Red Lodge Songwriters Festival enters 2nd year with expanded lineup

Nashville songwriter James Dean Hicks, right, performs during the 2016 Red Lodge Songwriters Festival. To his right are Tony Lane and Anthony Smith.

Mike Booth and Cory Johnson started the Red Lodge Songwriters Festival last year, hoping it would become an annual event that got bigger every year. It looks like they’re on the right track.

The second annual festival starts next Thursday, June 22, and this year will feature two members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, with 12 shows at six Red Lodge venues scheduled during the three-day event.

Organizing the first festival involved many months of hard work, but Booth, a small-business consultant who lives in Red Lodge, said he and Johnson were more than satisfied with how it came off.

“We weren’t sure going into it how it would go,” he said. “But it was well-attended and the songwriters were really pleased. We knew right after the last show last year that it would happen again.”

Johnson is a country singer from Oklahoma who moved to Red Lodge a couple of years ago and became friends with Booth. Johnson was the one who first suggested that Red Lodge might be a good locale for a songwriters festival.

As with the first festival, this year’s gathering will feature a mix of performances geared toward the general public and workshops aimed at aspiring songwriters. One addition this year is a songwriters contest, which drew more than 60 entries from 50-some songwriters.

Johnson said he and James Dean Hicks, his friend and one of the Nashville songwriters returning this year, came up with a list of five criteria—melody, hook, originality, commerciality and singability—and then Johnson ranked each submission, coming up with 10 finalists.

On the morning of Saturday, June 24, a panel of at least three of the Nashville songwriters will critique live performances of the top 10 songs, then pick a winner. The performer whose song is chosen will play that night at a “Nashville Songwriters in the Round” show at Sam’s Tap Room. You can listen to all 10 songs here.

The big draws this year will be the two hall-of-famers: Even Stevens and Hugh Prestwood. Prestwood had his first hit with “Hard Times for Lovers,” recorded by Judy Collins. He went on to win an Emmy and two song-of-the-year awards—from BMI and the Nashville Songwriters Association—and he wrote No. 1 hits for Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood, Crystal Gayle and others.

Stevens has the distinction of earning an unprecedented 53 BMI Music awards, including 14 pop and 26 country awards. His hits include the multi-platinum “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman,” recorded by Dr. Hook, and “I Love a Rainy Night,” the pop hit sung by Eddie Rabbit that stayed at No. 1 for three weeks.

Returning from last year in addition to Hicks are songwriters Kostas and Tony Lane. Kostas was born in Greece and raised in Billings, and over the years he has written songs for Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt, Martina McBride, The Mavericks and many others. Lane has been writing songs, including a fair number of hits, for 20 years. The sixth Nashville songwriter this year is the up-and-coming Brice Long, who already has several No. 1 hits to his credit.

At their performances and workshops, the songwriters will sing and play, talk about their craft and tell the stories behind some of their chart-topping songs.

Even for people who don’t plan to write songs and just want to listen, Johnson said, there’s nothing like hearing the original writers sing some of their famous songs.

“It comes from their hearts, you know, so there’s a huge difference between hearing some guy singing on the radio” and hearing the people who composed the songs, Johnson said. “Last year, we had grown men and women in tears at our VIP party.”

In addition to the Nashville people, 12 songwriters from Wyoming and Montana will be performing and taking part in workshops. Besides Johnson, they are Kayln Beasley of Cody, Wyo.; Annalisa Rose of Stevensville; Sean Devine of Livingston; Tom Catmull of Missoula; Al Cooper of Red Lodge; Matt Strachan of Helena; Chad Okrusch of Butte; Jessica Lechner of Billings; Jonah Morsette of Roberts; and Michael Myers and Cierra Myers of Three Forks.

Besides the outdoor stage at Sam’s Tap Room, venues include the Pub at the Pollard, the Snag Bar, the Roman Theater, Natali’s Front Bar and Listening Room, and Lions Park.

Some of the events are free and others are ticketed. You can go here for the full schedule and here to buy tickets.

Booth said one indication that he and Johnson were right in thinking Red Lodge would be a good spot for the festival is that all the married songwriters are bringing their wives this year, and those with children are bringing them. They are all coming early or staying later, renting cars and driving the Beartooth Highway or going into Yellowstone National Park—”all the things people come to Red Lodge for.”

“The word is getting out that Red Lodge is a cool little place,” Booth said.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.