Mackinac Island Songwriters Workshop 2014

Mackinac Island Songwriters Workshop LogoAbout a month or so ago, I got an event invitation through Facebook that intrigued me. I’d never heard of the Mackinac Island Songwriters Workshop before, and, as it turned out, that was because this would be the inaugural affair, to be held on the weekend of October 16-19, at the Murray Hotel on Mackinac Island. The workshop is the brainchild of Emmy Award-winning Michigan songwriters Pete Kehoe and Michelle Chenard, both of whom live in Petoskey, MI, and often work together. I had shared the stage with Pete at a “Songwriters in the Round” in Midland, MI about a year and a half ago, and met Michelle last summer, so I was familiar with their solid credentials.

While snooping around on the event page, I noticed that there was a contest being offered. All one had to do to be eligible to win a free, all-inclusive admission to the activities was to post a video of an original song. Remembering what a fine time I had at Above the Bridge Songwriters Weekend in 2013, I figured, what the hell, it’s worth a shot, so I posted Larry Wolf’s video of “In My Element,” recorded at Songwriters Anonymous Showcase in 2013.

Guess what? I won.

After my initial burst of elation wore off, I took a look at who some of the other attendees would be, and saw that one of them was one of my oldest, dearest friends, Charlie Walmsley. Charlie and I go back to 1965, when we met during 8th grade, and have been playing music together on and off ever since, so we were quite pleased to be sharing this adventure together. On the day before the start of the workshop, I drove to his home near Mt. Pleasant, and after a delicious evening of wine, food and singing, we set out the next day for Mackinac Island, which I had neither visited nor played music at in 35 years or so.

After checking into the delightfully quaint and well preserved Murray Hotel, we retired to our respective rooms to rest and refresh ourselves, before reconvening in the basement conference room for the 7 PM Meet & Greet. Besides Pete and Michelle (pictured below in Harmonie Ponder’s shot of them performing on Friday evening), the other workshop staffers included Jamie-Sue Seal (whom I knew from Above the Bridge 2013), web and social media guru Harmonie Ponder, Michael Crittenden and Kimber Cleveland; Julianne Ankley would join us on Saturday. Workshop attendees included Charlie, Nelson Olstrom, Peter van Howe, Ken Blackwell and yours truly. It was a smaller group than the organizers had hoped for, but, as it turned out, made for a much more intimate experience for everyone involved. After Pete and Michelle made some welcoming remarks and folks began to mingle, I pulled out my trusty 12-string and harps, and before you could say “The cooler smells like kim-chi,” we were all trading original songs and having a great time. We couldn’t have asked for a finer start to the festivities.

Michelle Chenard & Pete Kehoe

Workshops started in earnest at 10 AM Friday morning, and ran until 3:30 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. Subject matter included rebooting from writers block, arranging for song demos and basics in marketing yourself as a performer. All were very informative, and while the setting was relaxed and intimate, I would submit that we were all ready for the hour and forty-five minute break before dinner, which consisted of a nice home-style lasagna, green beans and garlic bread, provided by the hotel kitchen. After dinner, we all returned to our rooms to get gussied up for “Friday Night Live” at the Draught House.

The Draught House is a new bar right down the road on Main Street. It’s adjacent to Mary’s Bistro and both are owned by the same folks who own and operate The Island House. They have a boatload of craft beer taps, many of which are devoted to fine Michigan selections. Pete and Michelle had arranged for us to stage an “Open Mic” of sorts, with the workshop participants, staff and attendees alike, getting up to sing and play their original songs. Pete and Michelle got things started with a rousing five song set. This was my first time hearing Ms. Chenard perform live, and she and Kehoe make a terrific duo.

I followed their set with five songs of my own, and after me, the others all got up and played at least a couple of tunes, with the exception of Ken, who, while being a very fine percussionist, is just starting down the slippery slope of songwriting. (I also accompanied Jamie-Sue on guitar for her two songs.) Everyone was in very fine form, and our music was greeted with great gusto by the tavern patrons. It was an exhilarating night, to say the least, and the Short’s IPA on draught was Huma-Lupa-(Dee)Licious!

Saturday’s schedule included three workshops, involving various aspects of songwriting, including collaborations and shopping songs to publishers and, for me, one of the most valuable sessions of the weekend, Harmonie’s sound advice on how to use web sites and social media to maximum advantage. More than one person in attendance exclaimed that her session alone was worth the price of admission.

After dinner (Murray Hotel’s comfy roasted chicken, potatoes and broccoli), I took an hour or so to return to my room and catch up on my singing and playing. When I grabbed a bottle of French red wine and headed back down to the conference room, I discovered that a song critique session had spontaneously broken out. Michelle, Julianne, Michael and Kimber were on hand to add suggestions, and Charlie, Nelson, Peter, Ken and I all took full advantage, but this wasn’t just a case of staff “mentoring” students, because everyone was adding thoughts and ideas on each other’s songs, underscoring Pete’s statement that we were all there to learn together. My only reservations about the weekend up to that point had been that there were no song critiques scheduled, but things just naturally worked themselves out to satisfy what I think is an important and essential aspect of a retreat such as this.

Sunday morning, we reconvened in the conference room after breakfast to share final thoughts and hear one song inspired by the weekend, written by Charlie about “Lucky Jimmy,” the old gent that spent the better part of every day parked on a bench in the hotel lobby, reading, snoozing and chatting with anyone who stopped to exchange pleasantries. It’s a sweet little song, and we were all tickled by it. Afterwards, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the dock, where we were ferried back the Mackinac City to claim our vehicles and head back to our various homes.

A wonderful time was indeed had by all. I came back from the island with plenty more than I went there with. The Mackinac Island workshops are focused and informative, with plenty of interplay between everyone in the room. As stated previously, I think that the organizers would do well to add a song critique component to next year’s agenda, but otherwise, they did an excellent job with making this first-time seminar so stimulating and enjoyable. Who knows? I may just go back next year, depending on my performing and/or recording schedule, and I would highly recommend this event to songwriters of all levels. You’ll learn a lot, discover new ideas on how to write, record and shop your songs and meet others of the same mind, all in a no-pressure environment. What’s more, you get to do it on Mackinac Island, during the month that many say is their favorite there, October.

That sure works for me.



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"In the best traditions of folk music, George’s songs evoke personal experiences and historical events, and George certainly has had some experiences, let me tell you. But the experiences of which he sings so truthfully here, while almost mundane when taken literally, are made to seem so much more meaningful, so much more heartfelt in his hands and within his voice. These arrangements are as near to the folk tradition as one could hope, are exactly all that’s necessary for each song, and when accompaniment and backing vocals are used, they feature David Mosher on several traditional instruments, as well as Bill Arnold on dobro, providing simple support to George’s already ample foundations." —Michael O'Brien, Open Mike


And George Heritier from Oak Park shared his clever songwriting, cool and entertaining lyrics and hot guitar/harmonica riffs. He got the best round of applause for the whole festival! I am a huge fan of acoustic blues and folk music and George is one of the best I have heard. I would make it a point to go see him ANY time he plays, it will be well worth the effort! —John P. Bayerl, PhD - SeMi