For three decades, the Royal Oak tunesmith has hosted Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters in northern Michigan, creating a beloved annual event embraced by musicians. And he’s still releasing his own music, too.
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John D. Lamb has been making music for most of his life.
When he answers the phone in a gravely tone, I can hear the grit jump through. He’s a veteran performer, an excellent writer and a lively conversationalist.
Lamb, who recently released his record, “Good Hart,” also is the longtime host of the annual Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters, a much-beloved writing workshop held in the Leelanau Peninsula via the non-profit organization Springfed Arts.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Oct. 31-Nov. 10 retreat in northern Michigan. Reservations can be made online at springfed.org/songwriters.
With a background in journalism, Lamb has done his research. He opens with a few questions of his own before I ask him what makes a good writer.
“You know, I like it when it’s readable,” Lamb says.
“I mean, when you read something and want it to keep going on to the next sentence, and the next sentence after that, or the next verse, or the verse after that. It’s got to be accessible. You want to see yourself relate to it. There’s an old adage about that, whether it’s writing a book or writing a song: Show, don’t tell.”
The Lamb’s Retreat has clearly stood the test of time, as has its curator. The reason behind that could be distilled to something as simple as resilience and showing up to do the work, as well as the return of joy it brings.
“It’s simply because I still enjoy doing it,” says Lamb, who lives in Royal Oak and serves as executive director of Springfed Arts. “It has really enriched my life.
“When I started in 1995, I might have been one of the first to call my particular event a ‘songwriting retreat.’ I mean, there were a lot of writers’ retreats, you know, for poets and prose writers, but I didn’t know of any that were specifically called songwriting retreats.
“I realized that it was more than just about the money. It was really helping me creatively. And it was really helping out other people in ways that I hadn’t realized. It’s become such a special thing for a lot of people.”
LISTEN: John D. Lamb, “I Work at Wixom (But I Live in Detroit)”
As for its pristine setting, Michigan’s “North Country,” inspiration abounds. After hosting the retreat in Harbor Springs for 28 years, Lamb has since relocated the event to the Leelanau Peninsula north of Traverse City.
“We had a wonderful staff in Harbor Springs, but they sold that virtual den. And so I had to move last year. I found a great new location called the Jolli-Lodge, which is on Lake Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula. Right on the beach,” Lamb says.
“It turned out to be wonderful to move there. It was kind of a scary proposition to have to pick up and find a new location, but we found the perfect place.”
He goes on to mention the brilliant colors that surround the grounds that time of year, as well as an excellent menu of local fare for guests.
As for his own art, Lamb’s album “Good Hart,” produced by Michael B. Crittenden of Grand Rapids’ Mackinaw Harvest Studio, is a nuanced record that grapples with love, loss and addiction through the lens of rowdy folk-rock.
The All Music Guide raves that Lamb “spins a tale of love and woe full of true irony and forlorn humor,” offering up a slice of life that’s “anything but commonplace.”
“I learned to trust myself,” Lamb muses. “In the early days when I was in a rock band, all the producers and people that invested money in me would say, ‘Come on, you gotta come up with something for the radio.’
“Now, I don’t even think about that anymore. I just think about writing songs that I like. It turned out that my producers and musicians were very accepting of all the songs that I brought in, and came up with wonderful parts to flesh them out. I just wanted to make a record for myself. And it turned out to be good.”
Lamb plays Bar Harbor in Harbor Springs Feb. 16-18, and Trattoria da Luigi in Royal Oak on Feb. 18.
VIDEO: John D. Lamb, “This Guitar Kills” (Live)
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