In my last two columns I've spoken of my introduction to the Flora-Bama club which sits on Perdido Key, Florida, right at the Alabama state line. This month I want to talk about the most exciting musical event of each year there. It's called the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival and happens every November. This past November was the ninth.
Frank Brown, who I never had the pleasure of meeting, was known for his personal credo of respect for one another. He was a man who spent 28 years with the Flora-Bama, which included a good bit of time before Joe Gilchrist became the owner. Joe, I believe, has had that title for twelve or fourteen years.
With his 85th birthday approaching, Frank is quoted as saying to Joe, "Mr. Joe, my 85th birthday is coming up next week, and I always said I would retire when I gots to be 85, but Mr. Joe, you needs me so I will stay."
After several more years Frank did retire — at 91 — and was featured on Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story."
Nine years ago the festival started as an end-of-the-year party for a few local songwriters and musicians. The following year, Joe had a little more ambitious idea and invited ten or twelve writers from Nashville, and from Maryland and a few other places. These included Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Famers Hank Cochran and recently inducted Red Lane, as well as Vern Gosdin (and his band), Mack Vickery ("The Fireman," "Rockin' My Life Away"), Jeff Tweel ("Mornin' Ride") and yours truly. Again, it was a one-night affair put on at the beautiful old Saenger Theater in downtown Pensacola. It was a learning experience for Joe and company, but a great time was had by all. The key that year for me was the gathering at the Flora-Bama after the show. A great jam session and uninhibited guitar pull. The party after the party at Joe's house was downright magical at moments, a happening not uncommon to the wee hours at Joe's house. Nor the club itself on any given night. Though the show at the Saenger was video taped and a great deal of expense was laid out, it just didn't come off the way Joe had hoped. It did, however, start something that Pensacola and the rest of the region talked about for another whole year.
From that time on, each year the whole thing has been held at the Flora-Bama, with the exception of the last two years, which included other venues in the area.
Since the first couple of attempts, that little end-of-the-year party has become a major attraction for music lovers and music industry folks as well. The 9th Annual was ten — yes, ten — days long and brought in some 150 songwriters and musicians from all over the country. BMI and ASCAP both held seminars. A scholarship fund was set up by BMI and Richard Scrushy of HEALTHSOUTH Rehabilitation Corp. There was a "Legends of Songwriting" concert at the Civic Center in Gulf Shores, Alabama. There were blues jams each Saturday afternoon. There was a gospel sing each Sunday. There was a songwriting contest sponsored by Southern Comfort and a raffle for a Takamine guitar. Take all of these events and add ten nights of songwriters performing in seven venues besides the Flora-Bama and you've got songwriter saturation, folks.
Like a lot of musical events that keep growing each year, it had its good aspects and not-so-good. It was frustrating to try to see the writers you wanted to see and there was a bit of driving involved to get to and from the different locales. For me, it's lost some of the closeness it once had. But Joe Gilchrist was never one to think small or worry about tomorrow. I personally would like to see the festival trimmed down some and more focused. We'll see.
It does at the same time offer a wider choice of days people can choose to come and listen, especially out-of-towners. It also involved the community more as a whole. Hopefully there's a happy medium between the first couple and the last couple (are you reading this, Joe?).
Once again I'd like to recommend the two multi-cassette collections of live performances at the festival. For information write "Flora-Bama Songwriters Recordings," 14701 Perdido Key Dr., Pensacola, FL 32507 or by calling 904-492-0611 or 205-981-8555.
One really good addition to the festival came in 1989; besides Frank Brown, the dedication also now includes Captain Eddie McCook. A colorful character, saxophone player and always a joy to see at the club. He was also the inspiration for my song "To the Captain," which is included on my Dreamer's World album.
Next month, more about Captain Eddie and two other distinct figures of the Flora-Bama. Till then, Adios.
Award-winning songwriter Alan Rhody will appear in concert at the Rudyard Kipling, 422 W. Oak St., Louisville, Ky., on Sat., April 30. He may be contacted for concerts and seminars at P.O. Box 121231, Nashville, Tenn. 37212, or at 615-251-3325 (Double J Music Group).