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Three musicians talk about their craft
August 14, 2019

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Music is one of those ethereal things that everyone loves in some form or fashion. It evokes emotion, memories, and dreams. We talked to some of the Beach's local musicians and asked them about their experiences with the beach.

Shawn Russell, Matt Freed, and George Lewis have given their life to music and share some insights.

How did you decide music was going to be your day-to-day?

Russell: I decided that music was going to be my day-to-day job basically after I went on vacation to visit my sister in Cape Coral. I had previously only performed in band settings and, typically, I was only able to get work Thursday Friday Saturday, I mean if we were lucky we play on Sunday somewhere. I immediately noticed the abundance of solo acoustic performers, and I had been interested in guitar looping for some time. I made it my mission to move to Florida and begin work on my looping techniques, and really digging in I was able to secure enough work to survive. Now I am blessed with an abundance of solo gigs thanks to the great community here Southwest Florida.

Freed: I worked at a psychiatric hospital for years, and one day a couple of the patients were asking for music, which is an approved form of therapy, so I brought my guitar in and started playing for a couple of the residents. It came to a head really when one of the patients demanded I sing, which I wasn't totally comfy with, but I did anyway. The biggest influence was my grandfather. He went into the hospital for a really long time and kept telling me I needed to stop making excuses and pick my guitar back up so he wrote me a couple songs and I put them to music. I got to perform "GongHo" for him before he passed and that was the end of it, I knew I had to get back into music full on. I still get chills playing that song live, that one and "Annie" are so powerful and close to my heart.

Lewis: I've been playing music since I was in my twenties, which was a long time ago. It's been part of me for so long I don't rightly know if I could do much else nearly as well. I've loved it my whole life though, and I try to help out anyone that needs it.

How was your start on the Beach? What difficulties did you have breaking onto the scene?

Russell: I have to give credit where credit is due. Tom Houghton at La Ola Surfside restaurant on Time Square gave me a break, let me play during Pirate Fest. I remember how nervous I was and how he told me that I could dress up as a pirate if I wanted to; lol. I stopped by Party City and picked up an eyepatch and away I went. Also my good friend Bob Tabarrini gave me a break letting me play at the Lani Kai at the Sabal Palm overlooking the beach right before happy hour. I remember how excited I was and I was just dedicated to work hard. I've been very grateful for the opportunities I have been afforded. If you're asking me if I got a few nos before getting a gig the answer to that is most definitely YES....haha. I walked up and down this beach after paying $20 to park handing out business cards for what seemed like hours and hours in the hot sun, being told "We'll call ya." Truthfully, the way I got my gig was being told to call Bob while I was playing over in Fort Myers at a place called Caloosahatchee Jack's. They had replaced me on a certain night because another player the actually drew a better crowd became available... thems the breaks... but everything happens for a reason and that's how I wound up at the Lani Kai, and I've been playing there for over three years every Wednesday from 6 to 10 on the Sundeck!

Freed: I started off playing out front of the Mermaid during my lunch breaks, as goofy as it sounds. It was definitely harder as an outsider, but the more I played the more people caught on and I eventually got tipped like $500 in a single night, so that was my boiling point. I bought new gear, a new guitar and started shopping for gigs pretty much everywhere. I actually met George playing out at the Mermaid and he helped me get some gigs at the Lani Kai. I got some Monday night gigs at La Ola and it's just been me playing anywhere that'll have me.

Lewis: I've been playing at the Lani Kai forever, but it was very difficult to break in. People on the Beach take a little while to trust you, so I just kept playing and got lucky and started making traction. I'd already recorded three studio albums at that point, so my name had a little weight, but community cred is something totally different.

What do you think is most rewarding about doing what you love in this community?

Russell: The most rewarding thing about being able to do my music out here on the Beach is the fact that I now live on the Beach and, fingers crossed, I will live on the Beach for many years to come. We're right across street from the Gulf of Mexico... I mean moving here with my new wife Rachel from Nebraska, that's one heck of a change. I absolutely love watching people on vacation because that's like their happy time. I get to provide the soundtrack for their happy time. The time that they get to get away from all their stress and all their jobs and all the stuff that makes their life hard. Watching the children marvel at the sights and sounds of the beach. Watching the moms and dads finally get to take that deep breath as they cheers each other and then one of their favorite songs is being played and everybody's just happy. That, my friends, it's probably the best feeling in the world. I take my job seriously and hope to be doing it for many years to come, all the places on the Beach that let me play music, the Lani Kai, La Ola Surfside restaurant, Smokin' Oyster Brewery, the Yucatan Beach Stand, Nervous Nellie's, Pinchers at the Wyndham, the Diamond Head, and many others I'm grateful for each and every opportunity I have.

Freed: I love everything about the Beach. The people out here really give you their hearts. Everyone wants everybody to succeed, it's like a really big extended family. I love it when people want to sing along, too, I try to get everyone involved: tourists, servers, bartenders. I want everybody to enjoy it. My favorite memory is a kid who got his dad to play on stage with me after some convincing and I gave him my hat. The dad had so much energy on stage and it really looked like something him and his son were truly bonding over.

Lewis: I am very lucky in my life to have had the opportunity to play guitar, write and sing, on beautiful Fort Myers Beach. Not only work here but live here also. It was difficult at times in the beginning, to get started playing guitar and singing for a living.I have been very blessed for going on 12 years of singing and performing. I would like to say thank you to everyone who has helped through the years and continue to do so. The Lani Kai has been my second home, and the management and staff are excellent. You can come see me perform at the Lani kai at the Sundeck, with myself, Joe, Jennifer, and Kayla, the best bartenders and people.

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