PARK CITY, Utah. — Ben Anderson’s retirement did not go as planned. Which may end up being the best thing to happen around here since Robert Redford’s last big idea.
After a 30-year career as a trial lawyer, Anderson and his wife Paige moved to Park City from Cleveland in 2015 planning to enjoy typical retiree fun: skiing, golfing, fishing, hiking. Somehow – it’s hard to trace precisely when things deviated from the plan, but it’s very much related to a lifelong love of guitar – he wound up founding what he initially called the Park City Songwriters Festival in 2019 – a gathering of local and national musicians, award-winning songwriters, and people offering fellowship and support to those struggling with substance abuse, addiction and mental health challenges.
The result was a unique, extremely personal experience for audiences and performers alike – a fitting vibe for an industry whose creative souls oftentimes battle dueling demons of celebrity and addiction.
“I’ve had a wonderful and very fortunate life as a result of making some very tough decisions about my life and my lifestyle,” said Anderson, who has been sober for 13 and a half years. “When I needed help, somebody stood in the gap. It’s a privilege to give back.”
Spotlighting the art and craft of songwriting and performance while providing a platform for mental health discussions, and offering community and hope for those in recovery, turned out to be both personally rewarding and commercially viable for Anderson. Then the pandemic hit, and ideas for next steps got a chance to simmer on the back burner known as 2020. The pot is bubbling now. This fall, Anderson and his team will present the Park City Song Summit, a rebranded and vastly expanded version of what went down in 2019.
What in 2019 spanned two days and five venues, and brought luminaries including the North Mississippi Allstars, John Popper and Rita Wilson to town, has grown: The Park City Song Summit will run Sept. 8-12 and will fill 14 venues, from Main Street to Deer Valley and The Canyons to Blue Sky Ranch.
The event was renamed, Anderson said, as “festival” has become a bit of an f-word, at least around his office.
“We are not a music festival,” he said. “Arguably the country doesn’t need any more music festivals. We are redefining the live music experience by providing this environment for musicians and creatives to share, learn, and recharge their passion for music and creative arts through community and the power of song.”
The lineup of performers, to be announced this spring, is tentatively set, and is an astonishing, lengthy roster of A-list artists from a handful of genres. Music lovers of all stripes can safely begin salivating now.
Anderson expects to sell between 5,000 and 7,000 tickets. But the Song Summit is more than multiple days of jaw-dropping live music. It’s also a peer-to-peer experience, expanding on the now-traditional format of performances on multiple stages to include components more common at TED and South by Southwest conferences. Expect live podcasts, informal events, and many, many interactive labs that will allow participants to get up close and personal with presenters.
“There’s a lab about John Prine,” Anderson said. “A lab about painting. A lab on songwriting. A lab on poetry writing. A lab on the history of rhythm. A lab on (remade film) A Star is Born and its writers being interviewed by its producer. A mental health/recovery lab as it relates to artistic expression.”
Anderson said summit-goers can expect to find industry heavyweights both onstage and next to them in audiences. But star power aside, this is an event locals can embrace, whether as fans, musicians, or seekers of support through the difficulties of recovery. Anderson said that mental health and addiction speakers will “recognize the struggle and highlight the potential for breakthrough – it’s really important to not just discuss the dark side, but also the hope and resources.”
Local benefits will likely be multi-faceted: The Song Summit seems poised to provide a direly needed infusion of capital into the beleaguered hospitality industry as well. The plans and goals are, of course, dependent on health department guidance.
“Like a lot of other people, we’re standing around with our fingers crossed,” Anderson said of planning during a pandemic. But his vision transcends a single year’s challenges. “We want this to be a place where artists can come (annually) right after Labor Day to fish, golf, hike, bike, enjoy our mountains and trails and streams, breathe our mountain air. Come to this magical place. Park City is a sanctuary, a respite. It’s a vacation for mind body and soul.”
So much for retirement.
“I’ve never had more fun working in my life,” said Anderson. “It’s a dream come true for a lot of different reasons. Music was always my first love.”