Music, hope, sobriety: Park City Song Summit is a week of musical healing

Park City Song Summit
Ben Anderson, organizer of the Park City Song Summit

Meet the new festival, most definitely not the same as the old festival.

The Ties That Bind UsWhen the Park City Song Summit debuts on Sept. 8, it will bear some resemblances to its 2019 predecessor, 2019’s Park City Songwriter Festival, a two-day event spotlighting music but that also featured programming around suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse.

It was, festival organizer/turned Summit planner Ben Anderson told The Ties That Bind Us recently, an even that went “really, really well.”

“It was a wonderful proof of concept that music lovers at large really enjoyed coming to Park City (Utah, located 25 miles to the southeast of Salt Lake City) and sitting in intimate settings and hearing these wonderful songwriters tell the beautiful stories of their songs. They  talk about their process and connect with what emotion or joy or feeling or pain that led them to create this 3-minute thing that is a verbal expression of something that happened in the fabric of their lives,” Anderson said. “The audience members would sit with tears in their eyes, or they would laugh, or both, and as they would leave, a lot of them — many I didn’t know — would say things like, ‘Thank you for doing this. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve never connected like this.’”

But then COVID hit, and Anderson — who spoke with The Ties That Bind Us in 2019 to discuss the first festival — found that his fledgling plans for a 2020 version were on hold. And that, he added, gave him an opportunity to revamp everything.

“COVID, for me personally, wasn’t a dark time, other than the roller coaster of emotions, of grief and of empathetic pain I felt for things going on around our country,” he said. I was concerned about the impact that the pandemic was having on the population at large, as well as friends of mine in recovery or who were dealing with mental health issues or life issues or people that were affected in a negative, life-altering way. It was a lot to take in, but when it came to me building this thing, it was like, ‘Now you’ve given me 18 months to ramp up?’”

Park City Song Summit: Something brand new

“Ramp up” is a quaint way of putting it. The event has been given a complete overhaul, so much so that the Park City Song Summit is not connected to the 2019 event, other than it’s in Park City and has similar musical ties.

“The festival was a great thing, and people loved it, and it will be a part and a facet of what we’ll do this year — we’ll have songwriters back to do songs in the round, for example,” Anderson said. “But this is the inaugural Park City Song Summit, and we feel like there’s more there. The first year, we did have conversations around sobriety and mental health and question-and-answer sessions, but this year, we’ve invited artists to come in town for an entire week.

“We want to give them a respite for the mind, body and soul. We want to give them a chance to connect with themselves, with nature and with their fellow artists. We want them to hang out for those days, whether they’re in those settings as an audience participant or an on-stage participant.”

And what a smorgasbord of participants it will be. A number of Ties That Bind Us alumni are on the bill —Anders Osborne, Ivan Neville and Mike Dillon — but so too are other artists who have made no secret about their own recovery from addiction or alcoholism: Jason Isbell, Langhorne Slim and Leslie Jordan, for example. Recovery is an intimately personal cause for Anderson, who got sober 14 years ago.

Anderson started playing bass while growing up in the Nashville area and was a founding member of the psychedelic jam band Aiko. The band continues to perform regularly and remained together through Anderson’s education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and law school at Pepperdine in Malibu. It was after moving to Cleveland that he began to come to terms with his own addiction, finally getting sober in August 2007.

After retiring as an attorney in 2017, Anderson and his wife moved to Park City. His love of music and his recovery journey allowed him to strike up a friendship with Osborne. Together, they started an independent record label (5th Ward Records), and Anderson became a board member for Osborne’s addiction recovery nonprofit, Send Me a Friend Foundation. At the same time, he served as president of the nonprofit Mountain Town Music, which organizes hundreds of free concerts in Park City. Through his work at that nonprofit, his longtime friendship with Osborne, his love of music and friends stopping by his recording studio wondering what a music festival in Park City might look like, the seeds for a festival were planted.

“My wife said years ago, ‘Park City doesn’t have a music festival; we should create one,’” Anderson said. “I’m not sure she knew how ominous that side comment would be!”

And now, the festival has become a summit — and one not just limited to music, Anderson added.

“We’ve got podcasters, comedians, novelists, producers, even Olympic athletes, and they’ll be talking about all kinds of topics,” he said. “We have musicians who are also painters that use the brush and canvas as part of their creative outlets. And we thought, ‘Let’s maybe have conversations where the moderator of a lab is a songwriter, but she is talking to other songwriters maybe from different genres or backgrounds, and we’ll just see what comes out of these wonderful conversations.

“We’ve got Dave Manheim, who hosts the Dopey podcast, interviewing Langhorne Slim about recovery, and all of these other diverse topics that are all important in their own way in celebrating the gift of music. It’s like a patchwork quilt, and when woven together we get these impactful, inspirational, joyful, painful discussions about us. About life.”

A summit of connection through song

Park City, Utah.

As an old-school music head, Anderson remembers how, as a teen, he and his peers explored songs and the meaning of them through liner notes and album jackets, radio interviews and pieces in publications like Rolling Stone or Parade or Life. Back then, he added, it was a labor of love to decipher the meaning behind certain songs that resonated so powerfully. So, being able to present a week of top-shelf artists explaining their craft is the ultimate fan experience.

“It’s about the songwriters, and how they wrote songs that connect with us and performing songs that connect with us,” he said. “Almost all of our lab participants are performers during the week, and folks can see them on stage talking about their creative process or their life’s journey, and the next day they may see them on stage playing or singing.

“It’s about connecting through live music performance and live conversation. It gives the audience an opportunity to connect with one another and these artists in a more meaningful and impactful way, and it’s a deeper dive for the true music freak.”

For Anderson, it’s virtually impossible to name any one highlight. Whether it’s performances by Kamasi Washington or Leslie Jordan or Mavis Staples or Fred Armisen or Gary Clark Jr. … whether it’s podcaster Rich Roll interviewing Olympian Shaun White and Isbell … whether it’s singer-songwriter Joe Pug both performing and doing his podcast … for a guy who counts himself among those freaks, it’ll be a week that dreams are made of, and he’s the guy putting it together.

But more importantly, it’s a way to help local charitable partners in the mental health, suicide prevention and addiction recovery fields, he added. No matter how stoked he is for the music, that remains priority No. 1.

“This is a megaphone for them, to help them raise money and explain why they exist and how they might be better supported,” he said. “They’re connecting more with the people we want to spotlight through this event because they’re out there, every day, being boots on the ground in service to this higher calling. And they could use our help.”

More importantly, he added, addiction and mental health issues need to be brought forth into the light. Spotlighting the efforts of local nonprofits is a noble endeavor, but facilitating conversations around these issues will reverberate far beyond Park City, he said, and hopefully lead some audience members to glean insight into the ways that the music is a soundtrack to pain and joy in equal measure.

“That’s the other thing that’s great and transcendent and built in — how important these songwriters are to the fabric of American music and how important it is, to them and the audience, that what they went through inspired them to express themselves in that song,” he said. “When you get to hear them talk about what led to its creation, and then hear them pay it in real time, there’s nothing better.”

Park City Song Summit and the promise of hope

Park City Song SummitAnd, he added, that’s what makes the Song Summit unique: A number of other festivals take place around the country, and they all have a place at the table, Anderson said. But in Park City, it’s more than just a performance.

“This is a different way to do it than an event where the artist takes the stage for 75 minutes and leaves,” he said. “Something like that can happen in Boise, Idaho, or Augusta, Maine, and be virtually the same set and the same audience experience. We want people to know more — who these people are that change our lives with the music they create. We have these spots in our soul that need to be touched and nurtured and nourished, and this is a way to do that.”

One of the most transcendent moments for Anderson personally during the 2019 events was an interview with actor and composer Paul Williams, the president of ASCAP. Williams essentially gave a testimonial that’s familiar to anyone who’s been to a speaker meeting as part of a 12 Step fellowship: He told his recovery story through the lens of what it was like, what he did and what it’s like now — as well as the work he continues to do to remain sober.

“To hear his story, that emotion and that gratitude and that joy for life that he had, we heard a lot of people say, ‘You’re doing God’s work, because this is truly divine, and we want to support this any way we can,’” Anderson said. “I took that as a compliment and a challenge, along with a whole lot of gratitude, because it told me we can build on these labs and do something even more elevated and more expansive when it comes to that kind of connection.

“But then, to know there were a few people who sought help after they heard things at that event, people who reached out and said they needed help because they were inspired in some way by something they heard or saw or felt … that’s powerful. That’s joyful. I personally know of a number of people who did, and it was like, if only one of them had sought help and maybe had a chance at a second lease on life and could experience the promises and the joy that we feel (in recovery), to me, that’s the give back.

“That’s the gratitude, and it’s also service,” he added. “And as I’ve found in over 14 years of recovery, when we’re reaching out and helping others, it keeps us full of gratitude. It keeps us remembering why we made that decision at some point in time to choose a different path.”

At the same time, he doesn’t want the week to be too scripted. Like a number of recovering addicts and alcoholics, there’s an ever-present recognition of the innate desire to control people, places and things, and a big part of sobriety is relinquishing that control to the whims of God, or fate, or the universe — whatever an individual happens to believe.

“I hope that I’ve learned a little bit on this planet, and one of those is when I try to control too much or push too hard for things, they don’t happen organically in the flow of the universe and in the frequency it’s supposed to happen,” he said. “I don’t want to program too many things that are on the nose and declare something like, ‘This is a recovery lab!’ Rather, I want people who are in recovery or need help to be inspired by the emotion that’s woven through the event and the experience.

“And I think there will be those inspiring and impactful moments woven through the Song Summit. If any of our artists do choose to talk about those types of personal things, or even if it’s a more nebulous reference, someone who needs to hear that message might be inspired in some way and think, ‘Oh, I get it! I’m in the right place in my life to hear this.’ Or maybe they’ll even realize they need to see if there are resources available that can help them get to a better place. Sometimes, all we need is to know that we are not alone, and that there is help.”