spend so much time with my girlfriends that I forget how talented they are as performers. Tania Hancheroff (we call her Poncho Pants-are-off) is a top-call demo singer in Nashville and is working on developing her own career as an artist, but she also has quite a resume of recordings as a background singer (she is the high voice on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, and she also has worked with INXS, Montgomery Gentry, Ray Charles and Joan Osborne). We played several of the songs we’d written together, and I accompanied her on acoustic guitar for her other songs as well, since she is a pianist who is still learning how to play guitar. Lisa Brokop (we call her Lefty) is a Juno-award-winning vocalist with a very successful solo career up in Canada, and I remember admiring her voice on the radio before I was even considering making the move into songwriting. Now she’s one of my closest friends, but when she opens her mouth to sing I still pinch myself and say “WOW! THAT’S LISA BROKOP!” We closed our shows with “Saints & Angels”, with both girls singing harmonies – it sounded great!

When we weren’t on stage performing, we were making the most of the beautiful ocean-front condo which the festival provided as our accomodation for the weekend. We collected seashells, jogged down the sugar white sand beach, body-surfed in the waves (until a school of stingrays paid us a visit and we made a bee-line for the shore), sunbathed on the sand, watched the dolphins jump in the surf, built a giant sandcastle city decorated with shells and feathers (complete with moat, swimming pool, and tiny guns facing the ocean), watched the sunset from the hot tub, and ate candlelit dinners on the balcony overlooking the ocean. The experience was so renewing that it was absolutely spiritual. I hope we can co-ordinate our schedules to do it again next year!*

*A note from the future:  we never did make it back down there the next year.  In fact, we were all in the delivery room with Tania while she had her first baby!  So we had a good excuse.

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