Credit: 30A Songwriters Festival
Florida's 30A Songwriters Festival celebrates 15 years of national headliners — and Georgia roots
South Walton beaches are popular among Georgia travelers. The 12 communities that dot a 26-mile stretch of coastline along Florida's state highway 30A between Pensacola and Panama City are known for hip eateries, innovative architecture and a thriving arts community.
The area's marquee event, 30A Songwriters Festival, began in 2010 and is co-produced by Atlanta's Russell Carter Artist Management to help fund the Cultural Arts Alliance (CAA) of Walton County, Fla.
The three-day concert has played host to stars including Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile, Brian Wilson, and Emmylou Harris, and 2024's fest, which runs from Jan. 12 to Jan. 15, features headliners Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash and Jeff Tweedy, as well as Peach State icons Shawn Mullins, David Lowery, Michelle Malone, David Ryan Harris, and John Driskell Hopkins.
Over the past 15 years, the 30A fest has played an important role fostering creativity and culture in the area, boosting that piece of the Florida panhandle to a No.1 hotspot for Airbnb.
But for the thousands of fans and nearly 200 performers who flock to the event each January when high temps hover in the upper 50s, the music provides the warmth.
Georgia connections and a 'homecoming' for musicians
Many on the bill each year are Georgia-based performers.
Russell Carter, a co-founder of the festival, said the breadth of the Georgia music scene's geographic reach is hard to define, because "half the artists from the East Coast move to Atlanta at some point."
John Driskell Hopkins, a fixture on the Georgia music scene who is a member of the Zac Brown Band and has written hits for others, said musicians come from Atlanta and beyond to perform at 30A because it is "a homecoming" for the Southeast's songwriters, some of whom have toured for decades in the region.
"This is also a time where musicians who don't tour together, who don't get to see each other regularly, can spend time together," he said.
David Lowery, frontman and songwriter for Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, was born in Texas and lived in California before settling in Athens, Ga. in the 2000s. He'll make his second appearance at 30A this weekend.
He said he appreciates the intimate venues that differ from the "monostyle" of giant pop music festivals that book all the same acts. There's freedom to "move away from the beat" grid when performing solo with a guitar in a small room.
Carter also explained how 30A's local restaurants, bars and town halls are transformed into professional listening rooms for a musical experience listeners won't find at other gatherings.
"We ship equipment, truck it in from all over the Southeast— top-notch sound equipment — so every venue is a true listening room for the four day weekend, and then we break it down and ship it back," he said.
The power of songs
With the live music industry meeting or exceeding pre-pandemic receipts, there is a joyful quality to the music shared by artists and audiences in 2024.
Shawn Mullins, who hit No. 1 on the charts with 1998's "Lullaby," said he has performed at 30A almost every year since its inception. As a fan favorite, he comes back again and again, "because it's all about the songs."
"It doesn't matter what the level [of fame/recognition] is or how many butts you're putting in the seats, really," Mullins said. "You know, whatever level you're on, people want to be a part of it. They want to get in there and hear the music and be a part of live music again."
For Hopkins, who announced his diagnosis with ALS in 2022, every show is special, and he'll keep performing as long as he can "serve the song."
"No one on planet Earth is given as much time as they want," he said. "And, when someone tells you that you're getting less than you thought you would have, you tend to panic a little bit and and try to stuff everything in. I'm blessed."