Some of the biggest names behind the biggest names in Nashville will be performing in Red Lodge next month.
The occasion is the first Red Lodge Songwriter Festival, set for Thursday-Saturday, June 23-25, and it will feature songwriters who have penned hits for Blake Shelton, Miley Cyrus, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Rascal Flatts, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Randy Travis, Patty Loveless and Alison Krauss, among others.
“They’ve all written for big-time people,” said festival co-organizer Mike Booth, a small-business consultant who lives in Red Lodge.
He’s working with Cory Johnson, an Oklahoma native who has been playing music professionally for most of his life. Johnson came to Red Lodge last June, after a friend who lives there set up a month’s worth of shows in the area.
“So I headed out there and I’ve been there ever since,” Johnson said. “I kept getting booked.”
He and Booth became friends, and one night in late November or early December, over beers at Foster & Logan’s Pub and Grill, Booth said, “We were talking about what Red Lodge needed.”
Johnson said he thought Red Lodge would be a great place for a songwriter festival.
After asking Johnson if he was serious, Johnson said, Booth took to the suggestion immediately.
“We jumped in headfirst and it’s been a chore, but the payoff is going to be worth it,” Johnson said.
Johnson rounded up the Nashville songwriters—James Dean Hicks, Anthony Smith, Tony Lane and Kostas, the single-name songwriter who was raised in Billings and now divides his time between Nashville and Belgrade, Mont.
They are the songwriters whose works have been recorded by dozens of Nashville’s biggest stars, from old-school singers like Haggard and Strait to contemporary stars like Trace Adkins and Lady Antebellum. Hicks even co-wrote the title cut on “Sweet Kisses,” pop star Jessica Simpson’s debut album.
“Half of this, as I envision it, will just be telling stories,” Booth said, with several musicians sharing the stage at the various events, swapping yarns and songs.
A songwriter workshop with the Nashville crew is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. at Sam’s Tap Room on Saturday. (Full schedule here.) In future years, Johnson said, they hope to expand the roster of songwriters and to have more workshops and clinics designed specifically for people who are interested in becoming songwriters, or in honing their craft.
The festival will also feature some songwriters from Wyoming—Kalyn Beasley and Garrett Randolph, both of Cody—and Montana, including Johnson and Al Cooper, of Red Lodge; Sean Devine, of Livingston; Tom Catmull, of Missoula; Dennis Erickson, of Bozeman; and at least one other to be announced.
The songwriters will be performing in six Red Lodge venues: Red Lodge Pizza Company, the Roman Theater, Natali’s Front Bar, Sam’s Tap Room, the Pub at the Pollard Hotel and the Snag.
And because one goal of the festival is to encourage area songwriters, Booth said, there will be open mic events for songwriters from 10:30 p.m. to closing time on Friday and Saturday at the Snag.
Booth said the Red Lodge community has been supportive of the event. Southern Wine and Spirits is the main sponsor of the three-day festival, he said, but numerous other small businesses stepped up with contributions, so that most of the hard costs of the festival have already been covered by sponsors.
One thing he has learned in the process of organizing the festival, Booth said, is how difficult it is to crack the Nashville writing scene. Johnson is a case in point.
Johnson said he started performing at the age of 3—professionally, he said, because “my granny used to pay me to sing”—and started writing songs the same day his mother gave him a guitar on his 14th birthday. He got some coaching from his great-aunt, a country-western singer who had a hit with one of her songs in the Los Angeles music scene in the 1950s.
With help from her and a book of chords, Johnsons said, two weeks after his 14th birthday he was sneaking into Oklahoma honky-tonks for a chance to get up and sing—mostly songs by Merle Haggard, still his hero.
“I just got addicted to the applause and people enjoying my singing,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to do this from now on.’”
So he did, fronting a band five nights a week in his 20s and playing in other people’s bands on occasion. He moved to Nashville in 1991 to work on his songwriting, and one of the first people he worked with was Hicks. He got the chance to work with other top-notch songwriters, he said, but while some of his songs were recorded by well-known country singers, none of them ever made it onto an album.
Nevertheless, he said, he enjoyed and still enjoys his life as a musician, even if he had to supplement it over the years with other work—including managing a younger singer in Nashville for a while, driving trucks and tour buses and running a guitar store.
At 54, he says on the festival website, he’s still touring and still “having a blast.”
A variety of festival ticket packages is available, ranging from an all-access pass for $125 to a ticket to the songwriter workshop for $15. The all-access pass includes a sponsor reception and VIP songwriter show in the back room of Red Lodge Pizza on Thursday night, the Friday night songwriter show at the Roman Theater and the Saturday night Nashville songwriter show at Sam’s Tap Room.
Tickets are available at the festival website and in Red Lodge at the Chamber of Commerce-Visitors Center, at the Rocky Mountain Market or at the door of each event.
A portion of the proceeds will go to support Friends of the Beartooths, which is dedicated to improving and promoting the Beartooth Highway and its neighboring communities.
Booth said he looks to the Wild West Songwriters Festival in Deadwood, S.D., for inspiration. In just its third year, he said, it will host 20 songwriters and industry insiders this fall.
“My goal is to try to create an annual event that brings people to Red Lodge,” Booth said.