Few indeed are the festivals which include, over a mere five days, a former boy band heart-throb, a duo whose songs have been recorded by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Simon & Garfunkel, a Beatles collaborator, two members of a fourteen strong Christian reality TV show family, and more Grammy, Ivor Novello and Oscar winners and nominees than there are ants on a Tennessee ant hill.
But such a festival is the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, which features performances by all of the above – Derek Ryan, Gallagher and Lyle, Gary Burr, Jess and Jeremiah Willis of the Willis Clan and the likes of Stephen Bishop respectively, if you really want to know – and dozens of others.
‘There’s nothing like the Belfast Nashville Festival anywhere in the UK or Ireland,’ proclaims festival director Colin Magee proudly. ‘Usually the artist is the famous person out front and people don’t know the names of the people writing the songs but we wanted to put songwriters centre stage, so we’ve created a festival specially for them.’
The connection with Nashville has a resonance for Magee. ‘The very first European settlers who set up Fort Nashborough [which developed into Nashville] were Donaldsons, Robertsons, Hendersons and so on,’ he says, ‘so the connection has been there since 1780 and Belfast and Nashville are sister cities.
And it really is known as Songwriter Town. Of course the big styles there are country and Americana and we have lots of that in the festival but we also have other styles as well.’
Indeed, as well as performers of country and Americana the festival line-up includes the likes of Don Baker, primarily a blues harmonica and guitar player, Irish traditional band Ulaid, who perform with Hothouse Flowers multi-instrumentalist Liam O Maonlai, James Huish who leads a jazz big band and Anna O’Byrne, who is a singer of songs from musical theatre.
‘It’s all about the quality of the songs,’ explains Magee. ‘That’s the criterion. We’ve got eighty local songwriters and about twenty five coming in from other places and to get to that stage we listened to around three hundred and fifty artists. So it was a tough job choosing but we got there!’
Arguably the biggest names playing during the festival are Gallagher and Lyle who, separately and together, have written for dozens of artists – Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ was a Graham Lyle song – and had several hit records, including ‘I Wanna Stay With You’ and ‘Heart On My Sleeve’, under their own names.
Alongside them is Stephen Bishop, whose songs have been covered by Pavarotti, Eric Clapton and Barbra Streisand, and who has had hit records himself like ‘Save It For A Rainy Day’; and Gary Burr, who has written fourteen number ones on the American country chart and whose songs have been covered by Christina Aguilera, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others.
The festival, appropriately enough, comes under the auspices of Creativity Month 2016 which celebrates creativity – defined as the ability to generate new and novel ideas - in Northern Ireland. ‘Yes, creativity is what the festival is about – we want to encourage people to be more creative and get involved in writing songs,’ asserts Magee.
This encouragement of creativity through the festival’s educational side is for Magee as important as the major concerts. ‘We bring in a lot of people who have had success commercially as songwriters and they share their skills in the music conference that we do every year as part of the festival,’ he says.
‘For instance, Gary Burr, along with other writers, is going to teach songwriting at the convention this year. Somebody like that has a lot of experience and a lot of skills to share and that sharing is right at the heart of what we do.’
The 12th United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival and Convention is featured as part of #CreativityMonth 2016 and runs from March 2 - 6. View the full Creativity Month programme at www.creativityni.org/events. For full festival listings and ticket booking visit www.belfastnashville.com.
Information is available from www.belfastnashville.com