This has been a boom year for the music industry with national touring moving back into full swing after touring was brought to a halt in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. There have also been some new events with delayed debuts that have finally been able to spring to life, notably including the Park City Song Summit in the famed mountain town of Park City, Utah.
Advertised as something like a cross between a mountain retreat for music fans and a South by Southwest-style event with insightful talks from artists and industry pros during the day followed by live performances in downtown clubs at night, the Song Summit delivered over four nights and three days from Wednesday, 7 September to Saturday, 10 September. The Summit had a loose theme billed around being “a place to examine the struggles and breakthroughs that artists face on their creative journey”, including issues ranging from drug addiction and mental health to creative challenges and the pressures of being in the spotlight.
“We would love it if more people were thinking of who our artists are,” Park City Song Summit CEO/Co-Founder Ben Anderson says as MC at the opening night dinner on Wednesday, regarding mental health issues for musicians. The festivities then kick off with solo acoustic sets from rising blues artist Adia Victoria and Jason Isbell, which epitomizes how Song Summit’s lineup mixes fresh voices with some well-known stars.
“It’s kinda like whatever you can find, you take it and try to make a whole song out of it before you lose it or forget it,” Isbell says regarding the question of which comes first between music or lyrics. Well known for his sobriety from drinking, Isbell notes that his song “What Have I Done to Help” was sparked by inspiration from a chocolate mushroom experience.
Exploring different concepts about how artists tap creativity and spirituality to make themselves feel whole becomes a running theme at Song Summit. Having Isbell cap off the opening night feels fitting since he and his wife Amanda Shires performed a noble service to help music fans feel more whole in 2020 when they streamed live jam sessions from their barn on a daily basis in heroic fashion during the earliest and loneliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Song Summit format from Thursday to Saturday features “labs” in roughly one-hour blocks from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm each day, followed by evening performances at the clubs on Main Street. Here follows a PopMatters special report on the best of what we saw go down in Park City, jumping around through time and space to hit the moments that made the biggest impressions.
Jeremy Ivey and Margo Price join together onstage for a semi-secret team-up
The Thursday night lineup at the O.P. Rockwell Cocktail Lounge & Music Hall is stacked with a bill of Jeremy Ivey, Celisse, and Warren Haynes. Many music fans have probably come to know Ivey through collaborations with his budding superstar wife Margo Price, but the man is a talented singer/songwriter himself. It was interesting to see the Song Summit put Ivey on stage here, with Price billed only to appear in two of the labs. Would Price make a guest appearance with Ivey? Modern music theorists who’ve been following the ascent of the couple’s careers over the past few years have reason to suspect the answer is yes.
Ivey comes out solo acoustic and opens with “Tomorrow People”, one of many zeitgeisty tunes from his great 2020 album Waiting Out the Storm (which Price produced.) The song wryly comments on modern problems by asking future folks about their nuclear threat level, virtual sex, and if they still blame shit they do on different colored people. Some new songs follow, including a charming tune about musicians titled “Snowball’s Chance in Hell” and “Orphan Child”, co-written with Price. Ivey jokes about how she has a better voice than he does and so it seemed odd that the Song Summit asked him to sing and her to talk, as he humbly laces self-deprecating humor through the set.
“My wife looked at the setlist and asked if I was going to play anything anyone knows,” Ivey says, kidding himself a bit more before Price soon joins him for the rest of the set. The collaboration is a special treat for Song Summit since these two don’t often perform together for the public these days. “Revelations” is a heartfelt gem about if Jesus was a traveling musician and had been dropped by his label, with Price singing about how she needs saving too. Then there’s the title track from Ivey’s 2019 album The Dream and the Dreamer, a melancholy number that benefits from Price’s harmonies. The energy level surges on the rocking “All Kinds of Blue”, a shimmery single they wrote together and released in 2021 that shines as they sing it out in tandem.
The honky tonk blues of “Greyhound” is another winner as the dynamic duo harmonizes on both the verses and choruses again. Ivey introduces the last song as one he put together when he was asked to take a shot at writing a Christmas song for the Amazon corporation. He goes on to satirically wonder why he never heard back from them on the tune titled “Christmas Time in Tent City”, a typically Jeremy Ivey type of tune in how it aims to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Lab: Maybe We’ll Make It | with Margo Price & Marissa R. Moss
The afternoon labs are held in three tents on the grounds of the Lodges at Deer Valley, the Song Summit’s headquarters. The day after Price performs with Ivey, she’s interviewed by Nashville-based journalist Marissa R. Moss on the topic of her impending memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It. Both Ivey and Price’s mom are in the front row as she speaks about the ups and downs of her quest for artistic freedom and career success. “There’s always the joke; see you on the long climb back to the middle,” Price says in one of many sincerely candid moments.
Moss notes how honest the book is, praising Price for her perseverance through an array of challenges. Price admits she’s struggled to stay grounded at times but starts to tear up a bit when speaking of how she’d still be writing songs in a cabin somewhere even if her career hadn’t taken off with some timely support from Third Man Records. She talks about how she was burning the candle at both ends and decided to stop drinking after learning that women who have three drinks a week are apparently twice as likely to get breast cancer. She says she feels really good now and still dabbles in psychedelic mushrooms, which led to her epiphany about drinking (as well as apparently catalyzing the writing of the scintillating new banger “Been to the Mountain” from her impending new album.)
Other interesting tales include anecdotes about how their house was a very social part of the Nashville scene in the earlier years of their careers when artists like Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes and Alynda Segarra from Hurray for the Riff Raff would come through and stay over. Then there were hard times after she and Ivey lost a baby, were cheating on each other and writing songs about it they would play at the breakfast table before they could even talk about it. Price describes friends referring to them as “Kurt & Courtney” due to all their drinking, carousing, and arguing. She also notes that the first draft of the book didn’t have as many personal details, like the “White Claw Tuesdays” where she’d drink ten of the inexplicably popular hard seltzers and wake up in the bathtub.
During the Q&A, Price is asked about being an artist in residence at the recent Sacred Rose Festival in Chicago and says she loved the role. She says her collaboration with Goose was “amazing” and that it was her second time performing with Phil Lesh, following the 2018 Outlaw Festival show at the Hollywood Bowl where she was secretly pregnant and Lesh charmingly helped her out onstage after she’d been puking backstage. The fact that Price seems equally at home with a rising buzz band like Goose, as with a living legend like Lesh only seems to confirm further that this very talented woman is all about the music.
Rising Appalachia dazzle Song Summit at the intersection of art & activism
Margo Price was a well-known star coming in, whereas Rising Appalachia had previously flown under this reporter’s radar and are a revelation at Song Summit. The band gets a primetime slot on Friday night at O.P. Rockwell, in between sets from Bonny Light Horseman and Father John Misty. In this case, their performance is preceded by two labs that delve into the long and winding road of the band’s artistic journey.
“Melody for the Roots of Us” on Thursday afternoon turns out to be one of the more insightful labs, as grassroots festival organizer JK McKnight interviews sisters Leah Song and Chloe Knight on how their band Rising Appalachia combine folk music traditions with wider influences from urban culture and their longtime devotion to social justice activism. The sisters relate how their mom was obsessed with Appalachian folk music and so they grew up immersed in that world, yet were also influenced by the more modern sounds they heard growing up in Atlanta. Leah relates how they never really even decided to start a band, that it was other people believing in them and coaxing them along into the performing realm, such as teachers, activists, and elders.
Leah goes on to explain how they grew up in a social justice environment, were more involved in activism than art as young adults, and were moved to blend this into their music. “You don’t all have to agree with each other to have a catharsis through music,” she says, explaining how they decided they wanted to pursue making music that matters but without alienating anyone. The sisters also speak of their path in concluding that you don’t have to be a starving artist, that you can have a day job, and how it’s been healthy to find a lifestyle where they don’t have to feel like their art is something that has to be desperately extracted from the muses (synchronistically touching on the moving episode 11 of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series on Netflix.)
A second lab on Friday with Joe Pug for his podcast The Working Songwriter finds the sisters offering further insights. “If this doesn’t feel good and feel honest, then we don’t wanna do it,” they say of their process and being in it for the long haul as opposed to strategizing for a quick money grab. They talk about having experimented with a sliding scale for CD sales at their shows and finding that some people would give $20 instead of $10. Hearing the sisters speak about their artistic principles in the labs winds up really enhancing appreciation of Rising Appalachia’s dynamic performance on Friday night.
There’s a mesmerizing vibe throughout much of the band’s set as they blend various instrumentation with rich harmonies, deep songs, and vibrant jams. “Indigo Dance” from the band’s 2019 Leylines album is an early highlight, blending a quasi-shamanic vibe with vocals that mix hop cadences and folk harmonies. “Love Her in the Mornin’” provides a peak moment, starting with a bluegrass vibe before evolving into an extended jam over a rocking feel-good groove. “Catalyst” from 2021’s The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know album stands out as an empowering song with a mystical sonic landscape, as the sisters implore the listener to be an alchemist for change. Both ladies have a charismatic aura that seems to emanate from their genuine compassion for the world and dreams of manifesting a more harmonious society through music, as they feed off each other and their bandmates for sonic synergy.
The upbeat “Resilient” takes the concept of musical empowerment further still, as the sisters sing out for “power to the peaceful” and a revolutionary sentiment to “see the system brought down to its knees.” They keep going, singing “What are you gonna do about it when the world comes undone? My voice feels tiny and I’m sure so does yours, But put us all together we make a mighty roar…” After this set, one can’t help but feel like wanting to join Rising Appalachia in a movement for musical revolution to help save the planet.
Father John Misty puts on a zeitgeisty songwriting clinic
The artist known as Father John Misty wasn’t booked for a lab per se, but his solo set that follows Rising Appalachia turns into a songwriting clinic thanks to his uniquely insightful lyrics on the modern condition and endearing banter between songs. He wins the audience quickly with “Total Entertainment Forever”, a forward-looking tune similar in vibe to Jeremy Ivey’s “Tomorrow People” except that it preceded it on 2017’s Pure Comedy album.
“I spend a lot of time staring into the middle distance and it’s pretty much worrying about never writing another song again,” Misty says in a revealing sentiment that many of the artists here at Song Summit can probably relate to. This prefaces his upbeat 2012 classic “I’m Writing a Novel”, a uniquely personal yet still universal tune about some misadventures with self-shamanism. He goes on to suggest that having some stupidity in your songs “helps the souffle rise”, and jokes about being recently taken with a Shania Twain documentary and the little comments she makes in some of her hit songs.
Misty says his infectious 2016 hit “Real Love Baby” was a songwriting exercise on Ecstasy, “in a controlled environment” and that the song was rejected by Lady Gaga. He goes on to explain that the first part of “Pure Comedy” is from the perspective of a cavewoman and that the second part was written by aliens sent to decide if Earth should survive. The lyrics do go in that direction, with aliens justifiably wondering about the humans who “build fortunes poisoning their offspring” and wondering “where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?” Father John Misty shouldn’t worry about losing his muse, as there are few songwriters in modern music who can rival his insightful commentary on the bizarre contradictions of the modern age.