Rams Head Tavern founder Bill Muehlhauser was supposed to retire when he moved to Key West 12 years ago. Instead, he expanded his mini music and restaurant empire to the Sunshine State and eventually decided to bring the best of the Keys back to Annapolis.
The Annapolis Songwriters Festival kicks off Thursday, courtesy of Muehlhauser, who bought Key West Songwriters Festival, including the name and assets, last year and now plans to duplicate the event — a South Florida staple since 1996 — in Maryland’s capital.
From Thursday evening through late Saturday night, the festival will welcome more than 50 artists to perform at 13 venues. The majority of shows are free and indoors, but headliners Jake Owen and Amos Lee have the distinction of performing at the first-ever ticketed City Dock concerts.
“We have such an artistic city,” Rams Head marketing director Laura Price said. “We knew that we had to bring the festival to Annapolis.”
With the same major sponsor, a similar lineup of artists and even an identical logo, Muehlhauser and his Rams Head colleagues hope Annapolis will embrace the same spirit of wandering from venue to venue and concert to concert, but without the day-drinking.
Remember, the city does have open container laws.
Price acknowledged that festivalgoers do carry their drinks around town in Key West, whereas in Annapolis, alcohol will need to stay within a fenced-in area at City Dock. Applying for a special liquor license was just one item on a long logistical punchlist that has taken months of collaboration between Rams Head, city officials and Visit Annapolis, the nonprofit tourism board.
“That was a big job,” Price said, “But we know what we are doing.”
Cate Pettit, chief of staff for Mayor Gavin Buckley, said organizers and city staff have thought through everything, including fencing that will prevent kayakers from paddling over to City Dock and enjoying the concerts for free.
“It is not a wide-open, anyone-can-just-come-and-watch sort of thing,” Pettit said.
The fenced-off areas have been carefully planned so that boaters, diners and shoppers can still frequent City Dock during the Friday and Saturday evening concerts, Pettit said. The festival contracted with a private security firm and will haul away its own trash. Should the Annapolis Police Department end up working any overtime this weekend related to events downtown, the festival will get a bill.
Not that Petitt expects that to happen. “We anticipate that this will be a family-friendly event,” she said, noting that most of the acts also have older fans.
Gates at City Dock open at 5 p.m., with opening acts for these ticketed shows starting an hour later. Friday’s lineup features Madison Cunningham, Elizabeth & the Catapult and Lee, while Saturday finds George Birge, Halle Kearns and Owen onstage by the waterfront.
Eight other ticketed indoor concerts include Fantastic Negrito and Lucinda Williams, at Maryland Hall Thursday and Friday nights, a sold-out Josh Ritter show at Rams Head On Stage Thursday and a Watermark Cruise headlined by Elisha Hoffman on Saturday.
The Morning Sun
Venues hosting free concerts throughout the weekend include The Graduate Hotel, Stan and Joe’s Saloon and 49 West Café. In Nashville lingo, these are known as “showcases,” grouping together singer-songwriters who are hawking their own lyrics as wares. Their goal: Get their music out on the airwaves, whether sung by themselves or someone else who buys recording rights.
A plane full of singers (and their guitars) lifts off from Nashville Thursday morning and is scheduled to arrive at BWI Marshall Airport around noon, Price said. All were chosen by BMI, one of two duolithic conglomerates that license music and pay out royalties to artists. (The other competing organization is ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.)
The sponsorship deal with BMI (originally known as Broadcast Music, Inc.) means that most artists appearing at the songwriter festivals in both Annapolis and Key West have also signed with the organization, “but they don’t control everything that we do,” Price said.
Local ASCAP artists haven’t been excluded from the songwriter stages, Price said. One major change from Key West, Price said, is that the Rams Head staff made booking Annapolis area acts a priority. The list of locals includes a few who performed with Eva Cassidy: her mentee Meg Murray and bassist Larry Melton, who now plays with Dan Haas. Both were recently onstage last month at a tribute concert honoring Cassidy, who before her cancer diagnosis and death 1996, helped establish Annapolis as a city that loves a great voice and a guitar.
Despite all the marketing and careful planning, Price acknowledges there are lots of festival unknowns, including how many people will turn out for dozens of free midday shows. They can confirm, however, that the festival is drawing in audiences from out-of-town: More than three-quarters of all VIP passes were snapped up by patrons who have also attended the festival in Key West, Price said.
If all goes well, the festival will not only return to Annapolis in 2023, it will be bigger and migrate across Spa Creek to Eastport, Price said. For now, she hopes as many as patrons as possible grab a concert schedule and “go bopping around town.”
A complete schedule of free and ticketed performances can be found annapolissongwritersfestival.com/schedule.