Love festivals? Consider Alabama


The sand’s fluffier, whiter and finer than in Texas.

A merry few thousand of us at last fall’s Oyster Cook Off and Craft Beer Weekend were, appropriately enough, drinking beer and eating oysters. Nobody got unruly, music emanated from a stage, and the sun was shining in a harmless, 80-degree way.

As an Austinite from the land of festivals, I was pleased to find here, on the white-sand Gulf of Mexico beach, a fall festival that was laid-back, accessible (parking! There was parking!) and not huge. I highly recommend it to Austinites looking for a gathering that’s not at all what we’re used to.

Stick around. This beer-and-oyster festival is followed by the 11-day Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival at venues all over this 32-mile-long seaside area. Alabama has your music, rest assured. And if you buy a ticket to a show, you will get in.

If you’ve never been to Alabama’s little coast, here’s a primer: The condo towers are higher than in Texas. The sand’s fluffier, whiter and finer than in Texas. Most of the visitors stay in condos and beach houses. There really aren’t a lot of hotels. The food’s great, with more than 200 restaurants. You’ll find competently fried stuff, but also refined, high-end food. The people? They’re really nice, but you might want to avoid talking politics if you’re of the usual Austin persuasion.

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The official drink of Gulf Shores is the Bushwacker, chocolate liqueur and ice cream with coffee and coconut, although each bar has its own version.

The Hangout is a huge indoor-outdoor bar and the home of the beer and oyster fest. Nearby, you’ll find parking lots. Park your car, buy your ticket in the short line, go inside and join a short line for a taste of craft beer.

Your $40 ticket technically includes unlimited sampling, but I’m told, “State law limits you to 40 samples.” Common sense should, as well. Among other things, your taste buds can’t tell Budweiser from a top-notch Trimtab IPA by then. At the oyster cookoff (a different enclosure, but you can mill back and forth), you can buy a full can of the stuff to carry around and drink with your oysters. Or choose a bloody mary or plastic cup of wine.

The drill at the oyster fest: While listening to music (Buffett songs prevail), stroll through Banana Boat-scented air and sample oysters prepared in myriad ways. Chefs compete in the categories of raw, grilled, Cajun, barbecued and Rockefeller. But others go afield: One oyster was covered in kimchi. Another had sauteed onions and Gouda. Pork rinds. You name it.

At the height of the oyster fest, the longest line was only 30 people long, and most were only four to six people. Longest line: Wolf Bay Lodge in nearby Orange Beach. Getting in the line, I asked a fellow stander why it was so long.

“They put ’em in cones and stuff.” (For the benefit of those not born in the South: “and stuff” is punctuation.) OK. I tried the grilled oyster tucked into a wontonlike cone. Pretty tasty.

Later that night — after a considerable nap — my friends and I departed for the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival, which showcases country, rock, gospel and blues. Both veteran and aspiring songwriters appear. Many of the events are free, but some include a nominal cover charge — maybe $5 to $15. There’s nothing expensive.

The fest’s venues are all over the local map, but we headed for Flora-Bama, a rambling, multiple-stage bar on the Alabama-Florida state line (technically in Pensacola, Fla., but both states claim it). Frank Brown was a night watchman at Flora-Bama for 28 years, long enough to get a songwriters festival named after him.

The main room was packed tighter than a tick. We managed to sit on the floor, and I sipped a Bushwacker while Sonny Throckmorton made his way through “Trying to Love Two Women.” He stopped twice, once to holler at his capo and a second time to ask that his guitar level get kicked up.

“I do know the words,” he noted to those who might think otherwise. “I wrote it.”

Next up: Bruce Channel, singing his hit, “Hey Baby,” with a lot of help from the crowd.

From there, we walked into a second-story venue where we managed to grab stools and peer down through a bra-strewn clothesline to watch two full-throated, middle-aged, well-fed Southern white boys sing about how hard it is to be a full-throated, middle-aged, well-fed Southern white boys.

Finally, we walked down to a big rocking room full of tipsy dancers boogieing to a band I didn’t recognize playing “Money for Nothing.” I was asked to dance by a guy roughly half my age. Talk about your dire straits. I told him I was good, managing to resist the urge to ask him where his mama was. This was apparently the party room, so we headed back into the rooms designed for listening.

Etiquette in those: no talking, no walking. No talking during the music, like the policy at Nashville’s Bluebird Café, but less seriously enforced here. The no-going-to-the-bathroom thing, however, is quite strictly enforced. Take your trips between numbers unless you want a serious glowering and chiding along the way.

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