A Utah Music Festival Is Prioritizing Mental Health and Booking Artists From Chuck D to Bob Weir

2023 Park City Song Summit - Day 12 - Credit: Erika Goldring*
2023 Park City Song Summit - Day 12 - Credit: Erika Goldring*

Under a starry western sky last weekend, Park City Song Summit founder Ben Anderson stood onstage and held court in front of an audience of creatives.

“We’re going to change the legacy and culture of music on this mountain,” Anderson howled into the evening chill, his voice echoing far and wide into the surrounding high-desert peaks of Utah. Then he dove headlong into a rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

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Ivan Neville, Eric Krasno, and Anders Osborne all joined Anderson for the tribute, along with a slew of other acts who partook in the second-annual gathering. Park City Song Summit is a unique music festival that regards mental health and physical wellness as highly as the music being made, via in-depth conversations and “labs” in which the featured artists discuss the often universal stories behind their songs.

“How about we flip the script on everything and say the most important thing [about musicians] is who they are as humans?” Anderson poses to Rolling Stone. “If you’ll hear who they are, then, as humans, you’ll know that you are protecting them. You’re protecting the American canon of music, which is our artists.”

The 2023 installment of the gathering showcased an array of artists from various disciplines: Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros., Celisse, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Adia Victoria, Matisyahu, Chuck D, Joy Oladokun, Grandmaster Flash, Lukas Nelson, Danielle Ponder, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Devon Gilfillian, Paul Janeway, and JD Souther were all in Park City.

“This is the new way that festivals should be run and supported. Artists should be supported in a way that helps us protect our mental health,” Gilfillian says. “Being in this industry requires a lot of balance. You dive deep into your emotions, that you pull your creativity from. But you can’t fall too deep into that — self-care is number one.”

Depression, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse have sadly been part of the music industry since its inception. It’s often due to the constant stress and pressures of writing, recording, and touring, a cycle that seems to endlessly repeat. There’s also the lingering, unaddressed or unresolved personal traumas that led to the creation of the art in the first place.

“These people have lives and they have their own mental health struggles,” Anderson says. “Substance struggles, trauma struggles, struggles with social justice, struggles being a female in a particular genre, troubles from being in the LGBTQIA+ community — I’ve decided to plant a flag on a different hill and focus on artist wellness.”

In 2019, it was the tragic deaths of guitar hero Neal Casal and jam-grass fixture Jeff Austin, and the shutdown of live music due to the pandemic, that became a catalyst for this current conversation. It sparked a dialogue for positive, tangible change when it comes to what’s expected from artists, both onstage and on the road.

Park City Song Summit takes place at The Forum on September 7, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Erika Goldring Photo)
Eric Krasno with King Canyon, onstage at the Park City Song Summit.

“Neal was a close friend and I was with him the day before he died. I played a set with him at Lockn’ [festival],” Krasno says. “I never thought in a million years that the next day he was taking his own life — that was a wake-up call.”

A prolific artist who is constantly involved in some collaboration or the next, Krasno is well-aware of the trials and temptations that can hamper, or even endanger, an artist while on the road.

“As a touring musician, learning how to make health a priority is still something I’m figuring out,” Krasno says. “But you also have to be pretty vulnerable to kind of ask those questions and reach out for help.”

Krasno was also on hand for the unveiling of his rock & soul ensemble King Canyon. Formed during the shutdown, it came together by happenstance and necessity — artists needing to create and commune, and doing so over Zoom. The band’s first live gig was during the Song Summit at O.P. Rockwell’s in downtown Park City.

“[Collaboration] is what I’m all about. I grew up listening to so many different styles of music and I’m one of those types of people that has fun changing it up all the time,” Krasno. “It’s not easy to get up at five in the morning, catch a flight, play a show, then do it all over again. But it’s those peak moments of a show that keep us going.”

Appearing at the Canyons Villages Amphitheater in Park City, the New York R&B/soul singer Danielle Ponder erupted across the dormant ski slopes, closing her set with an operatic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.

“I’m channeling the human story, the thing everyone can experience at some point in their life,” Ponder says of covering the 1992 hit, a song that dovetails with the message of the Song Summit. “It’s this feeling of wanting to know if you’re doing the right thing, wanting to really understand what you’re here for.

Before she was a singer, Ponder was a lawyer and left a stable career in pursuit of the stage. She talks about reflecting honesty in her music and in her listeners, no matter how painful it may be.

“I don’t want to lose myself in my art and I don’t want to pretend that ‘I’m great and everything is OK.’ That’s a dangerous game to play,” Ponder says. “We spend so much time pretending and it could be a much more loving and empathetic world if we all admit the things we’re struggling with.”

Ponder’s sentiments lie at the foundation of what the Park City Song Summit aims to conjure, create, promote, and perpetuate. It’s the realization that no matter how empty the hotel room may feel after the packed-out gig, you’re not alone in this universe.

“If you want to keep the music coming and you want [artists] to give their best self,” Anderson says, “show them more love so that they can love more.”

The Park City Song Summit will return Sept. 5 through 7th, 2024.

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