Singing His Praises

Words used to just roll off of Sandy Lee Watkins’ tongue. The man who often referred to himself as “husky petite” also was known for touting that “there’s no place like 42420,” the Zip code for Henderson, Ky. When the longtime Judge-executive died unexpectedly on Aug. 28, 2010, at age 58, the response was immediate. Residents called him “funny,” “talented,” and “a consummate politician.” But most of all, they declared him missed.

The 2013 Sandy Lee Watkins Songwriters Festival, planned for July 31-Aug. 3 in Henderson, is dedicated to Watkins’ memory. And it’s a fitting tribute to the man who used to attend songwriters festivals throughout the country, analyzing and studying song lyrics and the stories behind the tunes he loved so well.

“He was one of those people that the minute you meet him, you feel like you’ve been friends with him your whole life,” says Kerry Kurt Phillips, a Henderson native who has been called one of America’s favorite songwriters. Phillips now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and has written songs that have been nominated for Grammy Awards. His songs have been featured in movies, on television, and in Super Bowl commercials. Some of his biggest hits include “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” by George Jones, “Is It Cold In Here” by Joe Diffie, and “Down On the Farm” by Tim McGraw.

“After being in this career for almost 30 years, I’ve learned that people listen differently,” Phillips says. “Some people listen on the surface, so to speak, and other people listen deeper and try to get to the emotion that the writer was trying to get across. It’s just taken in different ways, and (Sandy) was one of those guys who really took it to heart and loved how a song could take you on a journey to some place you remember or some place you’ve never been.”

The Sandy Lee Watkins Songwriters Festival aims to do those same things and more by allowing songwriters from all over the United States to tell the stories behind their songs. What began as a two-day start-up event in 2010 and 2011 has turned into a four-day festival featuring songwriters like Phillips, Steve Williams, and Tony Arata. Williams wrote “Redneck Yacht Club,” recorded by Craig Morgan, and Arata wrote “The Dance,” recorded by Garth Brooks. A total of 26 songwriters were scheduled to perform at the festival as of late May.

The festival will benefit RiverBend Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a school of visual and performing arts that also is a 501(c)3 organization. Phillips says the proceeds from the songwriting festival will go to the academy for scholarships for people to learn how to play a new instrument. The academy also offers acting, dance, and culinary classes.

Meanwhile, the festival also will offer a second annual songwriting competition, the winner of which will receive a prize package provided by the Songwriting Competition Sponsors.

Participants may purchase an All-Access Pass for $125, a Lanyard Party Pass for $75, or individual tickets for $5 and $25 to enjoy the music, fun, and stories from songwriters.

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