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South Walton’s Music Scene: Go Backstage with 5 Local Music Makers

In the past two decades, South Walton has quietly — or rather, not so quietly — expanded and established its reputation as a live music destination. Today, our beach neighborhoods draw artists and fans from across the country. We spoke with five local industry experts to learn more about the ongoing evolution of the South Walton music scene.

Hear what Tom King of Central Square Records, Forrest Williams of the Forrest Williams Band/Williams’ Backyard Boogie, Russell Carter of 30A Songwriters Festival/Cultural Arts Alliance, Donnie Sundal of the Boukou Groove band and Tommy Jackson, music industry insider, have to say about music in our beach neighborhoods.

How would you describe the sound of South Walton?

Tom King: Laid-back and eclectic. All styles of music are served here.

Forrest Williams: People like to keep it small-town and organic here… there’s a feel-good vibe, because people are down here enjoying themselves.

Donnie Sundal: If I had to pick one sound to describe South Walton, I’d say it’s like a backyard barbecue party with friends and family. Everyone is comfortable and having a good time.

Russell Carter: The vibe is unique because it’s so authentic.

Russell Carter and Jennifer Steele with songwriter Leon Russell
30A Songwriters Festival Producers Russell Carter and Jennifer Steele with songwriter Leon Russell.

How has the South Walton music scene evolved over the years?

Donnie Sundal: In the 20 years that I’ve been here, I’ve watched the music scene grow from something that was very small in the community to becoming a focal point in the community. Before, the music scene was limited… artists had to restrict themselves to playing cover songs. Today, the South Walton audience supports — and actually seems to prefer — that artists be original. South Walton is a place where original music can flourish.

Donnie Sundal of Boukou Groove band
Donnie Sundal of the Boukou Groove band.

Tommy Jackson: My brother Tim [Tim Jackson, songwriter] moved down here in 1985… he, along with songwriters like Greg Barnhill, was one of the first major players in the music industry that started coming to the area. Later, events like the 30A Songwriters Festival brought in a higher level of musicianship.

Forrest Williams: The amount of support for the arts just keeps growing — from the community as well as from the artists. Whenever I meet new artists, I tell them to stay true to their vision, whatever it may be, and it will carry them through. Because everyone supports each other down here.

Tom King: It’s changed a lot. If you walked into a South Walton bar or restaurant 20 years ago, you’d only hear “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Margaritaville” — and though there’s nothing wrong with that, it sets expectations that aren’t true. With events like the 30A Songwriters Festival, people have been exposed to more original music, and a wider variety of music. Now, we have people in the industry coming down here from Nashville.

Tom King and Edward Jack
Central Square Records store owner Tom King (left) and store manager Edward Jack (right).

What about South Walton is inspiring to you or the artists you work with?

Forrest Williams: A lot of songwriting comes from personal life and love experiences — and this area offers a lot of space for reflection of that kind. I personally like being out by the Choctawhatchee River, among all of the wildlife.

Russell Carter: The artists we book for the 30A Songwriters Festival love it here. Many of them have never been to South Walton, but as soon as they get down here they have such a good time. Almost every artist we’ve worked with has contacted me to see if they can play again in next year’s festival.

Tom King: Live music is my inspiration… and the live music offerings in the area have definitely increased over the years. Also, I’m inspired by travel. As much as I like to get away, I also love coming back to South Walton after being out of town and feeling right back at home.

Donnie Sundal: The beaches and beauty of this area have been used as a source of inspiration to artists for years — people will tell you that South Walton has a natural energy. For me, I also find inspiration from my audiences. Many visitors are from places like Atlanta and Nashville, which makes me feel like I’m playing in a major city.

Tommy Jackson: The South Walton community. Their respect and love for the arts is second to none. Also, the surroundings here naturally attract artists… the beauty of this area is like a backdrop for creativity. Places like our writers’ retreat offer songwriters a place to come, write and have the type of experiences that inspire them. When they leave, they feel inspired and challenged to a new level.

Tommy Jackson and Tim Jackson
Music industry expert Tommy Jackson (right) and his brother, songwriter Tim Jackson (left).

What does the future of South Walton sound like?

Russell Carter: I think that the growth of the music scene is going to continue. We’re getting to the point where we’re booking the best and most influential singer/songwriters from the last 50 years at the 30A Songwriters Festival. We’ve hit a peak and we want to maintain it.

Donnie Sundal: The future of South Walton’s music scene looks great. We’ve opened the door to an explosion of young talent and people are paving their own way and pursuing their passions. I see things continuing in that direction, with more original and eclectic sounds coming from the area.

Tom King: More and more bands are choosing to come to South Walton to play. Before, not many artists had heard of us — but now, they’re stopping to play a show or two on their way through to other cities in the Southeast.

Tommy Jackson: There are some incredibly talented local musicians, and a lot of young talent coming through South Walton. This place is in the embryonic stage of being discovered as a true music destination.

Forrest Williams: I think that South Walton is on the brink of having its own distinct vibe, like jazz is to New Orleans or reggae is to the Caribbean. I’m already amazed at some of the cool sounds and innovation I’m seeing from other artists in the area.

Forrest Williams and Pherrel Williams
Musician Forrest Williams with his wife and band partner, Pherrel Williams.

 

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