Written by James Killen
What a beautiful spring day to drive out through the country to Moravia, Texas for the twelfth annual Songwriter Festival held at the Parish Hall, across from the Catholic Church. The contest featured the fifteen semi-finalists from 160 entries, each performing two of his/her best original songs for three judges that are successful songwriters in their own rights, Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkins and Phoebe Hunt.
The evening before the contest, the semi-finalists were gathered at the TR Ranch where, event sponsor and co-chair Tom McDaniel offered his Texas hospitality and the contestants got to know each other. I got to Moravia a little after 10AM and the picnic area outside the hall was buzzing with familiar musicians and music aficionados waiting to be allowed into the hall to claim a seat. After the equipment had been set in place and the initial sound checks were done we were allowed in to the old hall. You could tell that there had been years and years of polka music soaked into the walls from Czech weddings and community events.
Veteran songwriter, Ken Gaines, took the podium to emcee the event and Pasadena’s own Charles Bryant had drawn first in order. He played the empathetic “Nursing Home” followed by the tongue in cheek “MRI Song” and I, being a big Charles Bryant fan, was pretty happy about his chances of becoming a finalist. Chad Richard from Orange, Texas came next with a full rich voice singing about the blended culture on both sides of the Sabine River and a song about Hurricane Harvey that featured the refrain, “Waters rise, but people rise above”. I turned and looked at Kenny Pipes (Almost Austin’s proprietor) and said, “The talent here is first rate. This isn’t going to be a walk in the park for anyone.” That proved to be true as one by one the artists came up to offer their chosen pair of songs.
Heather Styka was next, with a big contagious smile singing, “Cities of the North” and “You’re the Kind I Fall For”. She was followed by Clint Alpin, sporting a confident command of the stage with “Out to California” and the Southern humor, “Bless Your Heart”. Jodee Lewis was up fifth with a strong traditional country performance, followed by Houstonian, Jordi Baizan, doing “East of Eden” and “Footsteps on the Ceiling”, another composition that resulted from the floods of Harvey. Austin based Brian Pounds, brought his frank and humorous personality out as he performed “Rattling in my Bones” and “Darling I’ll Be Here”. Renee Wahl, a former Air Force Captain from Nashville, brought a drummer with her to perform her rocking country tunes.
Mia Rose Lynne (one of HMR’s picks for SWRFA CD review 12/4/2017), originally of Northern California, showed a warm welcoming stage presence with a song about her father, “Magicians Never Tell” and “If I Was a Nerd”, which featured one witty line after another. A medical doctor from the Chicago area, Rich Krueger, performed “A Short One on Life” on guitar before moving to keyboards for “The Gospel According to Carl”. Jackson Emmer of Colorado, followed with “Jukebox” and “My Love for You Texas”, both fine compositions presented with a fine voice. Unfortunately, Jackson stumbled a bit on the lyrics of his second tune although he quickly caught traction and pulled off a well written stanza, poetically listing a huge number of Texas musical legends.
Mary Bragg followed with the title track of “Lucky Strike” and a smooth country style on “I Thought You Were Somebody Else” that really struck home. Daniel Boling, a former park ranger and very traditional folky from New Mexico, did “Mama’s Radio” and “I Brought the War with Me”, written with a veteran in one of the nation’s numerous songwriting therapy programs for returning veterans. Dan Johnson of Fort Worth brought a strong voice and a wonderful command of the stage for “The Favor” and “Golden Heart”. Edan Archer, from South Florida, finished the fifteen semifinalist’s presentation with “Six Wing Angel” and “Loving Me is a Younger Man’s Game”.
Wow! That was a whole lot of talent pressed into a three hour show. The judges were given the most difficult responsibility of sifting through and rating some of the greatest songwriters that I have ever seen performing their greatest compositions. They had an hour to evaluate while we went out to grab lunch in the picnic area. In attendance were folks like last year’s winner, Andrew Delaney, Libby Koch, Chuck Hawthorne, Marcus Abrahams and Madeline and Carlos of Mystery Loves Company. I had the chance to speak with Jordi Baizan at the break and expressed the sentiment that the competition was pretty fierce. His reply was, “I’ve already won, just by being selected for this performance”. I think that pretty well summed up the sentiment of the contestants.
It took longer than the allotted hour for the judges to turn in their selections which turned out to be Clint Alphin, Mary Bragg, Mia Rose Lynne, Brian Pounds, Chad Richard, Heather Styka, and Renee Wahl. The contest continued with each finalist performing one song. They were from seventh to first place:
- Chad Richard doing “The Big and the Little Hand”.
- Renee Wahl with “Sound of Goodbye”.
- Brian Pounds performed a very personal song about loss, “The Death of Me”.
- Heather Styka offered the only sing-a-long of the contest with “Love Harder”.
- Clint Alphin did “Grandfather: Grandmother”.
- Mia Rose Lynne came in second with “I Love You Anyway”.
- …and in first place was Mary Bragg offering her range stretching composition, “Comet”.
There was a presentation ceremony where all fifteen semifinalists received a check and the co-chairs of the festival committee (Brian Kalinec, Mike Stroup, Tom McDaniel, Lane Gosnay and Rob McDonald) were recognized for their contributions. There was a bit of milling around, talking and congratulating one another before heading over to The Bugle Boy in La Grange (for those that were able to snag a ticket) to see first place winner, Mary Bragg, open up for a song swap featuring judges, Susan Gibson, Walt Wilkens and Phoebe Hunt along with workshop consultant, Gurf Morlix.
The song swap was amazing with each participant throwing in some of his or her best compositions. Everyone seemed ready and able to contribute a little lead or background vocal to the others. Phoebe Hunt was riveting with her violin work and she seemed able to improvise on anything. They finally shut down just about eleven after what had been a long day. I drove back to Houston, but the contestants and judges were going back to the ranch where on Sunday they would participate in a songwriting workshop led by singer/songwriter/producer, Gurf Morlix.
What an absolutely wonderful and entertaining way to spend a Saturday. The only regret that I could express is that I missed the first eleven years of great talent gathering in this peaceful rural setting. I can assure you that I won’t be missing the next one.