When the 8th annual Island Hopper Songwriter Festival wrapped up in Fort Myers Beach, Florida on Sunday, September 25, no one knew the devastation that would happen to the Fort Myers islands, beaches, and neighborhoods just three days later. Hurricane Ian made landfall as a category 4 hurricane on Wednesday, September 28, causing catastrophic damage to several southwest Florida communities, especially to Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.
BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and iHeartMedia Fort Myers have formed Songwriters for Southwest Florida, an Island Hopper Songwriter Fest relief concert benefiting hospitality workers in Lee County, Florida. From hotel front desk managers to restaurant employees, tour operators, housekeepers and others, a massive amount of help is needed to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs for the local tourism industry. Contributions to the Support Fort Myers Hospitality Workers Relief Fund will directly support hospitality workers in Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel & Captiva Islands, Pine Island, Matlacha, Boca Grande and the outer islands, Fort Myers, North Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Estero, Cape Coral, Alva, Buckingham and Lehigh Acres.
The benefit concert will be held at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville, Tennessee on November 2nd at 7:00 pm. Tickets are on sale now at 3rdandlindsley.com with 100% of the proceeds going to the Fort Myers Hospitality Workers relief fund. The event will stream live in partnership with Volume at volume.com/3rdandlindsley. To claim your free ticket, go to https://volume.com/t/8Nb4Uh/.
The event will feature BMI songwriters who have performed at the festival since its inception, including Aaron Barker, Kristian Bush of Sugarland, Sheena Brook, Brooke Eden, Tim James, Paul McDonald, Frank Myers, Danny Myrick, Maggie Rose, Stephanie Quayle, Maia Sharp and more.
“BMI has been a proud sponsor of the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest since the beginning,” says Dan Spears, BMI’s VP of Industry Relations in a press release. “The festival has always given our songwriters amazing venues to showcase their music and connect with fans. In response to the hurricane, many BMI songwriters came forward, offering to do what they do best- bringing people together through music. We’re hoping to raise enough to give back to those hospitality workers in Lee County who have welcomed us over the last eight years.”
There is also an online auction with items signed by Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, HARDY, Leslie Jordan, LOCASH, Frank Myers, and more. To bid on the auction items, visit www.songwritersforswfl.com, and to make online donations to the fund, go to www.visitfortmyers.com.
One of the concert’s performers is a resident of Fort Myers Beach who lost everything in the hurricane. The Voice alum Sheena Brook talked to Country Now about her harrowing experience and her gratitude for the songwriting community who continues to help her recover from the catastrophe.
Like many southwest Floridians, Brook and her family were taken off guard by the track of Hurricane Ian. They had decided to stay and asked their neighbor if they could ride out the storm at their house.
“Thank God we did, ‘cause we watched our house go completely under water,” says Brook. “We thought her roof was gonna come off. There was a gas leak at one point. There were just so many things and reasons why we didn’t think we were gonna make it.”
Throughout that terrifying experience, Brook was texting with fellow Island Hopper songwriter Megan Linville Myrick, who tried desperately to get help for Brook’s family.
“Nothing makes you feel more loved than someone really saying, I don’t want you to die. I’m gonna fight for you when you don’t think you can fight,” says Brook. “And that’s what I felt from her.”
Even in the midst of her own struggles, Brook was helping neighbors during the storm. “We watched his house come off of the pilings and start to turn into the water. Somehow he and his tenant swam over to us,” she recalls. “He got his dog and rescued his tenant an hour later with hypothermia. So we’re sitting on his feet and covering him in blankets, so he doesn’t die.”
The trauma of that day makes it difficult for Brook to recall everything that happened. “The power went out at 10, so we didn’t know that the storm had shifted closer to us. It sat on us for about eight hours. We hid in the closet… there’s so much more to this, it’s so hard to tell.”
Brook’s friend Sarah Kemlage was with Brook and her wife Summer Stockton throughout the ordeal, filming the experience and editing together a documentary.
“To come out of that and see our home just completely destroyed,” says Brook, trailing off with a sad pause. “It was recently condemned so we don’t have it. It’s standing, but it isn’t livable or salvageable and it’s just devastating. That’s our whole life at home that we’ve built our life into. And we built, just nine months ago, finished an apartment for her parents ‘cause they needed a place to land. It all washed away, but we are trying to hang on day by day and just move forward.”
Brook played a large role in the 2022 Island Hopper Songwriter Fest, including hosting a Golf Cart Karaoke series with guests including Kristian Bush of Sugarland.
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That was a full circle moment for Brook, who opened for Bush during her first Island Hopper Songwriter Fest nearly eight years ago. Since then, she has curated multiple songwriters rounds throughout the festival, including the F.E.M. (Female Empowering Musicians) Kickoff Party, an LGBTQ round, a women’s round, and a Late Night Jam.
“If you look at the roster from the first year to now, it’s a really inclusive group,” says Brook, who hosted a Pride round for the first time this year. “I wanna show our community that we belong and we have something really positive to share. And it was a huge success.”
Even after the festival ended, the Island Hopper community has united to help one of their own.
“My family and I have lost absolutely everything and it’s not the government or FEMA or big companies that are helping us survive,” says Brook. “It’s individual people, whether it be the songwriting community in Nashville who has really overflowed with support with us or our communities, our neighbors.”
Brook’s friend Myrick set up a GoFundMe for her family, which has helped tremendously. “You don’t realize how quickly the money goes when you have nothing and you need shoes on your feet,” says Brook. “People have sent us clothes, they’ve given us gas so we can get back and forth to the beach, which is a nightmare… people and songwriters too, they’ve been donating to our GoFundMe and raised so much money for us.” She added, “It’s individual people looking out for us and saying, I care about you. I’m so glad you’re alive. Here’s something to help you get back on your feet. And honestly, I don’t know that we could keep going without that. And just feeling so loved.”
Country Now attended the last three days of the 2022 Island Hopper Songwriter Fest, a 10-day event that featured 80 songwriters who performed in over 100 shows at dozens of venues on Captiva Island, Downtown Fort Myers, and Fort Myers Beach. With the exception of the final headlining concert, all festival events were free for attendees. Originally curated by the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau to draw visitors to the area during the off-season, the festival attracts locals and out-of-towners alike to enjoy the intimate performances.
Closing out this year’s festival was Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts, who played poolside at the Pink Shell Resort with a full band to a packed crowd of energetic fans.
LeVox performed mostly Rascal Flatts’ hits for a little more than an hour, including songs he penned like “Fast Cars and Freedom” and the perfect soundtrack for a concert at the beach, “Summer Nights.” The Flatts lead singer also treated fans to his latest single as a solo artist, “Down Like That,” written by Thomas Rhett, HARDY, Ashley Gorley, and Jesse Frasure.
“When I first heard ‘Get Down Like That,’ I was like man, I’ve gotta cut that,” LeVox told the crowd. “I always like to help out new songwriters… you know, Thomas Rhett is a co-writer. Yeah, Thomas is struggling, bless his heart,” LeVox laughed.
Among the 80 other songwriters who performed during the festival was Kayley Bishop, a first-time Island Hopper artist. Bishop’s mentor Dale Dodson connected her to the executive leadership at BMI, who invited her to perform at this year’s festival. She arrived in Fort Myers Beach for the final weekend of the event, performing four different rounds from Friday through Sunday. For Bishop, the music was an avenue to her ultimate goal – connecting with people.
“For me, the priority is people,” Bishop tells Country Now. She says it would be easy to be secluded and just show up for her performances, but that she wouldn’t be taking full advantage of the opportunity. “I know that there’s really talented people here, really wonderful people here that I wanna form relationships with. Plus I just like people.”
Bishop describes Island Hopper Songwriter Fest as a working vacation. “It’s the joy of my heart to get up and play songs, so it’s not like work for me. I love it. And honestly it makes my vacation that much more sweet, because people see me on stage, then they’ll come up to me afterwards or they’ll see me walking around and then we’ll have great conversations. It’s so much more interactive that way.”
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The intimate environment of the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest is conducive to forming special bonds between fans and songwriters throughout the 10-day event and from year to year. Fans from San Francisco, California to Sevierville, Tennessee who have attended for several years say that it’s common to run into the performing songwriters on the streets, beaches, and at other songwriter rounds during the festival.
In addition to the performances, festival attendees had several dining options throughout the quaint beach town. Country Now enjoyed local seafood dishes and specialty cocktails during the weekend at restaurants including Matanza’s on the Bay, Blue Giraffe, Tipsy Turtle, The Whale, Bongo’s, Doc Ford’s, and Shucker’s. The numerous waterfront dining options in the Fort Myers area offer a laid-back atmosphere with a tropical flare.
Country Now also explored the delightful beaches, islands, and neighborhoods of Fort Myers, including a tour of the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island and a guided kayaking tour in Lovers Key. Wildlife abounds in the small-town paradise, from manatees swimming up to your kayak or unique migratory birds flying throughout Ding Darling.
The hospitality of the Fort Myers community felt like family and now, that family needs help.
“That city is devastated beyond repair and places that we love and we grew up going are flattened and gone,” says Sheena Brook. “There’s no way to get that back without a really broad range of support. The bartenders and the people that have waited on us as songwriters and been a part of the Island Hopper… and we want them to feel like, hey, you’re not alone.”
The Support Fort Myers Hospitality Workers Relief Fund is helping those employees with their short-term and long-term needs. To make online donations to the fund and for updates on the Fort Myers community’s road to recovery following the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Ian, go to www.visitfortmyers.com.
Next year’s Island Hopper Songwriter Fest is currently scheduled for September 22 through October 1, 2023.