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Third Annual Highway 80 Songwriters Festival Provides Platform for Local Artists

Most music lovers think of the Muscle Shoals as the only music scene in the state of Alabama. Although the Muscle Shoals may have the legendary FAME recording studio, Demopolis mayor Mike Grayson believes people should not overlook the talent in the Black Belt region.

He said, “Highway 61 (in Mississippi) is known for the blues. Muscle Shoals is famous in Alabama, but there are many talented artists here.”

Grayson is a casual musician himself and when he met fellow music connoisseur Richelle Putnam of the Montgomery Institute, the idea for the Highway 80 Songwriters Festival was born. Three years later, the festival is going strong.  

Grayson represents Demopolis, Alabama, and Richelle Putnam represents Meridian, Mississippi. Highway 80 is the oldest coast-to-coast highway, running from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California. The highway connects Demopolis and Meridian, making it an ideal name for the festival.

Demopolis Chamber of Commerce director Ashley Coplin said,  “Demopolis kicks the festival off for the year in July.” After the Demopolis show, the tour continues on to Jackson and Newton, Mississippi. The festival ends its tour in Meridian. Festival co-founder Richelle Putnam, who plays the guitar and keyboard, will even play at this show.

According to the organization’s social media page, the mission of the festival is “to provide songwriters throughout the Southeast a platform to showcase their talent.” The featured artists at the Demopolis show submitted a piece of original work. A committee composed of the town mayor, Chamber of Commerce Director, and local citizens decided the final musical line-up for the show.

The Demopolis show kicked off at six p.m. and the party drew to a close after nine.  Every hour of the show featured three new songwriters, seated on a bar stools with their musical instrument of choice. Performers included Demopolis natives Shawn Pfaffman and Mel Knapp, Linden native Alan Hartzell, along with artists Derek Norsworthy, Christina Christian, Steve Wilkerson, Megan McMillan, Britt Gully, Amy Lott, and Melissa Joiner.

Before an artist would begin a song, he or she would explain the meaning of the song and what inspired them to write the lyrics. Many of the lyrics are stories---ranging from memories of an artist’s father to a jilted lover’s revenge to a hilarious far-fetched tale.

Linden’s Hartzell wrote a song entitled “Rocks and Things”, that described memories of weariness at a bar in Gulf Shores. He explained the bleak mood in the Southern colloquial expression of, “everyone had either broken up with their girlfriend or had a flat tire”.

The songs are deeper than a catchy lyric heard on a pop radio station. They speak and recount the history and culture of the South. The audience can identify with the truth revealed in these songs, and the community came together through this event.

Festival-attendee Paula Wallace said, “This is five times the turnout than last year.” Lawn chairs, quilts, and tents were scattered across the Demopolis public square as people watched the artists perform. Children ate ice cream cones and danced underneath the lighted trees in the park.

Mayor Grayson said he recognized half of the crowd as locals, but many people he did not know. The festival may have drawn out-of-towners to the modest town of Demopolis, which has only a population of 7,218. He hopes those who came for the festival would return for the July 4th celebration called Freedom on the River.

Although the region may not yet be famous for its music, the Demopolis community supports their local artists who share the cultural atmosphere of this small town to the world through music.