The power of song has been a driving force for lifelong musician Ben Anderson, founder of the Park City Song Summit (PCSS), since he was a kid growing up in Gallatin, Tennessee.
The self-professed “ham” remembers happily tagging along with his Southern Baptist father, a gospel recording artist who served as the church choir director, to various religious revivals around the state — from small gatherings in “nowhere, Tennessee” to large-scale Billy Graham “crusades.”
But it wasn’t the sermons that had Ben mesmerized.
“The music would start, and everybody would grab their hymnals and start to sing, and that’s when — even the little lady behind me who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, that was her way to express herself through her voice and her heart,” he recalls. “It was that music experience in the church, that collective group consciousness of something bigger than themselves, that really instilled something in me to want to perform, to want to get that interaction — that biochemical reaction that happens between the stage and the audience.”
He was in a band by middle school and played with the same guys through high school. While studying at Vanderbilt University in the ’80s, he joined his second band — a Grateful Dead-inspired jam band named Aiko that still plays to this day.
Ben still approaches music with the wonderment of his younger self. His latest brainchild, the PCSS, kicking off Sept. 7-10, is the result of more than two years of dreaming, creating, and fine tuning.
“What is it about three-and-a-half minutes that can cause you to go home and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to put on that Etta James song. I want to hear that Norah Jones song, that Bonnie Raitt song, that Allman Brothers song,’” says Ben. “What is it about song that just grabs hold of us and won’t let go?”
Ben has a theory.
“It’s the song itself, propelling the audience and the artist ever closer,” he says. “It’s that intersection between spirituality and beats, notes and words, and that intersection right there is the power and myth of song — whether it’s gospel, country, rap, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, Americana. To me, that’s the crux of something that is so incredibly special yet mythical that it can actually change lives. It can get us through our hardest times. It’s used to celebrate our best times.”
And it’s the very core of the PCSS, which Ben describes as his “love letter to the power of song.” Part TED Talk, part “masterclass for song,” the four-day summit offers an ambitious mix of live performances and thoughtful discussions, called Summit Labs, that pull back the curtain on songwriters’ creative processes. The lineup boasts a host of celebrated musicians including Jason Isbell, Mavis Staples, Andrew Bird, Margo Price, Father John Misty, Celisse, Fred Armisen, Josh Ritter, and Warren Haynes.
“It’s like seeing someone come up with the idea of building the pyramids and then actually building them,” says Ben, who moved to Park City with his wife, Paige, in 2015. “What kind of mind can go there? I think that there’s a spirituality to that.”
Along with exploring and illuminating the alchemy that turns beats and words magically into song, the PCSS also provides a safe space to examine the struggles and breakthroughs that music industry professionals experience while chasing their creative pursuits. The darker side of the industry is something Ben is all too familiar with, having battled his own life-shattering addiction to alcohol.
“It cost me a marriage, it cost me a home, it cost me my job with my former partners at my law firm, and it almost cost me my life,” recalls Ben, who spent 30 years as a successful trial lawyer. “And so, I had to really make a decision like, am I going to just die as an addict?”
This August, Ben will celebrate 15 years of sobriety. He credits the 12-step program, unwavering sponsors, loving family and friends, and a forgiving God — but knows his story is neither singular nor terribly special. It is, however, an opportunity.
“I have been very, very, very blessed to be on a journey in which now I can hopefully inspire others and provide resources for others, because that’s service. And for people that are on the planet of addiction, we can give ourselves a chance if we help others,” he says. “The Song Summit is a way for me and those who support me and love me and are part of my team, to embrace the passion of recovery through the platform of song and the platform of music.”
To that end, Ben is particularly excited about the Summit Labs, which are designed to not only address all things music, but to create an environment of inclusivity that promotes the discussion of mental health, substance recovery, representation, and social equity. That supportive environment will include a sober green-room space, guided yoga and meditation, daily 12-step meetings, and craft mocktails.
In addition to approaching sensitive topics within some Summit Labs, PCSS also is partnering with local and national nonprofit organizations that specialize in mental health, addiction recovery, and suicide prevention. In the Park City community, local nonprofits include Communities That Care, Jewish Family Service, Summit County Clubhouse, Peace House, and more, all of which comprise the Park City Community Foundation’s Mental Wellness Alliance.
The live performance component will comprise two series — early and late — across Park City music venues, with surprise collaborations for those lucky enough to be on hand.
Early live shows make up nine acts over the three days and feature Gov’t Mule, Father John Misty, Josh Ritter, Celisse, Bonny Light Horseman, Anders Osborne & Friends, and more. Late live shows taking place along Park City’s historic Main Street include Katie Pruitt, Tré Burt, David Ramirez, Devon Gilfillian Langhorne Slim, John Doe, Cedric Burnside, Uwade, Joe Pug, Daniel Donato, and more.
Another unique aspect of PCSS are the Songwriter Rounds, which are set to happen twice daily on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The three-hour Songwriter Rounds include two rounds consisting of three songwriters.
“We want to create those once-in-a-lifetime moments,” says Ben. “Just like the Grateful Dead, they never played the same song the same way, right? Because each moment in time was a chance to recreate it at that moment. And that’s what we want to create — moments like that.”
The PCSS offers several ticketing and pass options. The Summit Pass includes access to three days of more than 30 Summit Labs, entrance to evening performances, a PCSS merchandise bundle, and lodging discounts. The enhanced Summit+ Pass includes an opening night celebration with a four-course dinner and a private performance by Jason Isbell and Adia Victoria at The Lodge at Blue Sky, premium seating for early live shows, access to an exclusive Summit+ Lounge, and a personal concierge for restaurant reservations and activity recommendations.
“We are excited to be finally making our way to Park City Song Summit,” said musical participants Rising Appalachia in a statement to PCStyle Magazine. “We have been inspired by their format for years and are looking forward to being a part of the world-folk music represented at the summit.”
They continued, “We’re also looking forward to sitting at the table in dialogue around some of the more pressing social and cultural themes of our times. The Labs are something we can’t wait to participate in, as the public service component of our work as performers and song catchers feels very true to our own path. It is always such a pleasure to share the stage with other thinkers and pickers alike. Long live the power of song.”