Island Hopper Songwriters Festival, a Florida-based fest that celebrates the songwriters behind country’s biggest songs, hit the scenic beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel last week for its 6th annual 10-day stretch. Over 80 artists performed, including Kristian Bush, Ashley Ray, Jerrod Niemann, Carly Tefft, Ryan Hurd, Gone West, Stephanie Quayle, and headliner Rodney Atkins.
Island Hopper included many things good festivals should have. Veteran songwriters were paired with bright-eyed new performers, local talent was on full display, an easy-to-use app helped you plan your days, and the multiple venues – many of which were free to attend – made the event accessible and non-intrusive for residents.
However, what made Island Hopper extra special was the fest’s apparent dedication to female country songwriters, many of whom are currently under represented in the industry and have responded by banding together in Nashville, and elsewhere, to make their voices heard.
Sheena Brook, an annual Island Hopper performer, hosted an all-female event in partnership with The F.E.M. Collective. Brook launched F.E.M. (Female Empowering Musicians) at last year’s Island Hopper and has since taken the female-fronted show to venues throughout Florida and Nashville.
“[Island Hopper] has more females than any other festival,” she tells AudioFemme. “[F.E.M.] started with a bunch of my friends from Nashville that I write with and it came from us discussing that there aren’t all the places in the world for us to play because we’re not necessarily being offered spots. It’s a male-driven situation right now, and I wanted to make a space for us.”
While some festival performances can stir competitiveness or stress, Brook’s F.E.M. shows – at Island Hopper and elsewhere – make female songwriters of all different styles and skill levels feel welcome.
“All you have to do is show up and be yourself,” she says.
Brook’s F.E.M. shows and Island Hopper’s inclusiveness are just a part of a wave of response from country’s female songwriters. A major catalyst of the sentiment, the infamous ‘tomato-gate,’ is still inspiring country’s women today.
“A couple of years back, Lucy Collins was here and she was telling the story of the radio guy who told her [that] women in radio – women songwriters – are tomatoes in a salad, you only need a few,” Brook recalled of the 2015 incident. “I think slowly, and I say slowly because we’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of equality, but I think we’re working on it.”
Launching in Nashville, artists have started podcasts, female-run record labels, and showcases like the Song Suffragettes, to carve out a space where they were once told they didn’t belong. There is no end-all solution. The goal for these organizations, like Island Hopper and Brook’s F.E.M., is a snowball effect, rather than a one-size-fits-all.
“There’s so many of us. No one can have one group and everyone feel like they matter,” says Brook. “I really love what they’re doing [in Nashville] and I’m gonna do something, too. There’s room for everyone.”
Brook says she’s already looking forward to returning to next year’s Island Hopper and, of course, hosting her F.E.M. show. The 7th annual festival’s dates have already been announced, landing from September 18-27, 2020.
“[Island Hopper] does a lot of great things for our culture,” says Brook. “That support that they’ve given us, is what it takes to change things.”