A Sweet Spot for Life, Lamb’s Retreat Showcases the Best in the Singer/Songwriter Scene

By Mary Stewart Adams

For the Petoskey News-Review, reprinted by permission.

Like the Great Lake it borders, Northern Michigan is home to some hidden treasures of exceptional value that are worth the effort required to discover them.

One such treasure is John D. Lamb’s Songwriter’s Retreat, which takes place the first two weekends of November each year. Perhaps the most shining jewel of this annual retreat is the staff concert Saturday evening.

Keeping up with the biggest names in the songwriting scene is a devoted task, and so music lovers everywhere can be grateful for John D. Lamb’s generous and discerning taste when it comes to selecting the talent that will adorn the retreat and celebrate the joy of music making at the Saturday concert each weekend.

“I’m an entertainer,” said Lamb in a recent interview during a jam session amongst local and visiting musicians buzzing around for the retreat, “So I want my audiences to have a ‘Variety Show’ type of experience. I select people for my staffs that are well-known in the singer/songwriter scene, and then I choose people who are not so well-known but whom we should be paying attention to, to both introduce new people to the Michigan audience and to introduce these performers to what the Michigan music-making scene is all about.”

Lamb’s main goal is to create a strong presence for the type of music happening in Michigan, both to the delight of local fans and for the national scene. “You hear about the ‘Texas Sound’ or the ‘Seattle Sound.’ There’s a strong thing happening in Michigan music, and it is my main goal to support that and make it known.”

And he’s doing this all in our own backyard.

Lamb came up with the retreat idea in 1995. A native to Michigan, he is also a performer and has played many gigs here in Northern Michigan with his John D. Lamb Band. Lamb was looking to jumpstart his own creativity when he considered how grateful he was for his up-north getaways. “At this time of year, the color season is done, the tourist scene is quiet and there’s a great deal of solitude here that can be an inspiration for artists,” he shared. So, he contacted Jim Gillespie and Kirby, as singer songwriters themselves, and as members of the Blissfest Music Organization, not only for their blessing, but for their participation as well.

The result? Each year Blissfest is a co-sponsor with Lamb’s Springfed Arts Organization for the retreat, the Saturday evening public concert, and for partial scholarships that are made available to talented and deserving songwriters.

It is a testament to the fruitfulness of this relationship that many of the songwriters and performers that Lamb hosts have gone onto perform at Blissfest’s Summer Concert. Lamb’s goal at spreading the mood of the Michigan music scene is furthered by the fact that many of his staff and participants later perform the songs they created while here in the recording studio and around the country as they tour.

“We don’t claim to teach songwriting, we tend to encourage it and raise the sensibility of what songwriting is,” Lamb explained. This unique approach has resulted in an inspiring method that involves some intense creative processing on Lamb’s part. In an oftentimes hilarious ceremony, staff members and participants alike receive sometimes elaborately researched song assignments from Lamb on Friday afternoon, which they then spend the weekend creating. Apart from the Saturday concert, which is open to the public, one of the highlights of the retreat is the Sunday performance of these song assignments, which is not open to the public.

“It is the culmination of the weekend with sometimes 50 or 60 songs. Every participant gets equal attention no matter their performance level. There’s a lot of laughter, sometimes some crying. It’s an intense experience in the midst of a warm community.”

Lamb was quick to note that Frank Shumway of the Birchwood Inn has been a great friend and supporter of this work, gladly hosting the event through all of its years.