They came, they saw, they strummed.
Over the weekend, 27 Nashville songwriters visited Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach for the annual Blast on the Bay Songwriters’ Festival.
Three days of free concerts got locals and visitors up close and personal with the writers who penned number one hits for country stars Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and countless others.
The festival kicked off with a sponsor’s party on Thursday which took over the Indian Pass boat ramp and welcomed music from several of the performers along with free food and drink. The festival officially started the following day with a lunchtime jam at Triple Tails Seafood and Raw Bar before expanding to nine venues across Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach.
Each event featured four songwriters who performed in a “writer’s round” fashion with each writer playing a tune while the others joined in or simply sat back and enjoyed the song.
On Saturday, those looking to break into the songwriting industry were treated to a two-hour question and answer workshop with writers Steve Leslie and Will Rambeaux, held at Dockside Seafood and Raw Bar.
Despite an afternoon downpour, more than 30 attendees listened to stories, asked questions and learned about how the industry is changing for writers.
“We had a great turnout,” said Leslie. “I’d say it was the best workshop we’ve ever done.”
The event culminated on Sunday at the Indian Pass Raw Bar with an afternoon of performances and a late-night jam session.
“It was great fun and we had a lineup of great people,” said Rambeaux, who also helped select the participating artists. “I have my regulars in mind, but I also bring in new people and they had such a great response.
“What’s cool is that listeners get to make a connection with country music. They hear songs that they’ve heard on the radio, as well as new songs that they’ll start to hear over the next year or two.”
Case in point was participating songwriter Jessie Rice who penned the song “Cruise,” which was recorded and released by the group Florida Georgia Line earlier this year. Though he performed the song at last year’s festival, Rice was able to play the hit single in his own style for an excited crowd during his set on Friday at The Thirsty Goat.
"Cruise" went on to become the longest-running number one country music song of all time and spent 25 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. To date, "Cruise" has sold more than six million downloads, the second most ever by a country song.
“It was awesome playing alongside great musicians and hearing hit after hit,” said Leslie. “Every year, the bar is raised.”
Leslie said that while songwriters appreciate ballads and the subtleties and nuances found within, more often than not, more time was dedicated to up-tempo songs to keep the energy levels high.
He added that highlights for him included the kickoff set at Triple Tails, though he also enjoyed his writer’s round at Toucan’s.
“Triple Tails was the best,” said Leslie. “There were tons of people packed in there and everyone was exceedingly cordial.”
Presenting sponsors for the event included the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Visit Florida, two organizations with the goal of building and improving tourism in the sunshine state.
Carol Dover, President of the FRL in Tallahassee, actively works to promote tourism in the area, especially since the BP oil spill in 2010. Through funding from Governor Rick Scott, the FRL was able to sponsor the Blast on the Bay Songwriters’ Festival and the Seafood Festival in Panama City, both of which took place over the weekend.
The goal of the FRL is to bring people to the area and fill hotels, which means more visitors dining out, shopping, and supporting the local economy.
“Port St. Joe is a great city, a hidden gem,” said Dover.
The FRL marketing team promoted the Blast on the Bay in magazines throughout the panhandle and Dover commended event organizer Jason Bogan for coordinating the annual festival.
“It’s smart to capitalize on a weekend that could be a dead one,” said Dover. “The season trails off and people don’t always have a reason to come here.”
Dover said that in past years, Florida was receiving around 82 million visitors a year, but as Governor Scott pushed tourism, there was an increase to 90 million visitors last year.
“No doubt, some of them are coming to Gulf County,” said Dover. “Governor Scott has been amazing to tourism.”