Redneck Island: Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival

What do you get when a couple dozen musically-inclined, self-proclaimed rednecks take over one of America’s most prestigious destinations? That would be the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival. And for the fourth year, that is exactly what happened when a bunch of singers and songwriters from around the country took over the island city (and Boston) from September 16th-20th, 2015.


Country fans were able to get a real taste of Nashville on Wednesday, September 16th at Loretta’s Last Call. Behind The Curtain with The Nashville Hit Makers was the kickoff event to The Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival, a weekend long event that recognizes the artists who help produce some of our favorite songs we hear on country radio.  Wednesday night’s show featured songwriters Clay Mills, Jim McCormick, Danny Myrick, and Marty Dodson who shared the stories behind the songs they had a part in writing. The quartet offered more than story telling that night, they provided the bar with sing-a-longs and laughs, all from an insider’s point of view.

It was evident from the beginning of the set list that their southern upbringing was a big factor when it came to finding inspiration for the songs they helped create.  The first song of the night, performed primarily by Danny Myrick, ​ ‘I Love This Life’, was centered around a small town, country girls, Jesus and Friday night football. Myrick had some assistance in writing this song with country newcomer Chris Janson.​  The song ​is currently receiving country airplay now and reached No. 1 on Sirius XM’s The Highway this summer.

The songwriters not only had strong relationships with each other, but they also have strong relationships with the country artists they work with. The group asked the audience to join in in a big “Boston loves Darius Rucker” cheer that they recorded and sent to him via text message. After the video was recorded, the writers informed us that Darius is actually a Dolphins fan, and double checked with the crowd that we did want to send the clip.  An impromptu version of ‘Hold My Hand’ was performed, followed by Rucker’s ‘History in the Making.’ It was Clay Mills who helped penned the song for Rucker and who performed it to the crowd. ​

The name dropping continued with the story and performance of Tim McGraw’s ‘Truck Yeah.’ Chris Janson and Danny Myrick were hunting one day, talking about their country roots and how proud people are of being from below the Mason-Dixon line.  Janson went on to say jokingly, “screw you, I’m country,” followed by an expletive that rhymes with truck.  The two knew country radio wouldn’t play the uncensored version, so they renamed the track ‘Truck Yeah’ and laughed about it thinking no one would cut it. Much to their surprise, it was McGraw who wanted to record the single.

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There is no rhyme or reason to the songwriting process. That was made clear when the story of Billy Currington’s ‘Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right’ was told.  Marty Dodson, who wrote​ the eventual Number One said the single was ​written in an hour and a half, after a morning of writers block Dodson encountered.  Another song that was performed that night, ‘International Harvester,’ was based off a real life experience, one that stemmed from Myrick ​getting stuck on a two lane road behind a tractor.

‘Beautiful Mess,’ which was recorded by Diamond Rio and written by Clay Mills was a song on the set list that night.  When the song reached No. 1, Mills received thirty three phone calls that day from friends and family congratulating him on his success with the hit.

There were songs performed that were written for Kenny Chesney, Diamond Rio, and Jason Aldean. Saying the quartet has an impressive resume may be an understatement. A special part of the night was when Lance Carpenter was brought on stage by the group. Carpenter is the writer behind CMA New Artist of the Year nominee, Kelsea Ballerini, and her No. 1 song, ‘Love Me Like You Mean It.’

Hearing the music and the stories that go along with them made everyone in attendance feel connected to the music and the artists even more so than when the night first began.  The crowd left the night with four new friends in Clay, Jim, Danny, and Marty.

(Written by NECM contributing writer, Christina Coleman.)


On Thursday night, the crowd again collected at Boston’s hit country venue, Loretta’s Last Call, for performances from the Rising Stars that would be attending the festival. For those fans who would not be able to make it to Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend, they made sure they were at the Fenway venue for performances by Josh Dorr, Lance Carpenter, Casey Derhak, Annie Bosko, Morgan Myles, Brent Harrison, Jay Taylor, Jilly Martin, Vanessa Bransan, and Elise Hayes. With mason jars of ‘shine being filled throughout the evening, it sure made the trek to the Vineyard on Friday morning quite the journey, and that was before the ferries even left Woods Hole.

It’s not very often that you’ll see a bunch of people with guitars strapped on their backs and men in cowboy hats get off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. But, with the festival being in it’s fourth year and extensive advertising by the New England to Nashville organization, island residents were aware of what was about to hit them, and they were very excited to hear some of the great music that they have gotten to learn in the past three years of the festival. After settling into wood-shingled homes across the island, as part of the festival package, singers and songwriters took to the island to see the cookie-cutter homes, beautiful beaches, and fantastic waterfront bars and restaurants. After a quick refresh at their homes for the weekend, festival participants met up at the West Tisbury home of Matt Casey, co-founder of the festival, for a delicious catered barbecue dinner, cold beer, and of course, live music. With a keyboard, mic, and sound system, Rising Stars, hit songwriters, and festival participants alike were welcomed to perform their songs for the house-party type crowd and there was very little quiet time as artist after artist took their turn playing music for their peers.

Saturday morning started off early with participants meeting up at Alex’s Place, a teen center at the Martha’s Vineyard YMCA, for a day of workshops led by the hit songwriters. Marty Dodson and Clay Mills kicked it off with a workshop on ‘Songwriting Basics’ and ‘What Makes A Song A Hit.’ It was only appropriate that Marty and Clay lead this class with numerous number one songs between the two of them. Sitting in on the workshop, Dodson said one thing to the aspiring songwriters in attendance that really stuck with us. “It’s not chasing something out there. It’s chasing something in here,” as he pointed to his heart. As an assignment, the songwriters gave participants a little task to write down 3-5 one-liners of something they wish they had told someone- things that could be the backbone of a song. Workshops would continue throughout the day, which would teach the students how to develop ideas into hit songs, and the songwriting method. In the afternoon, several participants actually got to sit down with Danny Myrick and Jim McCormick for song critiques. For any aspiring songwriter, this is unprecedented access. To have someone who has written several No. 1 hits read, listen, and critique your music is invaluable experience that is not readily available.

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On Saturday afternoon, several songwriters headed down to Tivoli Day, which is a pedestrian-only street fair in Oak Bluffs which occurs on an annual basis and has occurred for over three decades! The event marks the end of summer and the start of a slower pace on the Vineyard. The main stage, which was located at the fork of Circuit Avenue and Kennebec Avenue, featured several acts including New Hampshire-born Casey Derhak, the deep-voiced, Brent Harrison, and recent No. 1 songwriter Lance Carpenter. But our favorite performance of the afternoon came when Massachusetts’ own, and festival co-host, Jilly Martin, gave a raucous performance of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Little Red Wagon,’ that legitimately had the temporary staging rocking back and forth with every whip of her blonde hair and her jumping around to the beat.

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Just a short walk through the many vendors and shops offering discounted merchandise, was another performance area where a number of Berklee students, who were attending the workshops, played their music. Throughout the street, Matt Casey and others, including Richie Trotter, Lance Carpenter’s talented drummer who played with each artist that weekend, donning a gas station stuffed monkey around his neck, were seen selling CDs which included music from the artists performing, while also handing out fliers for the main event later that night. Tivoli Day was truly a sight to be seen. Well over a thousand pedestrians walked the streets, supporting local businesses and supporting these talented musicians.

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After many individuals experienced the amazing dining options offered by Martha’s Vineyard restaurants and a bit of rest and relaxation, the crowd collected at The Flatbread Company. Fun fact about The Flatbread Company (Martha’s Vineyard): it used to be called The Hot Tin Roof and was owned by Carly Simon. The then-nightclub was described as as a celebrity magnet, which even drew in President Clinton, but had to close down after they could not meet the town requirements to be open five days per week in the off season. The music came back to life at the ex-Hot Tin Roof on that Saturday night with Rising Stars, hit songwriters, and even some local musicians who kicked off the night. The ticketed event included a VIP package, with all funds from those sales benefiting Alex’s Place. Not to get off topic, but Alex’s Place is an amazing organization and safe haven on the island for teens. Alex, whose full name was Alexandra Gagnon, was a Martha’s Vineyard teenager who passed away in 1998 and after her passing, her family decided to help teenagers on the island and Alex’s Place was founded with the YMCA’s help as well as with the help of many Vineyard businesses. It truly is an amazing organization and we were happy to see that the festival was able to contribute to the mission of Alex’s Place.

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After a couple songs from Vineyard natives Phil DaRosa and Alex Karalekas, the near-capacity crowd was treated to several songwriter’s rounds. If you have never been to an event with songwriter’s rounds, think of a row of singer-songwriters with their instruments and one-by-one they play their song. The first round of Rising Stars included Vanessa Bransan, Elise Hayes, and Josh Dorr. Elise treated the crowd with a piano-laden song called ‘Automatic’ while the youthful Vanessa, performed a song called ‘Side of the Road.’ Josh Dorr is a name you need to know, filled with incredible talent that he showcased through his performances of ‘Rocket’ and ‘I Need A Highway.’

The second round of Rising Stars featured Jay Taylor, Jilly Martin, and Casey Derhak. Taylor is another name y’all should get to know. The Florida native played a great song called ‘The Good Times,’ which is all about reminiscing about just that. Jilly followed Jay up with a few songs of her own, including an emotional ‘Open Hearted,’ which had some fans visibly moved by the songstress’ beautiful song about wishing she could see a lost family member again. Derhak had some large shoes to follow with Jay and Jilly but he did so with the fun ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘Backbeat.’ Derhak will be releasing an EP soon, after his Kickstarter was fully funded- keep your eye out!

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Last but not least of the Rising Stars rounds consisted of Brent Harrison, Morgan Myles, Lance Carpenter, and Annie Bosko. Alabama-native, Brent Harrison kicked off the round with his first national single on country radio, called ‘Backwoods Bucket List.’ After Morgan Myles performed ‘Whiskey Dreaming,’ which became a big sing-along with some great crowd participation, it was Lance Carpenter‘s turn. Lance had a simple response. “PASS,” he exclaimed jokingly after having to follow two amazing performances by Brent and Morgan. Lance acknowledged the incredible energy that Brent and Morgan gave and apologized to the crowd in attendance as he was about to bring the energy down with a song called ‘Better Than Me.’ Recently named by Rolling Stone as one of 10 New Artists You Need to Know, Annie Bosko was next up and performed a song titled ‘Survivor,’ which she dedicated to anyone fighting a battle, including the troops overseas. In the second time through, Lance Carpenter would perform his hit song ‘Love Me Like You Mean It,’ of course after a wardrobe change, i.e. turning his hat backwards, to match the song lyrics. After Lance completed the song, Morgan thanked Lance, saying “thank you or being part of a song that helped break a female (Kelsea Ballerini) onto country radio.” Bosko wrapped the round up with a song she wrote on a Southwest Airlines flight on a “barf bag, because you don’t know when inspiration is going to hit you.” The song, titled ‘You Look Like I Need a Drink,’ put a bit of a Kacey Musgraves’ sound in Bosko’s voice that we really loved.

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While the Rising Stars put on an amazing show, many people came to see the hit songwriters. Together, Jim McCormick, Clay Mills, Marty Dodson, and Danny Myrick took the stage with the guitars, sitting at their respective barstools. McCormick started it off with a performance of a song he wrote for Brantley Gilbert, ‘You Don’t Know Her Like I Do.’ When a small technically difficulty caused Jim’s guitar to lose sound, Myrick was quick to start strumming his guitar, seamlessly picking up the song for McCormick. Next up was Clay Mills, with a performance of ‘Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,’ a song recorded and co-written by Darius Rucker. Dodson kicked his night off with ‘Fire It Up,’ a tune recorded by Canadian country artist Johnny Reid before Myrick followed it up with ‘Truck Yeah,’ which was recorded by Tim McGraw. Myrick joked about the song, “I had a kid in college and Tim liked it and that’s all that mattered.”

McCormick kicked off the second pass with Jason Aldean’s ‘Take A Little Ride,’ a 2012 Platinum-selling number one hit. Clay Mills gave the crowd his rendition of ‘Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love,’ which may be best known as recorded by Trisha Yearwood. Midway through the song, Jilly Martin joined Clay to provide some background vocals. After completing the song, Mills joked, “Thank you, Trisha Yearwood. That paid for my son’s first year of college.” Following Clay’s performance, Marty played a song that was written as “a song to make out to,” which turned out to be Billy Currington’s ‘Must Be Doing Something Right.’ Danny Myrick pleased the Craig Morgan fans in attendance with ‘International Harvester,’ which he co-wrote with Shane Minor and Jeffrey Steele. The song transitioned into Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music’ and then into Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop.’ The fun transitions got the crowd hooting and hollering and even got many people on the dance floor.

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Each of the hit songwriters had one more performance in them. McCormick showed his versatility as he played a song that Harry Connick Jr. just announced as the first single off his new album. McCormick explained that the song, titled ‘(I Do) Like We Do,’ really made his parents proud. He said, “Mom and dad finally think I made it since they have no idea who Luke Bryan is,” which brought laughs from the crowd. Regarding the statement, Jim co-wrote Luke’s ‘We Rode In Trucks.’ Clay Mills’ final song of the evening would be ‘What A Beautiful Mess,’ and Marty wrapped his night up with ‘Everybody’s Gonna Go To Heaven’ and explained the story of how George Strait and Kenny Chesney were racing to cut it, with Chesney ultimately winning out. Either way, Marty wouldn’t have gone wrong with the song. Danny Myrick closed the night for the hit songwriters with his multi-Platinum selling song, ‘She’s Country,’ which Jason Aldean fans know extremely well.

The night was still young, the bar was still open, and the music would go on. After a quick cleanup of the stage, full band performances would take over the rest of the night. Elise Hayes returned to the stage to perform a cover of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud.’ Josh Dorr followed up Elise’s fantastic performance with his rendition of The Wallflower’s ‘One Headlight,’ which truly showed off his incredible voice. For those who missed her performance at Tivoli Day, Jilly Martin once again gave her energetic performance of ‘Little Red Wagon’ before Casey Derhak took the stage with his performance of ‘Wagon Wheel.’ If y’all haven’t seen Casey perform this song, you MUST! About midway through, Casey breaks into this fun rap and it absolutely got the crowd going, raising the energy in the room even higher than it already was. Brent Harrison gave the traditional country music fans quite the performance with his version of Conway Twitty’s ‘I’d Love To Lay You Down,’ during which he showed off his incredibly deep voice, continuing to take it down deeper and deeper. Annie Bosko would continue with that traditional country theme with Patsy Cline’s ‘Walkin’ After Midnight.’ Next up was a duo of Jay Taylor and Morgan Myles with an incredible performance of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which had fans singing and dancing along. As the night wound down, Myles took the stage for a cover of Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush.’ Not quite through the first verse, the power to Morgan’s microphone was shut off by management to close down the bar, in what was seemingly an abrupt ending to the night. But that would not stop her. Myles took to the front of the stage, belting the lyrics out with no microphone. Quick thinking by the talented Ben Kirsch, led him to run and grab his acoustic guitar in exchange for his electric one to accompany Morgan at the head of the stage. Lance Carpenter would join them on stage to help her sing the song, as every person chimed in to help as well. The voices of fans and artists alike filled the bar, which was now brightly lit and ready to close down, but not before Morgan said so. A moment that was almost quickly ruined, ended up being an encore to remember.

While Sunday morning would bring more workshops led by the hit songwriters and more performance from the Rising Stars at island restaurants and bars, Saturday was truly the highlight of the weekend. From free street performances at Tivoli Day to experiencing the music from the Rising Stars, as well as the successful music from the veteran hit songwriters, and moments that artists will never forget, it was an incredible day of music, learning, and more. For any aspiring musician or songwriter, the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival is not to be missed. Not only will you gain invaluable experience that will help you reach your goals of being a successful songwriter in the music industry, but you will also make friends, relationships, and memories that will last you a lifetime. Heck, you may even write a hit song one day with someone you met!

For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival, check out the official event website here.

Also make sure to ‘LIKE’ New England to Nashville on Facebook and follow them on Twitter as well for information on future events.

Make sure to check out all the artists who performed during the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriting Festival! Their names are hyperlinked in green throughout the article. Click their names, follow them, and BUY their music!

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