Don't call it a festival! An event unlike any other, the inaugural Park City Song Summit gathered from Sept. 8-10 in the picturesque Utah mountain town known for its epic ski slopes and being home to the Sundance Film Festival since 1978.
With artists and music industry figures including Jason Isbell, Andrew Bird, actor/comedian Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live, Portlandia), journalists Anthony Mason (CBS News) and Marissa Moss, Electric Lady Studios owner Lee Foster, and event curators Jay Sweet (Newport Folk Festival) and Peter Shapiro (Fare Thee Well, Brooklyn Bowl), the event was a who's who covering all corners of the business.
A mix of discussion panels during the day followed by musical performances at night, the event curated by musician, former lawyer and current Park City native Ben Anderson (pictured below) is a mix of intimate songwriter rounds, early SXSW-era discussion panels (referred to as labs) and traditional shows. According to Anderson, the inspiration for the event stems partly from him recently turning 50 and looking back on what kind of impact he's had on the world that could inspire others in recovery from substance abuse like himself to get on a better path.
"We wanted to create an event where artists weren't just getting paraded on stage for 45 minutes before rushing off to their next gig," Anderson tells Wide Open Country. "We aren't a 20,000 person event and have no intention to be. Our goal is to curate a unique experience where songwriters can openly discuss their struggles with mental health and substance abuse in the hopes of inspiring others who may be struggling themselves to work toward a brighter future."
"That being said, we didn't want all of our labs to be about mental health and addiction. That's why we also have labs touching on the everlasting impact of songwriters like John Prine and Robert Hunter as well as pushing for more equity in the industry with tastemakers like Marissa Moss and her fantastic book Her Country."
A musician himself since he was 12 despite not ever being fully ingrained into the industry, Anderson says that his role as a musical outsider has actually been a gift, allowing he and his team the creative freedom to curate the Summit as they wish without any oversight from a larger company like Live Nation or AEG Presents.
"Because I don't care about what's popular on the radio, who won what award or what the return on investment is per ticket I can instead focus on the art, on our artist's wellness and booking folks that will not only inspire themselves, but others to move this human experience forward a bit through the power of song," says Anderson.
From labs to intimate live performances and rowdy nighttime shows, here are the 10 best things we saw at the first annual Park City Song Summit.
That's The Way The World Goes Round
Kicking off the Park City Summit's labs was an enlightening discussion about the legacy of the late John Prine led by Jay Sweet and featuring songwriters Jason Isbell, Warren Haynes and Margo Price. Topics discussed included how they first discovered Prine's music and favorite lyrics along with personal stories of time spent with the landmark songwriter including a humorous anecdote from Isbell about a negative review of one of Prine's early albums hanging above his toilet that Isbell would read every time he went to the bathroom at Prine's home.
Southern born and bred artists Adia Victoria and Katie Pruitt explored their relationships with the region they call home and revisited their religious trauma during an early afternoon lab on Sept. 8. With Victoria born into a Seventh Day Adventist family in South Carolina and Pruitt from a devout Catholic family in Georgia, the two bonded over their sheltered childhoods and their journeys out of them that have allowed each to flourish both as artists and as people.
A founding member of Trey Anastasio's Ghosts Of The Forest, Celisse wowed those in attendance at downtown Park City venue O.P. Rockwell on the night of Sept. 8 with an epic power trio performance that tapped heavily into her jam band background on cuts like "Freedom," an eye-opening and empowering anthem written in 2016 in the wake of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling's deaths. Originally a four minute made for radio tune, Celisse and company transformed the song into a 10 minute song full of meaty guitar licks and dynamic, thumping basslines.
If My Words Did Glow
Starting off day two of the Park City Song Summit was a vibrant discussion about the legacy of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter led by Jay Sweet and featuring Eric D. Johnson, Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman of folk trio Bonny Light Horseman. Each discussed their paths to discovering the Grateful Dead in the late '80s and early '90s along with their favorite Hunter lyrics and the overall depth of his songwriting.
However, the lab's most interesting moment came when Sweet, curator of the Newport Folk Festival, told a story about Hunter performing at the event in 2014. Following his set Sweet got to interview Hunter, which unveiled an amazing story about the first time he met Jerry Garcia. The two penned a letter to Newport founder Pete Seeger inquiring about his creative process and ended up receiving a four page letter in the mail from Seeger a few weeks later spelling things out, something Sweet says that Hunter referred to as "the Rosetta Stone of the Grateful Dead" that helped to lay out the formula for Hunter's songwriting and the band's unwavering success.
Maybe We'll Make It
Country Music Journalist Marissa Moss, the author of Her Country, sat down with musician and newly minted author Margo Price to discuss in detail her memoir Maybe We'll Make It out Oct. 4. The raw and intimate conversation explored everything from Price's rural upbringing to struggles with her marriage, body image and substance abuse, showing a new side to the outspoken country musician not seen before. The conversation was a splendid reminder that, whether they show it or not, everyone deals with self-doubt and other depreciating thoughts. However, it's how you handle that turmoil and doubt that help to define you as a person. Price is a prime example of that, illustrating how to turn bad moments into positive learning experiences by continually growing through the ups and downs of life.
What's Going On?
Pennsylvania born, Nashville based blues, rock and soul singer Devon Gilfillian joined Joe Pug for a live recording of his podcast "The Working Songwriter" to discuss Gilfillian's musical roots, why he opted to move to Nashville over the more local Philadelphia, his quick rise culminating with a signing to Capitol Records and more. The most interesting story during the near hour-long podcast came when Gilfillian discussed a recording opportunity he discovered through Craigslist shortly after moving to Nashville that led to him getting to meet iconic record producer T Bone Burnett.
Live From The Great Room
Fiddle and whistling extraordinaire Andrew Bird hosted two sessions of his Live From The Great Room YouTube series during the Summit, the first with drummer, comedian and actor Fred Armisen and the latter with Southern blues singer Adia Victoria. The Armisen session on Sept. 8 was one full of tongue-in-cheek humor as the two explored Armisen's love for British punk music, the evolution of drumming and more.
The following day Bird's session with Victoria and Mississippi-based country blues musician Jimbo Mathus delved into both artist's southern roots, poetry's role in the songwriting process and more. Also included were several performances including renditions of Victoria's originals "Magnolia Blues" and "South For The Winter" along with a rousing cover of Bird's love duet "Left Handed Kisses" that he originally recorded with Fiona Apple.
Have You Been To Electric Lady (Land)?
CBS News' Senior Culture Correspondent Anthony Mason led the opening lab on Sept. 10 with Lee Foster, co-owner and general manager of Jimi Hendrix's historic Electric Lady Studios in New York City. The two talked about everything from the studios' roots to how Foster began as an intern before working his way up to co-owner and his most special moments since he took over the historic studio when it was on the brink of closing in the early 2000s. With stories about everyone from Lady Gaga to Keith Richards, Patti Smith and The Strokes, the hour-long conversation was a complete nostalgia trip of music lore that most of us can only dream about being a part of.
Bleeding Hearts And The Devil's Knee
California based songwriters John Craigie and Tré Burt joined Joe Pug for another live edition of his podcast "The Working Songwriter" to discuss their unconventional paths to music (Craigie from hearing records his sister would play and Burt from stepping on and destroying his older brother's guitar), combatting imposter syndrome, how busking and performing in jam bands have helped each of them to hone their artistic craft, career breakthroughs (Craigie opening on tour for Jack Johnson and Burt signing to Oh Boy Records) and more. The conversation was a humbling look inside the creative process and how even your favorite songwriters are regularly battling self-doubt despite all of their successes.
Daniel Donato's Cosmic Country
Kicking off the third evening of live music at downtown Park City venue O.P. Rockwell, Daniel Donato brought the heat with a tripped out set of his signature cosmic country spearheaded by an opening performance of Johnny Cash's "Big River" and Phish's "Back On The Train." The 25-year-old phenom also mixed in jaw-dropping jams on originals like "Luck Of The Draw," helping to set the tone for a high octane evening of heady music with Keller Williams' Grateful Gospel and Anders Osborne, the latter of whom Donato joined on stage for a dynamite rendition of The Grateful Dead's "Iko Iko" with vocals led by Ivan Neville.
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