Door County Songwriters on Songwriting

Ask an American musician where the hot spots for songwriting are these days, and they’ll likely name a large metropolitan area:  New York, Chicago, Boston. But despite its small population and remote location, Door County is quietly making a name for itself as a prime spot for songwriters.

By this author’s count, there are as many as 50 professional or semi-professional songwriters who live at least part of the year in Door County. Hundreds more songwriters visit the peninsula each year to play concerts or attend songwriting gatherings. Concert venues such as Fishstock, Door Community Auditorium and Woodwalk Gallery bring nationally touring songwriters to local audiences, and gatherings such as Sturgeon Bay’s Steel Bridge Songfest bring songwriters from around the world to Door County to collaborate and perform with one another.

Door County’s rural setting and seasonal economy pose challenges to those who try to make a living here in any field, but the county is well known for its support of the arts, and the area’s thousands of tourists provide musicians with far-reaching and constantly changing audiences. Moreover, the peninsula’s geographic isolation, winter quiet and strong community ties can make Door County an unusually fertile ground for the creative work of songwriting.

Songwriters who spend only part of their year in Door County, for instance, often see the peninsula as a respite from the grind of their everyday lives.

“It’s a kind of netherworld,” said playwright, professor and songwriter Doc Heide, who splits his time between northern California and Baileys Harbor. “Those tend to promote creativity. It’s common for artists to want to get away from their ‘normal’ life to create. The impressionists often went to the south of France, or the exotic South Pacific, for example. For me, at least, Door County offers a similar escape…I write songs in Door County all the time. The trails of Peninsula State Park are an especially fine spot to mull over lyrics and tunes.”

Jenny Bienemann, a songwriter who lives in Chicago and owns a home in Juddville, agrees.

“Another word for ‘door’ is ‘portal,’” Bienemann said. “The air just feels different once you cross the threshold of Door County, and I begin to notice that I am having different thoughts and ideas from those that occur to me anywhere else.”

For others, such as Door County native songwriter Matthew Burress, who spends summers on the peninsula and winters elsewhere, summers in Door County provide valuable life experiences to write about later.

“I see myself like a sponge,” Burress said. “May through October I’m in the park cycling, or on the lake, or working, or dating, or camping, and in the midst of all this, I don’t take the time to lock myself away in my room and hammer out new ideas. I save that time at my desk for my winters away, when I’ve soaked up all the good and some of the bad from my amazing summers.”

Even songwriters who live in Door County year round see the area’s stark seasonal shifts as essential to their creativity. Songwriter and Sturgeon Bay resident Jess Holland said, “I love how extreme our seasons are…There is time to be a tornado of life without any time to process what is happening for half of the year, and then there are six-plus months of dark, cold days. Boredom creates beautiful songs.”

No matter what the season, many Door County songwriters also see the peninsula’s unique geography and natural landscape as integral to their creativity.

“I’ve always thought it significant,” said Doc Heide, “that Door County is nestled between the bay and the lake…as if nature has cast a protective shield to guard us from our worries. When you head north on 57 from Green Bay, you feel like you’re going into a sheltered retreat.”

While he acknowledges the value of Door County’s natural landscape, Sturgeon Bay resident pat mAcdonald, Grammy-winning songwriter and co-founder of Steel Bridge Songfest, posits the strength of Door County’s artistic community is even more vital to songwriters.

“Door County has the natural beauty, which can inspire artists, but you can end up doing things that are the equivalent of landscape painting,” said mAcdonald. “I’m not too inspired to write songs about beaches and bluffs, but I love how the natural beauty can entice more artists to move here and inspire each other.”

Egg Harbor-based songwriter and painter Jeanne Kuhns said this community provides “a level of peer pressure to keep writing.” Sturgeon Bay songwriter Dorothy Scott concurs.

“The people are so genuinely good and kind,” said Scott. “People here inspire each other to be creative.”


Doc Heide, “Ode to the Niagara Escarpment”

© 2009 Frederick Heide

Jody Jessup

Photo by Jody Jessup.

Lyrics by Frederick Heide & Lee Becker

Music by Matt Zembrowski


Hail to thee, Niagara Escarpment

Sturdy bedrock beneath the whole county

You hold up the home, the condo and apartment

Some say you’re merely dolomite but you’re alright

By me


You were formed without a big explosion

All it took was plenty of erosion

Thanks to you we don’t need to be worryin’

‘cuz you’ve been here since the age they call



So hail to thee, Niagara Escarpment

Backbone of limestone so silent and carefree

Just how you got here is not in our department

By day or night, you’re dolomite, and that’s alright

By me


Jeanne Kuhns, “Miracles”

Submitted photo.

Submitted photo.

I hear the wind singing songs to me,

Trees sway like women with branches raised.

Remnants of sky left in puddles on a muddy road,

Heat is rising from the stone cold ground.


I see miracles all around, all around, all around me

The wind calls my name

Pushing words across the sand.


Crimson leaves twirl round shadow dancers.

Chattering the branches, tossing up the sea,

Glimpses of blue sky like puzzle pieces in the trees.


Sandhills gather as the sun goes down,

And I, I see miracles, I see miracles,

I see miracles all around me

Whispers of wind, like a lovers sigh

Northern light shimmer in ecstasy.


Mother earth offering answers with an artist’s eye.


Red fawn hidden in waves of green, green grass,

And I, I see miracles, I see miracles,

I see miracles all around me.


Jenny Bienemann, “The Beach”

I am on the beach, coming soon

The rise of a tiny crescent moon

And church bells chime


I am in the street, looking right

At a flock of hungry seagulls fight

And cars go by


Even rocks love the waves they break

Though they’re left half naked in the wake

You must think I’m dense, or that I like fresh air

The way you crash in and leave me standing there


I am heading South following

The flight of a migrant gulls wing

I am going home


Jess Holland, “Idle the Wild”

These are the days that we fall to our knees and beg for change

Death stares us right in the face but our lives are not worthy to take

Idle our hands, which makes idle our minds, which makes idle the wild

It’s said foolish find joy in the distance while wise help it grow within reach

But, winter’s cruel heart revokes purpose for me and I’m lonely, my garden won’t grow

So, now I will lie to myself in high hopes that my boredom will fear my fire inside.


pat mAcdonald, “Valmy”

Photo by Ty Helbach.

Photo by Ty Helbach.

“I wrote some songs in the summer of 1995 for Sleeps With His Guitar at my brother Bill’s farmhouse in Valmy. A few years after Bill died, I was in Barcelona on the anniversary of his death – which was also his birthday – and I wrote the song ‘Valmy.’ I considered it a collaboration because he seemed to be helping with the lyrics.”



My pretty Valmy

I long to see you again

Around the burn barrel hummin’

Bang out a song

Beside the big bonfire

Singin deedle dee dum

Badump bump bum

Uh huh, aha ha hah



My stormy Valmy

I’ll take your winter in stride

I’ll take your snowfall lightly

Snuggle inside

And when your spring showers fall

Soon your rainbow will come

Badump b ump bum

Uh huh, aha ha hah


Valmy, tall as an elm tree

Now you’ve got cats in your hair

And all the dogs are barking

Cats in your hair

And all the birds are mad

Singin tweedle dee dum

Badump bump bum

Uh huh, uh haha hah



Care for my baby

Hold her a place in your heart

Wherever she may ramble

A place in your heart

Wherever she may roam

She’ll be calling you home

Badump bump bum

Uh huh, uh haha hah

Uh huh, uh haha hah


My pretty Valmy