Behind the Music with Scott Womer and Song City
From Albany’s music scene to the pulsating heart of Nashville’s Bluebird Café and back home again to The Ruck in Troy, Scott Womer’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of music. With his eyes set on capturing the essence of songwriting across genres and nurturing a thriving artistic community, Scott brought Song City to life. Rooted in his experiences in Nashville, this initiative offers a unique stage for diverse songwriters in the Capital Region. Join us as we take a dive deep into Scott’s vision, the impact of Song City, and what the future holds for this music sanctuary.
Jim Gilbert: Your journey from Albany to Nashville is truly captivating. How has your time in Nashville, especially your experiences at The Bluebird Café, shaped the essence and foundation of Song City?
Scott Womer: In 1995, I moved from Albany to Nashville in hopes of getting more music opportunities. Many of my local musician friends had moved there before me, hoping to make it big, only to realize it’s not that easy. It’s a humbling experience to move from a small music scene to one of the premier music cities of the world, where there are thousands of people doing what you do and doing it much better. Having seen that happen multiple times, I decided to alter my goals and instead look for opportunities to learn. Over the next five years, I had tremendous experiences working at a record label, doing session work, learning to write, forming a band, and recording an EP.
The greatest thing I learned in Nashville was the power of a song. Beyond techniques, abilities, and trends, the song is what changes lives. Much of this lesson happened at a venue called The Bluebird Cafe. A staple in Nashville, the Bluebird featured weekly showcases featuring four local songwriters, mostly known for their writing of songs by all our favorite country stars. This is also the venue where artists such as Taylor Swift and Keith Urban were discovered. Although I found the intimacy of the venue and the stories of the writers completely captivating, I honestly found myself bored fairly quickly. The weakness of the Bluebird, at that point in their history, was that they were a single-genre showcase. Not only does that lack in variety, more importantly, it conditions the audience to think that this is the only style of songwriting. At the time, I had no idea how that observation would affect my future.
Years later, when I moved to Troy and was so energized by the talent and variety of the local music scene, I felt compelled to do whatever I could to help it grow. After writing and recording a project under the name Fenton Hardy during Covid, I realized how important it is to be part of an artistic city. Community is at the heart of every effective movement. So I took what I had experienced at the Bluebird and expanded it to include all genres. Some of our greatest writers are hip-hop artists, jazz artists, alternative and avant-garde artists, and they deserve a place at the table. This not only creates respect for all styles of songwriting but expands the audience’s experience and musical taste.
JG: The atmosphere at The Ruck seems reminiscent of The Bluebird Café, with its rustic and intimate vibe. Were you consciously looking for a similar ambiance, or did it just naturally fit with Song City’s ethos?
SW: Our home at the Ruck is integral to the success of Song City. I’d love to say that this was all part of my brilliant plan, but it wasn’t. I had been searching the city for a couple of years, trying to find the perfect venue for my vision. With an extremely small budget and a partially imagined plan, nothing felt right. One day, Dave Gardell, owner of my neighborhood bar, The Ruck, contacted me about bringing music back to their venue. Pre-Covid, the Ruck was known for great music, including singer-songwriters, blues, cover bands, and DJs. Dave felt strongly it was time to reclaim that. They were interested in concerts and an open mic and asked me to run those events. What I didn’t know was that there is a second and third floor to the Ruck that was beautiful and fairly unused. I instantly realized this was the room I was looking for. I’m so thankful to Dave and his staff for humoring me and my unproven vision and giving me the space to launch my showcase.
The Capital Region loves to name their cities, usually based on its history. I began to dream of a time when Troy and the surrounding cities would be known for incredible music and, specifically, unmatched songwriters. I wanted a name that sounded like it had been around forever, much in the same way that many cities have historic comedy clubs, with an audience crowded into an upstairs room above the bar. Energy. Community. Talent. That’s the real magic of Song City.
JG: Considering the unpredictable nature of live events, as demonstrated by the snowed-out month (or fears of COVID), how do you manage challenges and maintain the momentum for Song City?
SW: The wonderful thing about a format like Song City is that it’s always changing. So you naturally want to come back each month to see who’s performing. And because we are multi-genre, you never know what you’re going to get. We already have a few artists booked for this season that are genres you’ve never seen in a traditional song circle format. (Obvious teaser). And with all the amazing writers we have in the 518, the artist list keeps growing!
JG: The Capital Region boasts a plethora of talented musicians and artists. How do you curate your line-up to ensure diversity and quality in each session of Song City?
SW: Curating each month’s lineup is the best part of my job! I always liken it to preparing a meal. Finding artists that complement each other and yet maintain their diversity. That diversity and community also comes out during the impromptu conversations that happen amongst the writers between songs. One of my favorite moments of Season One was in Episode 6 (April), when Adirondack-based indie-folk artist Joseph Biss and local hip-hop artist Ohzhe dialogued about what folk music is and the possibility of them collaborating on a project.
JG: Can you share a memorable story or anecdote from one of the Song City nights that epitomizes the spirit of the event?
SW: There are so many moments that stand out. Episode 1, with Caity Gallagher, the Song City OG, starting the night and setting a standard and atmosphere that has been there ever since. Multiple nights where instrumental and experimental artists like Sophia Vastek, Conner Armbruster, Sam Torres, and Ben Seretan, showed clearly why you don’t need lyrics to be a captivating songwriter. The night the magical songstress Belle Skinner took on the job of host, as she asked songwriting questions of each of her fellow writers. The perfect harmonies of The Sea The Sea, Caitlin Barker (Candy Ambulance) standing in the middle of a sold-out crowd, with just her ethereal voice and her Gibson Flying V, Katie Martucci humoring me by spontaneously singing the song she wrote on the Jimmy Fallon show, (should I continue?), Reese Fulmer ending the night by including all four artists and the audience, in a final song, brilliant hip hop artist Amani O+ introducing twerking to the song circle format, and finally the pure passion and skill of Sawyer Fredericks, closing the two season finale shows in June. And that’s just a handful of amazing moments in Season One. I guarantee that will continue with all the upcoming seasons!
JG: With the growing popularity of Song City and tickets selling out rapidly, do you have any plans for expansion or hosting it more frequently?
SW: Currently, we are sticking with one sold-out show a month at 7 p.m., with double shows as season openers and finales. I imagine we will soon move to two shows every month. I love the electricity of the full crowd and don’t plan on moving anytime soon.
JG: “Song Challenge” is such a unique and engaging concept. How did you come up with this idea, and have any particular phrases or song outcomes stood out to you?
SW: The “Song Challenge” at each month’s Open Floor has become the major draw for each of these evenings. On the first day of each month, I post a phrase. The writers then have the rest of the month to write a song using that phrase and perform it at The Open Floor on the fourth Tuesday of each month. The idea began with some writer friends in Nashville, who have a song club made up of people all over the country. They choose a phrase, and the writers create a song and send it in. It’s then posted for the rest of the club to hear. It is in no way a competition for us. It’s purely a motivational tool to keep us consistently writing. The second half of each Open Floor is a time for everyone who wrote for the challenge to play their song for each other. It’s amazing to see how many ways a phrase can be used. I write a song myself every month for the challenge, and it’s significantly improved my songwriting.
JG: The Open Floor is designed to be more community-centric and efficient. What led you to this structure, and how do you think it impacts the performers and audience?
SW: The Open Floor began simply as a monthly open mic. But I admit, I’m horrible at doing anything without creating a community out of it. I don’t need a chance to go play a song and leave. I want to be part of a group that meets consistently, feels comfortable experimenting in their writing, encourages each other, collaborates with each other, stays the whole night because they want to see each other play, and then stays even later to have a drink and talk about songwriting. That’s what I want as a writer, and based on the full room we have each month, it seems to be meeting a need!
JG: As someone deeply entrenched in the music scene of Troy and the wider Capital Region, where do you see the future of local music heading?
SW: I am incredibly excited about the future. We are starting to hit our stride. Not only do we have more local musicians, but the variety and creativity of local music is at an all-time high, and not stopping. The amount of collaborations is amazing. Musicians working with painters and photographers, filmmakers, and graphic designers. Festivals like yours. Multi-artist performances like the beautiful Joni Mitchell tribute in Cohoes, places like No Fun and Jive Hive, and many more. It’s an exciting time to be a musician.
My hope is for more venues. More opportunities for artists to record at an affordable price. I’d like to see artists represented and protected by some form of affordable management. I think they feel out on their own, trying to afford to live off the craft and struggling with venues that double-book, don’t pay well, don’t market the shows, etc. The artists need more support so they can be free to create. I believe the future is bright for the local music community.
JG: After the success of Song City’s inaugural season, what can attendees anticipate for season two, and how do you envision the growth and evolution of Song City in the coming years?
SW: The first half of Season Two is fully booked and is amazing! My list continues to grow with artists I would love to see on the floor each month. The Open Floor is becoming a real family of artists. I would love to see more genres, instrumentalists, hip-hop artists, and poets come out. I’d like to see us move into more collaborations as we create. I look forward to seeing albums being released by local artists with Song Challenge songs on there! In the coming year, I’d like to see more educational programs available for songwriters and musicians, and are currently working with our good friends at the Troy Music Hall on some ways to see that happen. I believe in the coming year, podcasts will become a tool we use to communicate, educate, and create more community. We have only begun!
JG: Can you briefly describe the upcoming Songwriters Retreat at Silver Bay, where the idea came from, and the response from the local music community?
SW: I’ll be honest, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I think it’s a game-changer for us. Getting away with other writers is the epitome of community (Are you seeing a trend here yet? Haha). The cottage is on Lake George, on the YMCA Silver Bay property. They’ve been wonderful! Writers are currently applying, and the response is great. So many types of writers have applied. R&B, indie-pop, alt-rock, folk, Broadway-ish, just brilliant writers with a variety of experience. Ultimately, we will pick 10. The days will be a combination of individual writing, collaborations, daily walks, amazing food provided by some of our favorite restaurants, breweries, and coffee roasters, and nightly gatherings around the fireplace sharing our songs. We will be discussing Rick Rubin’s brilliant book “The Creative Act” and using some of his techniques to change how we normally write. We will also have a small demo studio and engineer in-house to capture the new songs. We hope to do 2-3 retreats a year.
To conclude, we still have tickets available for both the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows for Song City’s Season Opener on September 12, featuring Girl Blue, Buggy Jive, Peter Annello, and Hold On Honeys. Tickets are $15 and can be found at www.songcitytroy.com.
You still have time to apply for the Ink Songwriter Retreat, which will take place on Nov. 7-10. The retreat cost is $125, and there is financial aid if needed. Info and applications for this are also on our website.
The Open Floor meets on the 4th Tuesday of every month, 8 p.m., at The Ruck. And is open to all writers and listeners.
Lastly, Song City would not be possible without SO much support from the community. The Ruck, Troy Music Hall, Organ Colossal, Anthony Cubbage, Troy BID, and a special thanks to NYSCA and The Art Center for the Capital Region for supporting us with a Community Arts Grant, which helps us fund these programs.
Scott Womer’s journey from the humble stages of Albany to the bustling songwriting scene in Nashville and back to Troy paints a vivid tapestry of passion, tenacity, and an unwavering belief in the power of community. Through Song City, Scott has masterfully woven the heartbeats of diverse artists into a symphony that transcends genres and uplifts the collective spirit of the Capital Region. His commitment to the craft and his dedication to providing a platform for all artists are testament to the changing landscape of music in the region. As we anticipate the harmonious melodies of Song City’s upcoming season, it is clear that this innovative venture has set the stage for an enriching and inclusive musical future. So, whether you’re an aspiring songwriter or an ardent music aficionado, Song City’s embrace is wide and welcoming. Here’s to the stories yet to be told and the songs yet to be sung.