Every Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the typically quiet winter life along a scenic highway on Florida’s Emerald Coast is disrupted as thousands of music lovers of all genres fly, drive and even bike in for the 30A Songwriters Festival.West of Panama City and east of Destin, an idyllic 19-mile stretch of road known as Scenic Highway 30A weaves in and out of the dunes along Florida’s Emerald Coast in South Walton County. Tucked away sporadically along the lazily winding scenic drive are 11 quaint beach communities, including one aptly called WaterColor. It’s here, on this particular evening, that I find myself walking to dinner — and rapidly learning that after the sun sets on a coastal town in January, temperatures drop. Quickly. But the locals aren’t grumbling. And with my heady anticipation of attending the 30A Songwriters Festival and the joys of experiencing this eclectic, slow-paced life of the 30A area for the first time, I’m not complaining either. Songwriters from around the world flock here every January for the festival, which stretches most of the length of 30A, allowing patrons ample opportunity to encounter the variety and flavor of each of the unique beach communities.
Established in 2010 by the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, the Songwriters Festival was developed as a way to fill the void in South Walton’s musical-arts scene. “We had art and theater covered, but on the musical front, we were seriously lacking,” says Jennifer Steele, the executive director of the Cultural Arts Alliance and lead organizer and visionary behind the festival. With the festival now in its third year, that’s no longer the case.
Past performers have included the likes of Vicki Peterson of the Bangles fame, the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Jennifer Knapp and Jeep Rosenberg, and the 2011 billing of 100-plus artists sees some of those same names, plus myriad others. Mat Kearney and Shawn Mullins are my top two acts to see while I’m here. But first, I’m checking out Tim Nichols, a Nashville songwriter I know nothing about — because discovering new talent is a part of what this festival is all about. Nichols is playing at a small venue called Fish Out of Water, a restaurant at the WaterColor Inn and Resort that typically seats about 200 people. On this particular evening, however, at least 100 more are squeezed in, topping the joint off. Strangers amiably make room for one another, sharing tables and chairs and buying rounds of drinks as they wait for the performances to begin.
It’s this kind neighborliness, combined with each of the towns’ distinct personalities, that has drawn media attention to this region of quirky coastal communities dotting 30A. Grayton Beach takes pride in its funky, hippie vibe, and with its yard signs that warn of “strange people” and “nice dogs,” it feels like a young first cousin of Austin, Texas. Elegant Alys Beach stands out with dazzling, all-white buildings that combine Bermudian and Middle Eastern influences. Rosemary Beach boasts a hodgepodge of architectural flavors — old Florida; New Orleans; Charleston, S.C.; Dutch West Indies — that, thanks to the developer’s careful master plan, blend seamlessly. Despite their individuality, though, there is one thing that all the towns have in common: None of them will allow the construction of a building over four stories.