As the festival industry grows bigger and bigger, the headline-grabbing, pop star laden behemoths make it easy to lose sight of what a music festival is at its foundation: a chance for music lovers to come together to celebrate and take in the sonic arts. Luckily, there are still people out there running festivals that keep this great and simple tradition alive.
Lillian Glanton and her creation, the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival, are a reminder that connecting with the music and the people that create and appreciate it are what these gatherings are all about, and what we've been missing over this pandemic period.
Through concerts, songwriter showcases, workshops, and parties, her festival is an ode to the art of songwriting set in one of music's most revered places in North America.
With the sophomore edition of Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival just around the corner, we caught up with the festival's founder to discuss how the festival came to be, the special qualities of songwriter festivals, and Muscle Shoals' revered relationship with music.
Your personal story is interesting and quite entangled with the origin story of the festival. Tell me a bit about your journey.
So I actually started on the other side of the music industry, I started playing guitar when I was super young and started writing songs when I was like 10 or 11 years old. When I was 15, my parents encouraged me to try out for this little TV show called American Idol. I wound up getting my 15 minutes of fame on TV. I think I made it to top one 150 and eventually got let go from the show. It was funny because I came back home to a small town and all of a sudden I was known as a little girl who was on TV and people wanted my autograph and I started getting all these really cool opportunities to perform at fairs and festivals.
So I was still in high school at the time. I got a band together called Lillian Glanton and the Elk River Boys and we played every fair and festival that we could, in every bar that they'd let a 16 year old girl play in. So anyways after about two years I took a step back from the artists career and I started writing songs and I started networking with really big songwriters in Nashville.
But I still loved to perform and I still wanted to perform so I started playing songwriters festivals, because the cool thing about a songwriters festival is, first off the audience are diehard music lovers. And the second is they want to hear the stories behind the song. So instead of being in a bar, playing a Miranda Lambert, or a Shania Twain song, I could play songs that I actually wrote myself and people would listen and pay attention.
And I just fell in love with that aspect of it, because it really shined a light on the stories behind the songs and the songwriter telling the story as they're singing. And I'd come back home to the Shoals after playing a songwriters festival, I'll never forget it. I came back home after I'd played in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for the smoky mountain songwriters festival. And I said, 'why is there not songwriters festival in Muscle Shoals?'
It's kind of funny because people look at Muscle Shoals as a recording town but it's really a songwriting town. If you think about it, you know, Fame Studios had Fame Publishing Company and they sold their catalog two different times and made a ton of money which fuelled the recording side of Fame Recording Studios, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios also had that same aspect as well.
So how did you turn it from an idea into an actual festival?
I was 19 years old when I launched the fest. It was insane. I remember being a broke college kid and I was thinking, 'how in the world am I going to pay for a $25,000 music festival?' I knocked on every small business door that I could and I just begged people to write me just a small check to make this thing happen.
At first it was going to be super small. I was going to invite a few friends of mine from Nashville that were hit songwriters that I had developed relationships with. And then all of a sudden we started getting messages on Instagram, messages on Facebook. People started emailing me saying thy wanted to be a part of the festival.
Before you know it we had over a hundred performers in the festival in our first year and over a thousand attendees. So it was a great success. It was an awesome experience. I learned a lot. And then 2020 came around. And totally shook my world as a festival promoter, as it did several festival promoters.
I tell people it's harder to cancel a music festival than it is to put a music festival on, right? Because you've got contracts, you've got people who had bought tickets and who had bought plane tickets and hotel rooms. It was very devastating, you know, and this year, we decided to go big or go home. And I also switched up the festival to now be spearheaded by the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization.
I wanted to talk about all the different aspects of the festival because I know there are straight shows and there are workshops, etc. What is the Shoals Songwriter Workshop?
So this year, the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival, we're basically putting on two festivals. The Shoals Songwriter Workshop will be November 3rd through 5th and it's an educational workshop for up-and-coming songwriters who want to learn more about songwriting, but who also want to network and connect with music publishers and hit songwriters and to make those people as successful as possible.
We've got Concord Music, we've got Big Yellow Dog music. We've got hit songwriters Brice Long and Phillip White, we've got Sweetwater who are going to do a presentation on how to set up a home studio as a songwriter with little to no money.
Sweetwater, you know, is one of the largest pro and audio companies in the world. We've got Cliff Goldmacher coming to the festival. He's a hit songwriter as well. So there are a lot of hit songwriters and music publishers that are going to be a part of this workshop.
And what about the main festival, Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival?
The main festival's going to be November 5th and 6th. We're going to have over 30 Grammy Award winning hit songwriters, including Walker Hayes, John Paul White, Emily Wiseband, Bobby Pinson, Clinton Daniels, Mark Nesler, the list goes on and on. And we're also going to have 60 up-and-coming featured performers as well. And they're going to have the opportunity to network with good songwriters while they're here at the festival, they're going to have the opportunity to perform in front of music publishers.
There's going to be several music publishers and record label executives in the audience. We've got over eight venues this year, over a hundred performers. We're also having the Muscle Shoals Music Award Ceremony, which will include Rodney Hall and Linda Hall. Linda Hall is the wife of Rick Hall who started Fame Recording Studios. He kind of started it all with the Muscle Shoals music scene and the rich history that we have.
So we're going to give awards away to some really awesome songwriters, including Walt Aldridge, Chris Tompkins, and Dan Penn, who are all Alabama songwriters who've made massive success and waves in the music industry. And have had some of the biggest songs in the music industry that've changed so many people's lives.
Can you tell me a bit about the venues?
We've actually got Fame Recording studios this year. It's a very small venue and that's going to be an awesome intimate, acoustic experience.
We've got the Marriott Shoals ballroom. We've got Flobama Music Hall, which is kind of a staple music venue in the Shoals area. We've got Singin' River Brewery. We've got Old Grace Historic chapel, which I called the Ryman of the Shoals. It's this old church that this older couple basically reinvented. The state of Alabama told them you need to tear this church down, it's a nuisance to the city. And they were like, 'nope, we're not doing that.' And they got their family together and rebuilt this church from the ground up.
UNA on Sixth. I'm actually a university student, I go to UNA, majoring in the music business. I'm graduating in December. So UNA on Sixth is going to be a new venue in Tuscumbia. And then we've also got High Ridge Distillery, which is actually a moonshine distillery. So that's going to be really cool and really fun as well.
For people who might not be so aware of just what a songwriter festival is in general, could you explain the experience for both performers and people who just want to attend?
So a songwriters festival is a little different from your average music festival. It's a very intimate setting. It's an acoustic setting and basically the way that the festival is set up is you have three songwriters on stage at one time. And they all play in what we call a songwriter round and they all play with either their guitar or their piano, the venues are very cool and intimate.
It is like a listening room. You're there to listen. You're there to hear the stories behind the songs, you're there to experience the music and the stories. So that's what makes it unique and different from the average music festival.
Can you highlight a couple bigger names that are going to be at the festival this year?
Yeah, so honestly, I'm really excited about Walker Hayes. Walker Hayes is from Mobile, Alabama. I saw him about eight years ago at Puckett's Boathouse in Franklin, Tennessee, when he had nothing going on, he didn't have a record deal. And I went to the show with my mom and we're like, 'who's this Walker Hayes dude?'
And he started performing and I looked over at her and I said, that guy is going to be a star one day. And now, you know, over 30 million views on Tik ToK, he's got an Applebee's commercial. He has just blown up and it kind of looks to everyone like he's an overnight success, except he's been working for almost 12 years to get this taste of overnight success.
Super excited about having him on board. We've also got John Paul White, who was in the Civil Wars at one time, and then he started to go off and do his own solo career. He has a record label here in the Shoals called Single Locks Records, and we're actually doing a Single Locks Records showcase with John Paul White and three of his label mates.We've got Jamie Barrier, Joe Garner and Caleb Elliott that are playing in a Single Locks Records showcase.
Obviously I'm a huge fan of Emily Wiseband. It's so crazy because I was 15, 16 years old handing her my business card, 'can we please get in a writing room together? I want to write with you. Can you please write with me?' And now she's playing a songwriters festival that I started. So it's kind of a full circle moment. I'm really excited to see her. Same thing, Bobby Pinson. I'm super excited to see him as well.
And how about some up-and-comers?
A couple of them that I want to point out are Marissa Luna, Regan Stewart. We've got Emily Brooke who's absolutely amazing. Fun fact, I was on Idol with her, so that's a pretty cool, full circle moment too.
Holly Auna is amazing, Lance Dubroc is also awesome. He's with Muscle Shoals Recordings here in the Shoals area. Taylor Grace is awesome. Natalie Robertson, you know, these up-and-coming performers, although they don't have a record deal and they don't have a publishing deal yet, some of them will end up being massive stars.
You mentioned good restaurants. Do you want to highlight some places that maybe people should go eat at when they go to the festival?
Absolutely. So FloBama Music Hall has the best barbecue hands down in the world. So make sure you get some barbecue from FloBama as you're watching the show. Odette for coffee in the morning, definitely also Turbo Coffee or Rivertown.
I also want to highlight some tourist attractions as well while you're in town, definitely visit Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and Fame. We've got the WC Handy home. We've got the Helen Keller home, which is amazing. If you've never been, it is so cool to see where she grew up and where her teacher lived. And it's an awesome experience.
What else do I want to highlight? Definitely Swampers Bar and Grill, which is a VIP afterparty where everybody's going to get together at the end of the night for the festival each night. Sweet Basil Cafe. Superhero Chefs. The guy who started Superhero Chefs was actually on the Food Network. He's been on The Today Show, it's just over the top Southern hospitality.
That's what the Shoals is all about. It's almost like upscale Southern. Like for Odette, for example, when you walk in Odette, you feel like you're in New York City, but you're in Alabama, in a small town and you've got that Southern hospitality feel.
The festival feels like it has a real community spirit to it, more so than at other festivals. Do people end up meeting people and making new friends here?
That's a great question. Our festival is come with your people, leave with more people kind of thing. We want this group of music lovers to really be friends with the performers. The cool thing is like Walker Hayes, he's going to show up, he's going to perform, but he's also going to talk to people and he's also going to be accessible. You know, where you can go up and say hello and take a picture with him and tell him about how his music has touched your life.
I feel like all of these larger music festivals like Coachella and The Hangout, the artists come out on stage and they've got all this security and a songwriters festival is not like that at all. Everybody is super accessible. They're super friendly. And who knows, you could be sitting at a bar and having a beer with John Paul White on Saturday night after the show, you know, it's a really cool communal event.
You can come, you can hang out with these performers. You can meet new friends, you can make new friends, friends for a lifetime and memories as well.
Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival 2021 takes place November 5th-6th in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Find more info on our MSSF 2021 guide and book your MSSF 2021 tickets here.