Songwriting festivals are a chance for musicians to emphasize the storytelling aspects of music as well as the notes played behind the words. The quaint mountain town of Red River with its friendly pubs and alpine vistas is hosting The Red River Songwriters Festival today through Saturday (Jan. 25-27).
It is a gathering of acoustic Americana troubadours celebrating its seventh year. The performances are scheduled in the afternoons and evenings at three local pubs: The Lift House, 200 South Pioneer St.; Lost Love Saloon and Lodge, 400 East Main St.; and The Motherlode Saloon, 406 East Main St. Tickets start at $40 for daily access or $100 for a three-day pass with access to any ticketed show.
Josh Grider is one of the festival’s founders and its honorary “secretary of transportation” as he owns the van that transports the musicians. In talking about how the festival was created, he said, “We were a bunch of friends who were also songwriters. We got tired of never getting invited to the same festivals at the same time, so Drew Kennedy, our leader, said why don’t we see if we can do our own festival, and seven years later here we are.”
Kennedy added, “This festival is slightly different from other music festivals because we focus on the songwriter rather than on bands. The people performing will be playing acoustically, presenting their songs in the most intimate of presentations. We keep the festival small to complement this intimate presentation. We foster a listening environment, and we hope that the audience members feel a strong level of connection to the artists and the songs they play.”
In describing what to expect, Grider said that songwriting festivals “come in all shapes and sizes ... We push all the chairs away from the dance floor and turn a honky-tonk into a “you-could-hear-a-pin-drop” listening room.”
Grider continued, “Our objective is to give people who love songs an up close and personal weekend with a group of writers and performers who are passionate about their craft and love sharing it.”
Walt Wilkins, another of the weekend’s performers, said, “All of us have toured extensively, overseas, had some cool successes, faced challenges, and kept at it. It’s a fun life, but it’s not easy.”
Kelley Mickwee, who performs on Friday and Saturday, said in a nutshell, the festival “was started by six friends who share their love for songs, friendship, and the beautiful mountains of Northern New Mexico … Most shows at this songwriters festival are usually a solo or duo act.”
Susan Gibson, a country music award-winning songwriter who penned The Dixie Chicks’ hit single “Wide Open Spaces,” continued, “I think it started as a good reason to get together with friends and play some music. Invite some friends. Get some real winter and skiing and bring a little business to [MotherLode owner] Steve Haglund, who has supported every musician that has ever crossed the Red River city limits. Very personal and nurturing. I’m really proud to be a part of this event.”
Crowd numbers typically hover around 300 over the course of the three-day event. Grider said: “We’ve grown every year since we started, with our first sellout last year; however, due to limited space our number of attendees will never grow too large. Once you get to Red River, we all eat, hang, ski and go to the show together. You’re never far from one of the artists, and we do our best to make it a very inclusive family environment.”
Continuing on that theme, Walt Wilkins, also a founding member, said he was invited by Kennedy to perform at the inaugural event.
“It’s a very intimate festival, which is something that makes it unique,” he said. “Another thing that is special about it is that it’s all acoustic and all based on the craft and presentation of songwriting.”
Festivalgoers will have a chance to rub elbows with the performers in Red River. This is a unique experience in the music business where the separation between the performer and audience is typically clearly defined.
“One other thing that makes this a cool event for the listener,” Wilkins said, “is that we’re all close together for a few days. We see each other at the gigs, in the bars, at restaurants or just walking around town. You get to visit with each other. There are no borders, really, between performer and attendee. I dig that part. The objective is listening and feeling the songs. There’s a real feeling of community in this gathering. And it all happens amidst the beauty and vibe of Red River.”
Before the festival starts one may be able to catch the songwriters, Drew Kennedy, Josh Grider, Susan Gibson, and Kelley Mickwee, or as Wilkins affectionately refers to them “The Lifers,” around town. “We hang out, talk shop, maybe even do some writing together. We walk around, make each other laugh and enjoy the slow pace of Red River before all the good folks get up here. Then we enjoy all of that, too. It’s always a great week for me from start to finish.”
The town of Red River is located along State Road 38 in northern Taos County. For more information, visit redriversongs.com.