It all starts with a song, as some musicians like to say, and it’s Texas songwriters — an ad hoc group called the Traveling Red River Songwriters — who kick off a busy music weekend at the Waco Hippodrome on Thursday night.
The Red River that describes the five songwriters coming to Waco is a resort town in New Mexico, not Texas, where a songwriters’ festival is held in late January.
That festival began eight years ago and to drum up interest in it, the founding songwriters went on the road the November before, said Walt Wilkins, one of those songwriters.
The festival now sells out, but the November tour carried its own momentum. Now, most of the original performers on that continue it. This year’s lineup features Wilkins, Drew Kennedy, Susan Gibson, Kelley Mickwee and Josh Grider.
“I’m the ‘old man’,” laughed Wilkins, speaking by phone from Austin where he and his family live. “Drew Kennedy is our leader, but he doesn’t want to be called that.”
The tour makes its Waco debut Thursday night and it’s a bit of a homecoming for two of the players. Wilkins lived in Waco and taught at Baylor University in the 1980s while in graduate studies for English and film. Grider (“Lone Star Highway,” “Summer And Sixteen”) got bit by the country music bug while a Baylor student in the late 1990s and started with the band Riverside. (Waco-Red River connections continue next year when Jaimee Harris appears at the 2019 festival.)
The traveling songwriters are well-known in Texas and Americana circles for their considerable writing and musical chops. Wilkins, with roughly 100 songs recorded by other musicians, is considered if not a dean of Texas songwriting, then an assistant one. He balances coast-to-coast touring with his alt-country band the Mystiqueros with recording production, overseeing eight albums recorded last year.
Kennedy and Grider, both in New Braunfels, have recorded eight albums each “At Home in the Big Lonesome” the latest for Kennedy, “Good People” and a new single “People Do” for Grider. Mickwee, a former The Trishas singer and songwriter, currently serves as lead singer for the popular Austin band Shinyribs. Susan Gibson (“Wide Open Spaces”) frequently leads songwriting workshops and clinics across the state.
“Between the five of us, we’ve made a lot of records,” noted Wilkins.
The songwriters shape their distinctive songwriting voices around an Americana core — country for Grider, storytelling and emotion for Wilkins, pop with literate lyrics for Kennedy, rhythm-and-blues for Mickwee and country folk for Gibson — that allows them to mix and mingle.
“It’s a song swap, but not your typical song swap. We all know each other’s music and we play on each other’s songs,” he said. “It gets lively.”
Full music weekend
Thursday night kicks off a full weekend of concerts in Waco. Grammy Award-winning pop singer, songwriter and author Amy Grant, a leading star in contemporary Christian music of the 1980s and 1990s, heads a Restoration Gateway benefit Monday night at Antioch Community Church. The Backyard hosts Texas country veteran Tracy Byrd on Friday and Sam Riggs, whose fans tally Spotify plays in the millions and a half-million YouTube views, on Saturday night.
Opera singer Marjorie Williams comes back to her alma mater for a Friday night concert at Baylor’s Jones Concert Hall. Soul and hip-hop singer Bigg Robb entertains a Club Junction 84 crowd on Friday while Common Grounds offers a three-night concert run of Christian hip-hop singer Derek Minor on Thursday, a return of Americana duo Penny & Sparrow on Friday and the Nashville fivesome Birdtalker on Tuesday.