Taking Fans and Radio Nationwide
On A Musical Joyride to the Florida Keys
By PHIL SWEETLAND
Music and radio contributor
The New York Times
It’s fitting that the passionate Florida singer and songwriter Micah Gardner is based near the Keys town of Islamorada, which is Spanish for “Purple Island.”
After all, Micah has made the beautiful, exotic, and mysterious islands of the Keys his musical, spiritual, and lifestyle home for years, and through his signature style of songs called “Islandgrass” Gardner is spreading his own joy and passion for the Florida Keys to fans nationwide.
“My philosophy is that if people can’t come to the Keys,” Gardner has written, “I will bring a little of the Tropics to them.”
Whether playing solo or working with his band the Barstool Sailors, Micah’s songs such as “Tan Girl” and “The Last Keys Critter,” and his full-length musical The Adventures Of Humphrey The Manatee, magically and musically transport listeners to the place and the peace of mind he loves and knows so well.
Radio has taken a real shine to Micah’s music in 2012, with airplay already on five of his originals. TV producers have also recognized his gifts, with placements of Gardner songs in three programs.
His love for the beach actually started on the opposite coast, as a kid growing up in California. The young Micah discovered paddleboarding, and knew early on that he felt just as comfortable in the water as on dry land.
“That’s where you write your songs,” he says in a phone conversation from the Keys. “I write about it because I live it. The island is the inspiration.”
Both Micah’s father and his younger brother had eclectic musical tastes, which exposed him to several genres and dozens of singers and songwriters whose work he admired.
That included the Grateful Dead and the band’s famed lyricist Robert Hunter; the beloved 1970s singer, songwriter, and guitarist Dan Hicks and his group the Hot Licks; and more recently the Americana star and Nashville product Todd Snider.
Gardner’s other influences are amazingly diverse, such as the California Ska-rock trio Sublime; the Keys’ most famous musical export, Jimmy Buffett; and the iconic singer and songwriter John Prine. His unique sense of humor can be traced back to watching Monty Python with his Mom in the 1970s.
But early on, Micah enjoyed his greatest success on a very different sort of stage - the athletic fields of the University of Miami. He became one of the Hurricanes’ all-time great distance runners, setting a school record in the 10K and the indoor 5K, and often running 100 miles per week.
Gardner was a true scholar athlete, and was even named to the Hall of Fame at his Fort Lauderdale high school, Cardinal Gibbons.
“I looked at running as a personal competition, pushing myself to the limit. That influenced my early writing,” Micah says. “And I would recreate music from other artists in my head as I was out on the course running.”
Despite his sports prowess, Micah was a pretty shy kid in high school. It wasn’t until he took an acting class at the University of Miami that he began to shed his reticence and seriously consider a career in teaching.
His major was Florida History, a passion he has maintained both in his teaching and his music ever since. He became both a high school teacher and cross country coach.
One red-letter day about a dozen years ago changed Micah’s focus from teaching to music. On that day, he took his irresistible tan dog called Pepper, picked up the acoustic guitar, and made the Florida Keys his permanent home.
He delved into writing and created a life on the water, paddling and sharing Florida history on kayak tours through the mangroves. The family who shared their home in Islamorada with him during this crucial creative period – Micah calls it his “Tropical Hibernation” – will always hold a special place in his heart.
Pepper appeared at most of Micah’s shows for 12 years, until a few months ago, often stealing the spotlight from Gardner. The beloved pooch, who passed on earlier this year, remains a constant inspiration for Micah’s lyrics.
Gardner’s guitar playing, like that of James Taylor and the country star Steve Wariner, is so rich and tasty that it can often sound like several instruments are playing at once. That’s an ideal accompaniment for his soulful baritone vocals and evocative lyrics and melodies.
And just what is “Islandgrass” music, the unique appellation Gardner gives his music? Micah says it’s a combination of “island folk, blues, reggae, and bluegrass.”
Another way to define the term, perhaps, is to sit back and enjoy Gardner songs like “Califloridian,” “The Last Keys Critter,” and of course “Tidal Wave Dave Vs. Big Moe The Hammerhead Shark.”
The name Barstool Sailor, which Micah has trademarked, started when he and his best friend, a marine biologist, decided to attempt drinking at every Happy Hour in the Florida Keys. “We were Barstool Sailing,” Gardner says with a grin.
In addition to being a powerful and trusted ally, Micah’s girlfriend Stephanie, assists him with booking and sings backgrounds on his new album Tales From The Dockside. Her harmonies are a perfect fit with his soulful and sun-drenched vocals.
One of the beauties of Gardner’s songs is that while some appear to be children’s tunes, they often have very grown-up messages.
“Those songs are like onions. You keep peeling layers and find more celebrations of life,” Micah says.
His locally recognized musical The Adventures Of Humphrey The Manatee is dedicated to preserving that beloved but endangered species by encouraging people to adopt a manatee.
“Manatees are symbolic of the Keys,” he says. “They’re laid back, and they speak volumes without saying anything.”
The song began when Micah was watching the classic World War II movie Casablanca, and admiring Humphrey Bogart’s tortured-hero performance. Gardner turned that into the personification of Humphrey as a manatee, and soon had created the first song he would ever write.
That was the beginning of something very, very good. Nowadays, Micah is one of the most popular live performers in the North Keys, at times sharing the stage with the Hillbilly Flamenco guitarist David Feder. He also has appeared at the legendary Capt. Tony’s Saloon in Key West.
During the off-season, Gardner tours up the coast of Florida and all the way up the Eastern Seaboard to Maine.
And wherever Micah Gardner and the memory of his beloved Pepper go, Micah brings a great deal of the soul of the Keys with him. Even after he leaves the stage, fans can listen to his albums even on the coldest winter nights and feel the warmth and joy Micah himself feels every day in the Florida Keys.
Updated July 20, 2012
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