Of the 11 neighborhoods in the 30A area, the crown jewel of the group is Seaside, touted by city planners as a near-perfect example of new-urbanism. Robert Davis, co-founder of Seaside, grew up in a Birmingham, Ala., neighborhood where most of his daily activities were within walking distance, and he vacationed in simple rented cottages along Florida’s northwest coast. When Davis inherited 80 acres (a half mile of it beachfront) from his grandfather in 1979, he and his wife, Daryl Rose Davis, dreamed of creating a community like that in his childhood neighborhood — where children could run free, where walking or biking was more convenient and pleasant than driving, and where telling stories on ample-sized porches was more appealing than watching television. During the early-1980s concrete-condo craze, this approach to development was considered nothing short of revolutionary.
Plenty have scoffed at Seaside’s faux old-town concept, which looks enough like a movie set that it was used as the picture-perfect backdrop for the 1998 film The Truman Show. But 30 years later, the town founded on nostalgia and the revival of colonial-Florida building styles draws in 500,000 visitors year-round, ready and willing to buy into the escapism, however preconceived it may be.
The charm of Seaside and the surrounding communities is a large part of what makes the 30A Songwriters Festival such a successful event. “In this area, with these audiences, the artists feel like they can let their guard down,” Steele says.
The event brings in three types of performers: famous singers who write, such as Mat Kearney; hit songwriters like Tim Nichols, whose list of chart toppers includes “Live Like You Were Dying,” “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California”; and up-and-comers who are just hoping for a nod from the likes of Nichols or Kearney. The $100 three-day pass covers admission to every show and venue, and festivalgoers are treated to intimate performances by the artists as they sing and share their inspirations. At Fish Out of Water, some tales earn a chuckle; others are met with the respectful silence due when someone bares his or her soul. Though many of their names and faces are unfamiliar — like Nichols’ — I realize I know their songs. And now I know the stories behind them.
The following morning, curled up in a white Adirondack chair on the second-story porch of my Seaside cottage, with a cup of coffee resting on the chair’s wide arm, I listen to the sounds around me, muffled slightly by the pine-scented, salty wind ruffling the tops of live oaks and magnolias. A bike bell chimes. A father’s flip-flops slap the cobblestone lane as he walks hand-in-hand with his small boy. No rushing. No scolding. Next door, spilling from a columned veranda, I hear the rhythmic rise and fall of a grandfather’s storytelling voice. The multigenerational laughter that follows has me wishing I’d been able to decipher his words.
Farther down the sandy path, neighbors lean on their porch rails and discuss the artists they saw the previous night. The fact that they can comfortably carry on a conversation from neighboring porches in Seaside is no accident. The town planners measured the distance where one can speak normally and be heard easily and used that number to plan the gap between homes. When that kind of attention to detail is taken into consideration, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 30A Songwriters Festival is such a success. The Emerald Coast doesn’t do anything subpar.
Dallas-based Abby Hoeffner is the editor of Living Magazine. She has been vacationing along the Emerald Coast since she was 3 years old.