Kimberly Paige is the reason that thousands of people have come to the Roscolusa Songwriters Festival to hear some of the country’s chart-topping songwriters sing their own music. And she’s one of a select group of people creating a wave of musical change across the First Coast.
In bars, listening rooms and festivals scattered throughout North Florida, lesser-known singer-songwriters pour their hearts into their original melodies and lyrics. But a lack of a creative headquarters similar to Nashville’s music row leads people to write-off the First Coast as having no musical soul. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a small group of artists are using the power of pen and pick to turn up the volume on the regions rich singer-songwriter history and budding music scene.
With the ghosts of legendary songwriters linked to the First Coast – like Gram Parsons, who pioneered the genre of country rock; Woody Guthrie, who wrote folk songs like This Land is Your Land; and Ray Charles – whispering in his ear, singer-songwriter Brad Lauretti plans to use his Jacksonville Songwriters Residency and Gram Parsons songwriting contest to help resurrect the art form.
Lauretti, who plays in the band, This Frontier Has No Heroes, came to Jacksonville from Brooklyn in 2012 to pursue music, booking talent and performing at Underbelly. Surprised by the caliber of musicians and music venues he found in Jacksonville, Lauretti decided to stay and plant some grassroots in his adopted town.
“Songwriters need a community space,” he says, peering over dark-framed glasses and sipping a Starbucks at the Omni’s lobby bar. “A free space where people get work done.”
Lauretti, 36, has already been hard at work doing what he calls “creative place making,” a movement to cluster artists, musicians and creative thinkers in downtown Jacksonville’s Spark District. In 2013, he received a grant from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville to start the Jacksonville Songwriters Residency, which began last fall and operates out of the Omni Hotel. Each month Lauretti invites an already established songwriter to Jacksonville for a week to perform original music at the hotel and collaborate with local artists.
Paige, a Ponte Vedra native and singer-songwriter based in Nashville, also believes in the power of co-writing. She started the Roscolusa Songwriters Festival in 2011 for the sole purpose of collaboration.
“You write the best songs in a really good state of mind,” she says. “I go on writer’s retreats all the time, which pretty much means you bring your guitars and you stay at a tropical house somewhere. You drink a lot and you eat a little and you write a lot of songs. Ponte Vedra is absolutely perfect for that.”
Roscolusa Songwriters Festival, held in May, began as a writer’s-retreat-style jam session with 150 people gathered on an empty lot on Roscoe Blvd., situated along the Intracoastal Waterway in Ponte Vedra. Last month, an estimated 4,000 people attended Roscolusa, now staged on the grounds of the Nocatee Farmers Market.
This year’s festival kicked off with a mix of local singer-songwriters, followed by rising Nashville artists, and topped-off with big-time writers credited with songs like Cruise recorded by Florida Georgia Line and Breathe recorded by Faith Hill.
Although just starting her career, Paige, 22, knows a good song when she writes one. Her tune Heart First was recorded by a New Zealand country singer and rose to the top of the New Zealand and Australian country music charts in 2013.
The successes of Heart First and Roscolusa have raised Paige’s profile at home. Despite becoming a bit of local celebrity, Paige, like Lauretti, is all about the music and developing the local singer-songwriter scene.
“I get hit up at least every other week,” Paige says. “You know, so and so is coming to Nashville and wants to go see live, acoustic, original music. So I said, ‘why don’t I bring it to them.’”
Paige and Lauretti have other allies like booking agent Ray Lewis to help showcase Jacksonville’s musical chops. Lewis, who first started booking musicians at Jacksonville clubs in the ‘80s, now runs the Mudville Music Room, a listing room that is a part of the Mudroom Grill complex. He invites songwriters from all over the nation and abroad to perform in the quiet setting at Mudville, which is separated from the sports bar and runs like a dinner theater.
Lewis features an eclectic blend of musicians from folk to Americana, indie, bluegrass, jazz, blues and Celtic. His passion lies in discovering new talent and getting people to leave their neighborhoods to come to his shows. But Lewis, 70, says he finds filling the room tough, unless he books a well-known name.
“A lot of people don’t want to hear original music,” he says. They want to hear something they are familiar with.”
Tough crowds aside, in three years these three songwriting forces have already made traction with a movement reminiscent of the First Coast’s undeniable country rock roots, forever memorialized by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, and more recently, Derek Trucks.
“Freebird is the one of the most famous songs ever written, and it was written here,” Lauretti says, pointing his finger into the bar.