Seafood festival plans November return

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They bounced back after a hurricane but couldn’t avoid the sucker punch of the coronavirus pandemic.

But in 2021, one year after the Florida Seafood Festival was shut down for the first time in its nearly 60-year history, it will be back again, alive and well in Apalachicola, Nov. 5, 6 and 7, for the 58th annual affair.

“Just like everything else, you have to take the days as they come,” said John Solomon, president of the 12-member volunteer board of directors. “We’ll keep a close eye on everything.”

Despite a recent surge in summertime COVID-19 infections, no one is expecting there will be any lockdowns or crowd limitations, as there was last year, when the only event remaining on the schedule was a symbolic Blessing of the Fleet at Riverfront Park on Friday afternoon, the traditional start of the three-day festival.

What the festival organizers are hoping for is a warm reception for a comparatively unknown, but highly regarded songwriter, who is branching out from gospel to make it in Nashville as a performing artist.

Drew Parker, originally from Covington, Georgia. will take the stage Saturday, Nov. 6 as the festival headliner, not long after another comparatively young performer, EMI Records Nashville’s Kylie Morgan, performs a 90-minute set, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

And those two top performers will follow a local appearance by Franklin County’s own homegrown Ashley Carroll, who now performs as the leader of the Ashley Morgan Band. She’ll take the stage for a one-hour set beginning at about 5 p.m., and deliver a performance that may remind locals of the tiny Brown Elementary School singer who once belted out the National Anthem at Veterans Day shows, and who now, together with her bandmate and fiancé, bass player Adam Carswell, is rocking the music scene in and around where they live in Montgomery, Alabama.

“I’m hoping one day we say she’s our opening act,” Solomon said. “I’d love to have a local be our headliner.”

The poised young high school beauty who will reign over the festival, Miss Florida Seafood Festival, is expected to be selected at a pageant at the Chapman Auditorium later this month. She could be from anywhere in the county, just like Ashley Morgan’s mother, the former Link McWhinnie, was when in 1989 she became one of the first queens to hail from Carrabelle. Solomon said in light of the cancellation last year, pageant organizers are considering allowing members of the Class of 2021 to take part his year.

As is typically the case, Christian music will be featured on the main stage on Friday afternoon, the day in which the $5 admission fee is waived.

On Saturday morning, right about the same time, at 10 a.m., when the gates at Battery Park are swinging open, the giant parade will weave its way down U.S. 98, once again raining beads and candy down on the spectators lining the streets.

Later that afternoon, the traditional oyster shucking and oyster eating contests will be back, with the shucking featuring a return by the 2019 winner, Honor Allen, from Hunt’s Oyster Bar in Panama City. Allen went on to take the U.S. National Shucking Championship in St. Mary’s County, Maryland at a competition held virtually last year.

Solomon said he anticipates attendance could be back to the roughly 20,000 average for the festival pre-pandemic.

He said rebounding from the pandemic changed the whole dynamic of finding a suitable country artist, with many acts not available due to being committed to other venues as soon as the lockdowns were lifted.

While Parker and Morgan are not household names, like a Travis Tritt who performed a few years back, they are highly regarded, up-and-coming, and could be the sort of surprise that a skyrocketing Lee Brice brought to the festival not too many years ago.

In Nashville’s famous songwriting community, the talent runs deep, and there’s no shortage of hopeful artists looking to find themselves a “lane.” But with one of the most potent, identifiable styles in the business, Drew Parker knows exactly what he’s about – and country fans already love it. Some just don’t know it yet.

Signed with Warner Music Nashville, Parker got his start singing gospel, and has the awards to prove his mastery of that. Educated as an X-ray technician, he moved from pizza and beer joints near his hometown, to a publishing deal he signed four years ago, with RiverHouse/WarnerChappell. He is a co-writer on Luke Combs’ debut platinum record “This Ones For You,” and Jake Owen’s single “Homemade” which became a #1 last year. Songs like “1,2 Many,” (featuring Brooks & Dunn), “Forever After All,” “Nothing Like You” and “Lonely One” helped define the historic start to Combs’ career.

Parker released a stand-alone single in 2016 (“Slow Down Small Town”), and a four-song collection followed in 2018, and then in 2020, he released an extended play recording “While You’re Gone.”

A native of Newcastle, Oklahoma, singer-songwriter Kylie Morgan released her music independently in her early teens, and at age 16, was named “Who New To Watch” by the Country Music Association. She moved to Nashville when she turned 19, and the SMACKSongs team signed her to their roster. She has toured with artists including Dan + Shay, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Gavin DeGraw, Brett Eldredge and Billy Currington, and this year is opening for Jon Pardi, Kip Moore, Devin Dawson, Lady Antebellum, Carly Pearce, and more. Kylie is also in the studio working on her debut album.

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