Whitefish Songwriter Festival to Showcase the Stories Behind the Songs

The Whitefish festival is entering its second year and runs from Sept. 15 through Sept. 17

By Mike Kordenbrock
Even Stevens and Kostas appear at the inaugural Whitefish Songwriter Festival at the O'Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center in Whitefish on Sept. 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

It can take James Dean Hicks 20 minutes to write a song. Or it can take him years. And it seems like every day is different for the longtime songwriter who has written songs recorded by the likes of Blake Shelton, Miley Cyrus, Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire and Alison Krauss.

Hicks will be one of six “hit songwriters” participating in this month’s Whitefish Songwriter Festival, which will include a total of 26 songwriters and 40 live shows spread out across eight venues. The festival is entering its second year, after debuting last September in Whitefish.

In addition to participating in the festival as a performer, Hicks is also a member of the board of the Rocky Mountain Songwriter Festivals Inc., which organizes the Whitefish festival as well as the Red Lodge Songwriter Festival, and the Yellowstone Songwriter Festival in Cody, Wyoming.

James Dean Hicks sings at the inaugural Whitefish Songwriter Festival at the O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center in Whitefish on Sept. 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish Songwriter Festival runs from Sept. 15 through Sept. 17. Venues include Casey’s, the Great Northern Bar and Grill, Fleur Bake Shop, the O’Shaughnessy Center, the Red Room, Slow Burn Records, the Whitefish VFW and the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

Rocky Mountain Songwriter Festivals Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit, and according to executive producer Cari Klepper, the charitable focus of the nonprofit is to give back to music education. Klepper said that last year the festival donated several thousand dollars locally, including to the North Valley Music School, and to the Whitefish Band Boosters.

“This is not your traditional music festival,” Klepper said. “Really, the magic of the songwriter festival is you are learning about the soul of the song and the person who wrote the songs. You may not know their name, but you’ll know their songs. That’s the difference.”

Hicks similarly emphasized that what makes the festival special in his eyes is the way songwriters spend time during their performances explaining the story behind the hits they’ve crafted, according to Hicks.

“You’re going to hear emotional songs, funny songs, songs about history,” Hicks said. “Music is the backdrop of our lives, and once you get to hear the story of where these hits came from, people say it’s the best show they’ve ever seen.”

The unpredictable life that some songwriters experience can certainly lend itself to storytelling. Hicks said when a songwriter is working with an artist, they might only have time to collaborate at odd hours, like 3 a.m., when they’re getting out of a show and getting back on a tour bus. In other cases, songwriting sessions have to be squeezed in between radio interviews and rehearsals. In his own life, Hicks said songwriting is something he’s done since the age of 10, and he estimates he’s written about 3,000 songs.

 “You would think after writing that many songs, you would run out of melodies and ideas, but you never do,” he said. “I’m thankful to God that I have a certain amount of creativity and spontaneity that comes when I call on it.”  

Hicks is based out of Nashville, and said the festival draws from the tradition of Nashville’s Bluebird Café shows that began in the 1980s and feature songwriters in an intimate setting performing and talking about their work.

 “This really has taken kind of the Bluebird Café show on the road, because not everybody can pack up and come to Nashville. We try to take it to people, as they say,” Hicks said.

Even Stevens and Kostas appear at the inaugural Whitefish Songwriter Festival at the O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center in Whitefish on Sept. 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Other hit songwriters participating in the festival include Chuck Cannon, who wrote Toby Keith’s “How do you Like Me Now,” Dolly Parton’s “Why Can’t We,” and John Michael Montgomery’s “I Love The Way You Love Me;” Kostas, who wrote Dwight Yoakam’s “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” the Maverick’s  “What A Crying Shame,” and Patty Loveless’ “Blame it on Your Heart;” Helen Darling, who wrote Jo Dee Messina’s song “Bring on the Rain,” Mindy McReady’s “Scream,” and Reba McEntire’s “The Angels Sang;” Billy Montana, who wrote Garth Brooks’ “More Than A Memory,” Lee Brice’s “Hard to Love,” and Sara Evans’ “Suds In The Bucket;” and Angela Kaset, who wrote Lorrie Morgan’s “Something in Red,” Wynonna Judd’s “Peace in This House,” and Suzy Bogguss’ “Sayin’ Goodbye To A Friend.”

As part of the festival, Susan Gibson, who wrote the No. 1 hit song ‘Wide Open Spaces’ by the Chicks, will be teaching a master class with festival ‘Rising Star’ songwriter Jackson Emmer.

The festival also features a lineup of 20 “rising stars” songwriters from Montana, Colorado, Louisiana, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky and Canada. Among the group of rising stars are Whitefish songwriters and musicians Jo Smith, Hannah King and Nick Spear. The full lineup of songwriters, event locations and times, ticket prices and other information can be found at whitefishsongwriterfestival.org.  

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