The Palm Coast Songwriters Festival kicks off with a free show April 29 and continues through May 2.
It was after a long night of performing cover songs at a Flagler County bar when aspiring songwriter J.R. Ward got a big break. He was scrolling through Twitter, winding down for the night, and he stumbled onto a retweet by Kendell Marvel.
The tweet — an online auction to benefit Ohio Craft Brewers — seemed like an odd thing to promote for Marvel, who has written songs for Chris Stapleton, George Strait and Brothers Osborne. Ward was intrigued, and as he clicked through, he discovered that Marvel had donated a one-hour co-writing session to the online auction.
Ward dreamed big: Imagine co-writing a song with someone like that — someone who had already “made it.” He bid $100, which was the amount of money he had made performing at the bar that night, and he went to bed.
His bid won.
The co-write went better than he could have expected. Marvel suggested during their Zoom session that they brainstorm a song from scratch. Ward, who grew up in Tennessee but moved to Palm Coast about 11 years ago, recalled reading in Billboard magazine a list of all the music venues that had closed for good because of the pandemic, and he thought it would be a good subject for a song.
Marvel immediately began working on a melody, and three hours later, they had the song, called “If This Place Shuts Down.” Ward later had a music video made at The Porch, on Moody Boulevard in Bunnell. Check it out at jrwardmusic.com, or listen to him perform it at 5 p.m. April 29, in European Village, at the free kickoff show to the four-day Palm Coast Songwriters Festival.
With help from another connection in the music business (David Elliott Johnson, who co-wrote the Blake Shelton song “Over”), Ward has recorded several original songs with independent label Organic Vinyl, available also on Spotify.
The first song
Ward will always remember his first song. He got the idea one night in 2017 after performing some country tunes for residents at a memory care facility, he said. One man with Alzheimer's got up in a cowboy hat and started singing and dancing.
Ward didn't find out until a year later who the man was: James Gardner, former president of ITT, the development company that created what became the city of Palm Coast. Gardner's son, Jay Gardner, who is the Flagler County property appraiser, watched his father dance to Ward's music that night.
"It was a great time — one of the happier moments," Jay Gardner recalled.
The experience inspired Ward to write “Ready to Go,” about caregivers. Ward’s own family members have lived with Alzheimer’s, and the song remains one of his most personal. He later saw Jay Gardner at another event and handed him a CD of the song he had written.
"We listened to it in the car and cried all the way home," Jay Gardner recalled. "It was very touching."
The health care company Ward was working for at the time turned it into a feel-good campaign video. Ward was encouraged by feeling like he had made in impact. And he determined that he would keep writing songs that meant something to him.
'A validation feeling'
Ward recently sent his new song, "If This Place Shuts Down," to Kevin Kane, a local disc jockey at Kix Country. Kane encouraged him; he even plays the song on the radio.
“It’s a validation feeling,” Ward said. “We all like our own ideas, but if someone says, ‘I’ll give you air time on my radio station,’ that is a really awesome feeling.”
About the upcoming performance at the Palm Coast Songwriters Festival, Ward says he’s not nervous.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “If I have an engaged audience, then I’m on. I get more self conscious when I’m singing to the back of people’s heads at a bar than I do when I’m singing at their faces. I feel like I’m having a conversation.”
Regardless of whether he makes it big and gets discovered, he’s going to keep singing.
“Some of my best memories are playing music, listening to music,” Ward said. “It’s something we can all agree on: We all can relate to music.”