By Gen Handley
The connotation of a singer-songwriter can vary from listener to listener, but ultimately, it is an artist who writes the songs they perform. The magic of songwriting occurs not only in the music itself and how it makes you feel, but it also happens when you watch the artist’s songwriting evolve over time and experience deep empathy through their raw words and music.
One of those singer-songwriters easily includes Ricki Lee Jones, legendary jazz and pop artist, and one of the incredible headliners of the 14th Annual 30A Songwriters Festival, scheduled for January 14-16, 2023, in Walton County, Florida. Her esteemed company for this year’s lineup also includes Lyle Lovett, Gin Blossoms, Steve Earle, Yola, and Morgan Wade. Ever since the days when her 1979 hit “Chuck E’s in Love” was an ever-playing gem on radio airwaves, Jones says that her songwriting has definitely evolved.
“The process has changed since my teens and twenties,” she explained. “I am not as interested in being clever, though I do like to stay cohesive and tie ends together. Lyric writing is very specific. It is much more satisfying if I stick with a palette or lyrical theme…like if you start by talking about candy, you don’t end with 30-weight oil unless it’s got sugar in it.”
With over 14 diverse records, Jones exemplifies the evolving artist who relentlessly pursues their passion and craft. Even after her share of hit songs and albums, as well as two Grammys, Jones does not have a template for the songs she gifts the world.
“Each one is different,” she said about how she approaches a new song. “It’s not about my style of writing. It’s about the song’s way of telling itself. It could be a piano phrase or a banjo rhythm or an idea about something I saw that leads to a sea of feelings I didn’t even know were on my mind.”
Indie, alt-country artist Kathleen Edwards is also part of the solid 30A Songwriters Festival lineup for 2023. Like Jones, the Canadian singer-songwriter does not have a process or structure when writing popular songs like “Six O’clock News” and “Back to Me.”
“Sometimes the melody comes first, and sometimes the chords come first, or sometimes you have a groove or a story or feeling that you want to figure out how to encapsulate into a song,” Edwards said. “There’s no formula that works for me.”
Edwards says that figuring out the conundrum of good songwriting can be as gratifying as the final product itself.
“At the foundation of it, songwriters are storytellers,” she said. “That’s the primary goal—to find a way to express sentiment through somebody’s story or somebody’s experience. I find that really incredibly challenging. It’s like solving a puzzle, and it is. It feels like you’ve been given a problem to solve.
She thought about it a little more.
“It’s challenging but incredibly rewarding,” she offered.
30A Songwriters Festival board member Russell Carter is particularly excited about this year’s lineup, and this is a festival that has hosted icons like Mavis Staples, John Prine, and Emmylou Harris over the years. One hundred percent of the festival’s proceeds will go towards the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, which provides invaluable leadership, advocacy, funding, arts programs, and education. It is important to note that the festival features artists that are songwriting veterans and household names, as well as those who are beginning to make a name for themselves. Other notable musicians confirmed for the festival include Tom Rush, Shawn Mullins, Amy Grant, Brian Vander Ark (The Verve Pipe), Beth Nielsen Chapman, and John Craigie.
“This is a particularly strong year for emerging artists whose careers are surging forward, notably Morgan Wade, Lilly Hiatt, Abe Patridge, Yola, and the Black Opry Revue – a powerful collective of Black artists in the Americana, country, and folk genres – all of whom will play multiple sets throughout the weekend,” said Russell.
“Lyle Lovett and Rickie Lee Jones perform back to back Saturday afternoon on the headline stage, and there’s a rumor they might just pair up for a duet on a song or two,” he added teasingly.
It is fitting that, for 13 years, a celebration of those who bring some grace to our lives is being held in an area that holds its own natural beauty. It is a preeminent festival that attracts the best of the best, such as Jones, who is returning a second time; she first played the festival in 2021. Jones’s 50 +-year journey as an artist is as interesting as the impetuses that set her off down this exciting path.
Jones’s trumpet-playing, singer-songwriter father Richard, who she was named after, was a pivotal person in her creative and artistic development. But the more she explored and listened, Jones would find songwriting inspiration in other voices that resonated with her along the way.
“My father was a singer, and he looms large in my singing, but songwriting… it was a process, and it starts with the Beatles,” she recalled. “Then, many voices: Neil Young, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison, and definitely Laura Nyro. She had a huge impact on what I saw around me. Characters, situations, and my own humanity. Randy Newman too.”
A beautiful tribute to songwriting, the annual festival has more than 175 artists playing in more than 30 venues along the 30A resort corridor in Northwest Florida, an area that Edwards feels is really special.
“This festival is shining a light on a part of the United States that’s still a bit of a secret,” she said. “It’s one of those places that’s really special – I’m really looking forward to playing.”