Robert Freeland is FBISF’s most tenured volunteer
By Fran Thompson
Robert Freeland made his bones as a FBISF volunteer well before the assembled multitude known as the Shush Patrol assumed control of the Flora-Bama main room. The year was 1995, 11 years after the late Joe Gilchrist founded the event.
It was only the second year of the FBISF’s partnership with Robert Sutton that added a festival affiliation at the Barefoot Bar at Gulf Shores Public Beach. The Barefoot writers, led by Jimbeau Hinson, T. Graham Brown and the Larry Cordle/Jerry Salley/Carl Jackson trio, even came over to the Flora-Bama to play on the one night during the fest that their stage was dark.
“It was a little less organized back then. We had merchandise tables at every venue where we had a money box and sold T-shirts, hats and stuff,’’ Freeland said. “That was a big pain in the butt. All that stuff is centralized now at the Flora-Bama.
“Cary Pitts, who was on the festival board of directors, dragged me over to one of the shows at the Flora-Bama. I was so enthralled that I immediately started working with them, and I have never missed a year since.’’
The 78 year old Freeland said that he enjoys being the most tenured volunteer and has no plans to slow down.
“I am now the old man of the fest, but I am not ready to stop as long as I still have my brain power,’’ he said. “I feel so fortunate to have worked with these people for many, many years.’’
Freeland said his favorite songwriters over the years have been the late Casey Jones, the late Larry Butler, and Stephen Veal and Marc Alan Barnette.
“I went out and introduced Larry Butler for his show at Perdido Beach Resort. It was just him and a piano on stage and he played and told stories about all of his songs and all of the songs he produced for others. It was amazing. I also loved the music at the club he owned at Perdido Bay Country Club.
“He was just a great guy to be around, and the atmosphere at his club was amazing. It was like going to a museum looking at all the stuff he had on the walls. But it never really worked as a restaurant.’’
Butler, a Pensacola native, was the first Nashville based producer to win a Grammy (for Kenny Rodgers’ The Gambler), and he won a second Grammy for writing “Hey Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.’’ His restaurant, LB’s Country Club Cafe, was filled with memorabilia from his many years in Nashville. Butler’s songwriters during Freeland’s first year volunteering included Mickey Newbury, Harlon Howard, Kostas and Jim McBride.
Freeland said he has two shifts with the Shush Patrol in the Flora-Bama main room this year, and he will be available for other assignments as well.
“There is so much work that volunteers do behind the scene, preparing handouts for the writers, making sure they have accommodations, setting up breakfasts and lunches for the writers in the Green Room at the ‘Bama,;; he said. “I love spending time in there. It’s a combination meet ‘n greet and hootenanny for the brotherhood of writers who come here from who-knows-where.’’
Freeland, who attended Davidson High School and UMS in Mobile before matriculating at Auburn, said music has always been a big part of his life, and his love for it kept him out of jail the first time he spent time on Pleasure Island back in 1962.
“My cousin invited me to come over with him on his senior trip even though I was a junior. But all he and his friends wanted to do was drink. So, I went by myself over by where the original Hangout was at the end of Hwy. 59 to check out the music. It was mostly teenagers.
“When I got back to the house we were renting in Orange Beach, there was nobody there except a guy who hid under a bed when the cops came and took everybody to the Foley jail.
“What happened is they lined up empty beer cans all across the road. They were out of their minds. I would have been in jail with them, if I didn’t want to go hear music instead.’’
A property manager and real estate agent by trade, Robert said he bought his first house on Pleasure Island in 1976, paying $17K for a cottage at 412 East 1st Ave. He now lives on Bay Circle in Orange Beach and still enjoys checking out the neighborhood music scene along Canal Rd.
“A lot has changed around here with the festival with scheduling. I am not saying it’s bad, just that it’s not the same,’’ he said. “This is my 29th year and if I am still above ground, I plan to make the 30th year and keep going for a lot longer than that.
“This festival is close to my heart. It really is,’’ he added. “The more I do for the songwriters, the happier I am. That is really the way it is. I just love the songs. Every year I hear new songs because all of my favorites continue to write new songs. There are always new songs to hear about the places we live and the people we love and things that touch people’s lives.’’