Park City Songwriter Festival: Music in the mountains, with a side of addiction recovery

Park City Songwriter Festival musicians in recovery
The O.P. Rockwell will be one of the host venues for the Park City Songwriter Festival, which takes place Sept. 13 and 14 in Park City, Utah.

When Ben Anderson pauses for a few minutes and reflects on the path his life has taken, you can almost hear him grinning on the other end of the phone line.

The Ties That Bind UsIt is, after all, a journey that truly defines what so many individuals in recovery come to understand about the nature of a Higher Power — sometimes referred to as God, but always something greater than the fallible individual who comes to believe in one. And that is this: Man plans, and God laughs. A lot of folks may come to such a realization, but many people in recovery become keenly aware that when it comes to the will of a Higher Power, we’re on a need-to-know basis.

After all, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, what other explanation could there be for the path his life has taken, from the courtroom to the Wasatch Back of Utah, where he’s one of the driving forces behind the first-ever Park City Songwriter Festival?

“It feels like my mission in life has all of a sudden gone from being a retired trail lawyer to some kind of an addiction recovery and suicide prevention activist, and at times, therapist or counselor, because that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing,” Anderson said. “God shows his purpose in sometimes the sneakiest and most organic ways. And it’s become part of my journey to communicate to others that they’re not alone; that there is hope; that there are resources out there available; and that there are other artists out there who have gone through what you are going through and who come out the other side and are able to experience the promises of recovery.”

More than just music

north mississippi allstars park city songwriter festival

The North Mississippi Allstars will be one of the Park City Songwriter Festival headliners.

The inaugural Park City Songwriter Festival will take place in the picturesque suburb of Salt Lake City (it’s located roughly 25 miles to the southeast) Sept. 13 and 14, and while the focus is on music, there’s an underlying component of addiction recovery woven throughout the two days of concerts and workshops.

“A good part of the programming at our festival is directed at mental health issues, mental illness and addiction and recovery in the music industry,” Anderson said. “Because of my involvement as a board member of the Send Me a Friend Foundation, and because of my own journey in recovery, we wanted to elevate the discussion of these very real societal issues at our festival and not only bring awareness to them, but also to raise funds for these wonderful initiatives to try to support those in the music industry who face these challenges. A good part of the programming addresses suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse.”

Due in part to his ties to Send Me a Friend — a nonprofit organization that provides a sober support network for touring members of the music industry — the music on tap for the festival is pretty sweet as well. Headliners include singer-songwriter Anders Osborne, who established Send Me a Friend and with whom Anderson runs the recording label Back on Dumaine Records; singer-songwriter Marc Broussard, a Louisiana native who runs in some of the same New Orleans circles as Osborne; harmonica ace John Popper, who fronts the band Blues Traveler; and the North Mississippi Allstars, frequent collaborators of Osborne.

In addition, dozens of additional songwriters will be a part of the festival, including Kent Blazy, Keith Stegall, Even Stevens, Aaron Barker, Kylie Sackley, Chris Wallin, Danny Myrick and Earl Bud Lee. The Park City Songwriter Festival was established by Anderson, fellow Park City resident and business owner Scott Thomson and singer-songwriter Aaron Benward. But the roots of Anderson’s desire to bring a music festival to Park City can be traced back even further, to his pre-recovery love of music.

Born and raised in Tennessee (his family’s roots run deep in the state; the community of Andersonville in northeast Anderson County is tied to the family name, and his direct descendants owned a farm in Union County for many years), Anderson was the son of Bill Anderson, a gospel recording artist. Growing up, the spirit of Southern Baptist tent revivals and the impassioned exhortations of Billy Graham filled the household, and by the time he was 6, Anderson was singing solos on church stages and at Southern Baptist gatherings.

“I grew up in church and around choirs, with my dad leading choirs and being a music minister, but in the sixth grade, I realized you could probably get more girls with rock ‘n’ roll than with gospel,” he said with a laugh.

A recovery journey leads to Park City

park city songwriter festival musicians in recovery

Park City, Utah, is located 25 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

He bought his first bass guitar in 1976 out of a JC Penney catalog, graduated from Gallatin Senior High School in the Nashville area and helped establish the band Aiko in 1984. With a penchant for psychedelia, a love of rock ‘n’ roll and a healthy dose of jammy tendencies, Aiko channeled the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead in equal measure. The friendship at the group’s core has ensured its survival into the present day, even as Anderson completed an undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and went to law school at Pepperdine in Malibu.

After graduation, he moved to Cleveland, and that’s when his own addiction began to spiral out of control, he said.

“After many relapses, it finally stuck with me, on Aug. 10, 2007,” he said. “That’s when I finally surrendered to the addiction and decided to pour myself into full-blown recovery. After that, my professional life took off, and things got better; and my personal life, over time, got better. I repaired my relationship with my kids, and I got remarried.

“I have experienced a lot in recovery, and while it’s not without its challenges and bumps in the road, my life has been abundantly better. I have worked with some world renowned, wonderful intervention specialists and counselors to help friends, family and colleagues get sober through interventions and placement in treatment facilities over the years.”

After retiring from the practice of law in 2017, Anderson and his wife moved to Park City, where he found plenty to keep him busy. Recovery and music put him and Osborne in similar circles, and in addition to his work with Back on Dumaine, he serves as a Send Me a Friend board member. And as the president of the nonprofit Mountain Town Music that organizes more than 400 free concerts in Park City every year, he started working with Thomson, who owns the Rockwell Listening Room and O.P. Rockwell in downtown Park City.

“He’s really interested in helping promote and sponsor Send Me a Friend and even donates a portion of proceeds from certain events we do at his clubs,” Anderson said. “My band, Aiko, is playing a lot more now, and portion of the proceeds when we play goes to support Send Me a Friend as well. When I met Scott, he was immediately on board with helping to raise awareness and funds to help live music acts that are in need of recovery support.”

Anderson met the final festival founder, Benward, at Anderson’s home recording studio about a year ago. As the creator and managing director of a decade-long concert series at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas called “Nashville Unplugged,” Benward was instrumental in bringing in singer-songwriters of a country bend to perform every Friday night for a songwriters-in-the-round style show. His format, combined with Anderson’s passion for recovery and Thomson’s desire to bring more music fans to Park City, led to the festival’s creation.

An intimate experience

park city songwriter festival musicians in recovery

The "Nashville Unplugged" format, created by singer-songwriter Aaron Benward for a regular showcase in Las Vegas, provides a template for the Park City Songwriter Festival.

“We wanted to combine the singer-songwriter format of ‘Nashville Unplugged’ with a festival designed to bring awareness to Send Me a Friend and MusiCares (a nonprofit arm of the Grammys that helps individuals in the music industry receive treatment for mental illness, addiction and alcoholism),” Anderson said. “With Scott, who already has venues on Main Street supporting various events for Send Me a Friend, we just decided, let’s do this. Let’s put on a festival with an intimate environment, utilize five of the venues on Main Street in Park City and do these songwriter sessions in the round.

“There will be three people to a stage, and we will have ‘sober captains,’ at least one of the songwriters on each stage. And as they’re telling the stories behind the songs that they’re performing, they’ll talk about their journey in recovery, discuss the work we are doing at Send Me a Friend and what it’s like to get sober in the music industry. It’s coming together quite nicely.”

To gauge interest, the guys started bringing “Nashville Unplugged” to the Rockwell once a month, and a year ago, Osborne and Luther Dickinson, half of the brothers at the heart of the North Mississippi Allstars, played a Send Me a Friend benefit show in Park City to raise awareness and raise funds for the organization. All the while, his involvement in his own recovery has demonstrated that (a) there’s still a need for activism and (b) people are more willing to talk about it than ever before.

“At my first AA meeting, in 2000, I was scared to death. I hung my head and covered my face, because I recognized some people there!” Anderson said. “Of course, I came to learn how silly that was, given that everyone in the room was also there because of their own addiction of some sort, and that I was not alone in trying to get help.”

That experience led to Anderson’s larger understanding of how addiction and alcoholism affect individuals in the general population, and more specifically those in the music industry, whose lives are undoubtedly affected in some way by addiction and mental illness.

“When I am in a live music environment, either playing in my band or promoting Send Me a Friend or the songwriter festival, I can confidently say to the audience, ‘If I were to ask everybody in this room to raise a hand if they’ve been affected in some way by mental illness and substance abuse, I’m going to bet you, if we’re all being honest, there’s not going to be one hand not going up.’ The fact is, it’s pervasive, it exists and hopefully it’s becoming less and less taboo to talk about mental illness and substance abuse in society at large, and more specifically, in our music community.

“The message is, ‘We are everywhere. You are not alone, and we are here for you. And that’s the third prong of the Park City Songwriter Festival, is to say, ‘OK, there are other people like me, and they’re doing better. There are actually resources that can help me.’ That third prong, that’s the action part, because we’ve got to be there. We’ve got to stand in the gap between their addiction and their recovery and show what we can do to help facilitate them getting help.

“Because we’re just tired, man,” he added. “We’re tired of seeing musicians hang themselves or shoot themselves or die from an overdose. We’re tired of seeing careers ruined by mental illness or substance abuse, and a lot of times, it’s by people who are either scared to reach out or just don’t know how.”

Success beyond dollar signs

park city songwriter festivalFor some of the workshops, the guys are bringing in Harold Owens, the medical director of MusiCares. In addition, Grammy Award-winning songwriter and actor Paul Williams, the president of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and a star with long-term sobriety, will be on hand. The two men will do a Q&A panel, and Osborne will perform a special acoustic set that will combine his music with his story and that of Send Me a Friend.

“A success for us and our festival would be that people leave, both the performers as well as the audience, with a heightened awareness of the resources that are available and the need to address mental illness and substance abuse recovery in our music community,” he said. “A measure of our success, secondly, is that the artists and audience leave with a wonderful, intimate experience of the storytelling behind these songwriters and a newfound appreciation for an intimate relationship with these songs — and the takeaway of how honored we should be to have such amazing singer-songwriters out there creating the music we love.”

Of course, a tertiary goal is to foster additional love for Park City, a town that’s already home to the Sundance Film Festival and provided locations for ski and snowboard events at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The picturesque community, and specifically the downtown area that’s home to the festival’s five venues, is charming enough on its own that a return trip in 2020 should be at the forefront of each festival-goer’s mind as he or she departs, Anderson added.

After all, the organizers themselves are already looking ahead.

“Everything we’re doing is for the current festival, because we don’t know what this one is going to be in terms of success,” he said. “If you’ve noticed, I haven’t mentioned dollars to define what we would consider as a year one ‘success,’ because our ethos involves things of the heart and of action when it comes to both the singer-songwriter as well as to recovery. If it goes well, we can’t wait for 2020. Our goal is to build it so that it only becomes bigger and bolder in the years to come.

“We’ve created a platform in the mountains of Utah for people to come and learn more and share more about their walk in recovery and the stories behind the songs they write, as well as a way to let people enjoy beautiful Park City in the fall.”