Songwriters in Paradise

Words by Sheri Baer

Photos by Edward Zuraw

Words by Sheri Baer

It’s just this side of midnight on a Wednesday in Napa Valley. Shadows flicker on the cozy front porch of St. Helena’s Harvest Inn, cast by twinkle lights and fire pit flames. “Because I’m in love with you, I want to see you dance again…” The lilting voice of singer-songwriter Lauren Jenkins carries into the air, accompanied on guitar and vocals by her husband, singer-songwriter Patrick Davis. “Because I’m still in love with you on this Harvest Moon…” croons back Patrick, as guests relax into glasses of wine and sway to the Neil Young classic transformed into a spine-tingling serenade.
The setting is Songwriters in Paradise—SIP, for short. And this after-hours gathering isn’t even the main attraction. Over the course of a long weekend, an immersive celebration of music, wine, food and friendship unfolds, anchored by intimate, private performances at acclaimed Napa wineries. Patrick, SIP’s founder and mastermind, has written songs for the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Darius Rucker, Jewel and Alabama, as well as performs with his own band, Patrick Davis and the Midnight Choir.

Raised in a musical family in South Carolina, Patrick moved to Nashville in his early 20s, where “in the round” shows are embedded in the culture. At hundreds of small venues, including the legendary Bluebird Cafe, a handful of songwriters take the stage together to swap songs and tell stories. “In country and pop music, probably less than half of the songs are written by the actual performer who sings the song,” estimates Patrick. “This lends itself to really getting into the details of why a song was written—you actually hear the genesis of the idea.”

Years later, after bringing along some songwriting pals to a show in the Bahamas, Patrick recognized the rarity of “Bluebird-style” performances. That led to launching Songwriters in Paradise, an annual festival series that expanded out from the Bahamas to include Napa, Sonoma and Cabo San Lucas. “People already love these places,” he notes. “We’re just giving them an excuse to go there.”

With only 150 passes, SIP is the antithesis of a sold-out stadium show. “My idea with SIP is to make it super exclusive, super intimate,” Patrick says. “It’s a higher ticket price, but that’s what lends itself to the beauty of the entire experience. You are really a part of it.”

Self-servingly, Patrick admits, SIP also offers the chance to make music and have fun with his friends. “I’ve been in Nashville for 20+ years, and it’s just my little black book of all my buddies,” he grins. “We feel so grateful to be together, and that camaraderie ties into what you feel when you’re with us.” Which begs the question, do you have to be a diehard country music fan to fully appreciate SIP? “It’s not just country,” Patrick stresses. “Sure, Tim Nichols is gonna play you huge country hits, but this is Americana, so the overall thing is just really good music.”

And wine, of course. In Napa Valley, rotating hosts include Silver Oak, Alpha Omega, Brasswood Cellars and Charles Krug. With the Harvest Inn serving as official home base, shuttles pull up to transport guests to each evening’s venue, where hearty appetizers and libations await. On this particular night at Frank Family Vineyards, attendees and songwriters intermingle around high-top tables, relishing wood-fired pizzas, tasty sliders and a selection of wines by the glass. Then the party moves into Frank Family’s majestic Barrel Room for two rounds of performances.

Once the music starts, utter respect is paid to the songwriters on stage. “The music is really what drives it,” emphasizes Patrick, who kicks off the evening with Jedd Hughes and Chris Gelbuda. “Not everybody’s gonna want to be shushed if they talk. It’s for people who expect the best from their music and the best from their wine.”

As each artist takes the spotlight, there’s storytelling, ribbing, laughter, reflections. What cumulatively emerges is a snapshot of a songwriter’s life. “The odds of being successful in this business are like being an NFL quarterback,” observes Patrick in a pause between songs. His longtime friend Jedd nods: “You’ve got to love the music business to do this.”
The second set brings Tim Nichols, Django Walker and James Otto to the stage. “You think you know where your song is going to go, and like kids, they just go their own way,” quips Tim, before launching into “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” his megahit song made famous by Jo Dee Messina.

After the performances wrap up, shuttle buses retrace the route back to the Harvest Inn. Set amid towering redwood trees with vineyard views, the enchanting resort tightly partners with SIP Napa. There’s no requirement to stay here, but as Patrick points out, “It’s gonna really elevate your experience when you’re running into the same people at breakfast that you saw at two in the morning on the porch.”

Speaking of which, as more wine is served and nibbles laid out, the now fully-blended group settles in by the fire pits. Guitars get passed around, setting the scene for SIP’s epic late-night porch parties. Patrick says he can almost hear what guests are thinking: “This is crazy. These guys are actually hanging out and playing songs and drinking with us after the show.”

It’s a good ol’ singalong with an impromptu playlist. Elton John. Bob Dylan. Van Morrison. John Denver. Describes Patrick, “We can go, ‘American Pie’? I think I remember it. I haven’t played it in 20 years. All right, let’s do it.’”
Sure enough, singer-songwriter-actor Charles Esten (Deacon Claybourne from TV’s Nashville series) is the one to start strumming. “A long, long time ago…” he begins, and by the time he reaches the chorus, everyone is singing, “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie…”

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