Arts & Culture

Tribute to a tunesmith

As San Luis Obispo singer-songwriter Steve Key knows, there’s no experience more special than hearing your song slip out of someone else’s mouth.

“Just the fact that somebody sat down with my words and my music and made an effort to learn (them) … that’s a tremendous honor right there,” said Key, whose tune “Record Time (33, 45, 78)” was recorded by country star Kathy Mattea in 1992. “It’s great to know that my songs have a life outside of me.”

Unfortunately, he added, not everyone experiences the same sense of artistic validation.

“It occurred to me that there are a number of songwriters out there … who never get to see other performers cut their songs,” said Key, who organizes the Songwriters at Play concert series. That’s why he’s started organizing song nights that showcase talented Central Coast tunesmiths.

On Monday, more than a dozen local musicians will pay tribute to Wendy Liepman, one half of the San Luis Obispo folk-rock duo Bob and Wendy. She and her husband, Bob Liepman, will also play.

“It feels like a real honor,” Wendy Liepman said.

Since starting Songwriters at Play about three years ago, Key has organized tributes to famous performers including Woody Guthrie, Elton John and Joni Mitchell as well as local stalwarts such as Ted Waterhouse of San Luis Obispo and Randall Lamb of Buellton. Waterhouse, who’s been the subject of two such showcases, organized a tribute night honoring Key in October.

“To sit back and watch 14 or 15 people cover your songs, it’s a pretty intense thing,” Key said.

Although he didn’t know what to expect from the performances, Key was thrilled that someone “would take the effort to sit down and listen to my songs and figure out how they would apply their own voice to something that I wrote,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Having gone through that experience, Key added, “I know what a great feeling that is, and I want to share it with Wendy.”

Luckily, he said, “I had no trouble finding people who want to cover her songs.”

Monday’s participants include Don Lampson, Jody Mulgrew, Craig Nuttycombe and Dulcie Taylor.

They’ve each selected at least one number from Bob and Wendy’s vast catalog of original songs, which spans seven albums released over two decades. “Your Beautiful Life,” released in 2012, won New Times magazine’s Best Album of the Year.

Liepman, who penned her first song at age 10, described her writing process as somewhat mysterious.

“What usually happens is I’ll get a few lines — Bob teases me about this — and I’ll just sing them over and over in the shower,” she said, as well as in her car driving to and from work. “I used to lose a lot of songs because, after eight hours as an occupational therapist, I couldn’t remember the words or the melody.”

Now, she said, she simply murmurs melodies and lyrics into her cell phone.

Familiar subjects for the songwriter include relationships, spiritual questioning and the impermanence of life.

In the title track on “Your Beautiful Life,” she imagines the aftermath of a major disaster, singing “What if you took all your possessions, stacked them up in a pile on the lawn./ Every prize, every obsession. When you open your eyes, they were gone.”

According to Liepman, the only artist to date to record her music was Silas Clark, who now lives in Hawaii. He picked two songs, “Poison” and “Cool Water Canyon.”

“That was the first time for me hearing someone doing my stuff,” she recalled. “It’s really validating and really exciting and really interesting to hear how (performers) put their twist on (my music).”


Wendy Song Night

6:30 p.m. Monday

Upper Crust Trattoria, 11560 Los Osos Valley Road, San Luis Obispo


204-6821 or