You may not know all the performers at the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest in Southwest Florida, but you probably know quite a few of their songs, especially if you’ve been paying attention to country radio lately.
Jim McCormick wrote #1 country hits “Take a Little Ride” for Jason Aldean, “The Good Ones” for Gabby Barrett and “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” for Brantley Gilbert. Wynn Varble has three #1 country hits, as well—”Have You Forgotten?” for Darryl Worley, “Waitin’ on a Woman” for Brad Paisley and “A Little More Country Than That” for Easton Corbin. Tim James wrote “My List” for Toby Keith and “All I Ask For Anymore” for Trace Adkins. Aaron Barker wrote a handful of #1 singles for George Straitt, and Dan Couch has written on every album Kip Moore has ever released.
And then there’s Hall of Fame songwriter Steve Dorff, who’s written for everyone from Whitney Houston and Anne Murray to Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbit—not to mention the scores to more than a dozen films and the Growing Pains theme song. The three-time Grammy nominee performed a variety of his hits through the years (including Rogers’ “Through the Years”) at a small ticketed performance and book signing.
The decorated hitmakers were paired with each other or with up-and-coming songsmiths, trading songs at free concerts at a variety of small outdoor venues along the beaches of Lee County, from downtown Ft. Myers to the island of Captiva.
Of course, some of the acts are known for their singing as well as their songwriting, like headliners Jimmie Allen and Michael Ray, who are slated to perform in Ft. Myers in the coming days. But I enjoyed the more relaxed vibes happening at a series of small venues in Captiva this past weekend.
The festival kicked off with a VIP party on Thursday night featuring a dozen or so performers each contributing a single song. It was a great way to plan out your schedule of who you wanted to see or catch a glimpse of acts that you otherwise would miss. I was personally fascinated by the story of Marlo Hower, a retired neuromuscular therapist from Wisconsin who hadn’t written a song or performed in public until just before her 50th birthday. After giving up her practice and moving with her husband to the small community of Ave Maria, Florida, she told him one day, “You know, I can’t just go to the pool every single day; I need to find something to do.”
She’d always wanted to sing, but her father encouraged her to pursue a more practical path. But when she entered a local singing competition in 2017, she met Mark Minges, who found out she also wrote poetry and convinced her to start writing lyrics to his music. They’re now working on their third album as Marlo and Mark and have been playing driveway concerts in their neighborhood—this was their first time performing outside it. “You gotta let that fear go,” she says. “I’ve just got one life, so here I am.”
Dan Spears, a VP at BMI, books the festival every year, bringing in a mix of touring artists, professional songwriters and local talent, who are all signed to his licensing company. It’s a chance for songwriters to step out into the spotlight and meet and perform with their peers. Several brought their families along, turning the fest into a working beach vacation.
Highlights included blues singer Maia Sharp, who just released her eighth solo album Mercy Rising earlier this year; Americana artist Ruthie Collins, a western New York native whose new song “Joshua Tree” was inspired by the relationship between Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons; South Dakota’s Hailey Steele, a former contestant on The Voice; and Granville Automatic, a dynamic duo of singer Vanessa Olivarez and guitarist Elizabeth Elkins, who were also in town to celebrate their recent book, Hidden History of Music Row.
For fans and songwriters alike, the pace of the schedule matched the island vibe, with most of the impromptu venues a short walk from each other—and from gorgeous white sands of Captiva’s beaches. I also took time to explore the abundant nature of the Florida’s southwest islands, which I’ll also be writing about soon.
The annual festival was launched in 2014, growing from two weekends to 10 days and has featured established stars like Kristian Bush and RaeLynn and then-up-and-comers like Maren Morris. It continues in downtown Ft. Myers through Thursday and then finishes on Ft. Myers beach through Sunday, Sept. 26.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder, president and editor-in-chief. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson and @BirdsAtl.