Songwriters in Paradise, a so-far barely-known, exclusive music and wine festival that is coming to Healdsburg for its second year, is a curated experience akin to having a backstage pass where one gets to know the inside stories and jokes.
It’s one of those “you had to be there to understand” kinds of experiences.
Colloquially-known as SIP, the event is the brainchild of Patrick Davis, a singer-songwriter whose songwriting chops include nearly 80 songs recorded by the likes of Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffet and Jewel.
SIP, which limits ticket sales to 150, first started in the Bahamas when Davis invited a bunch of his songwriting friends to join him at a gig. A few would take the stage in a “songwriters in the round” style and take turns telling the stories behind the lyrics of the song they were about to play. “It’s like the Bluebird Café of the West,” Davis said, referring to the music joint in Nashville where stars such as Taylor Swift, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks got noticed.
SIP got the attention of some Napa Valley folks who persuaded Davis to bring it to wine country. Nobody had to twist Davis’ arm. SIP Napa—the most recent in April—and SIP Healdsburg—coming July 19-22—are held at premium wineries where attendees enjoy that winery’s wine paired with food prepared by top-notch local caterers.
The quality of the wine and food is on par with the caliber of artists Davis lines up. He’s got friends in high places. But some of the names of the singer-songwriters may not be household names even to a music aficionado.
Repeat SIPers include Tim Nichols, who is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipient of multiple BMI songwriting awards, including a Grammy for the song “Live Like You Were Dying” that he co-wrote with Tim McGraw, as well as other accolades galore.
Matraca Berg, another Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, performed at her first SIP in April. One of her more famous songs, “Strawberry Wine,” was named Country Music Award Song of the Year for 1997 and nominated for a Grammy, as was her 2007 song, “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.”
SIP Healdsburg’s lineup is equally as impressive as what Nichols and Berg brought to SIP Napa.
Among those on the list is Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame. Another repeat SIPer, Bush has a list of tributes including snagging the Academy of Country Music Awards Top New Duo or Vocal Group in 2006, followed up by winning Top Vocal Duo again in 2009 and 2010, as well as nods for the same title in 2007, 2008 and 2013. Add a couple Grammy wins to that list, too.
Bush calls himself a “Japanese experiment,” thanks to being taught the Suzuki method of music that includes private and group lessons, repetition and listening to a lot of music. He can’t remember not being able to play an instrument.
His individual accomplishments are many and include writing songs for TV, film and musicals. A prolific songwriter, Bush said writing for musicals is “exhausting” and something he never aspired to do. However, he’s on his fifth musical, an adaptation of a Christmas poem.
“Music can do magic that other things can’t do,” Bush said. “I dare you to say your ABCs without singing them.”
Music can set the tone and help guide a storyline for movies and television. Without music, the shows are bland, he said.
Bush gets much of his songwriting inspiration from conversations. It can be from something he hears on television, in a private conversation, while eavesdropping or in a public situation.
One of those times happened while he was having a drink at a lobby bar in a resort. Watching a group arrive and gather at the registration desk, he saw that one couple looked as if they weren’t experienced travelers. Bush surmised this after he saw the man leave his female companion at the registration desk, and what the man did shortly after he departed.
As is common at resorts on large bodies of water, huge windows welcome the view of the ocean and other amenities. The man Bush was watching ran to the window with that particular view, placed his hands on the railing, looked down and exclaimed, “There’s a bar with a pool in it!”
“I wrote that song right there,” Bush said.
Bush has played in large arenas for thousands of fans, just as David Ryan Harris, who has performed with John Mayer, Dave Matthews, Santana and Tedeschi Trucks, for example. Harris is making his second SIP Healdsburg appearance and agrees with Bush about the vibe of intimate SIP venues.
Both said they like the ability to make eye contact with audience members. They also enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. And they like playing with artists they either already know and admire, or someone they have admired and wanted to get to know. The pairing of the artists is something Davis takes to heart. SIP artists are either already his friends, or they are friends of friends. “I have a no assholes in my life rule,” he says.
No artist gets to perform at SIP if they don’t fit the profile, which includes talent and kindness.
Harris is a writer moved by relationships—a recurring topic in his songs—and he has a plethora of genres in which he writes and performs songs. That ranges from R&B to folk, rock, indie and whatever is resonating with him at the moment. “North star” artists for him include Stevie Wonder and Prince, the influence of both present in Harris’ music. But Harris is ever-present in his own pieces, something he said both Wonder and Prince carry through all their work, too.
Joining Harris, Bush and Davis on the stage at SIP Healdsburg are Davis’ bride, Lauren Jenkins, Eric Paslay, John Driskell Hopkins—a founding member of the Zac Brown Band, Marc Bryan—a founding member of Hootie and the Blowfish, James Otto, Chris Gelbuda, Django Walker, and Johnny and Heidi Raye Bulford.
While SIP is a for-profit venture, there is always a charitable element. SIP Napa has donated more than $100,000 to organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena and Calistoga, and the Rutherford Fire Department. Last year’s SIP Healdsburg donated about $50,000 between the Boys & Girls Club there, the Humane Society and the Healdsburg Education Foundation.
SIP Healdsburg will honor Hopkins (“Hop”), who was diagnosed with ALS in 2021, by making a donation to his organization, Hop on a Cure, which is dedicated to research and raising awareness.
Participating wineries include A. Rafanelli and Aperture for VIP nights, as well as Robert Young, Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, Bricoleur and La Crema each hosting a night for performances up to 150 people.
Visit SongwritersInParadise.com for passes and more information.