By Nikki Hedrick
We are home to many musicians, each with a story to tell and a unique history with the region. Todd Sparks, BT Turner and Tanner Gray—three solo musicians playing around Beachcomberland—are each are working towards finding a balance between their aspirations as original artists and being regularly gigging musicians.
“I was enamored with him,” says Sparks of his pianist uncle who helped color Sparks’ desire to become a musician. “He was playing piano bars in New York City and would come down on vacation to see the family on Christmas and what have you. He gave me the bug initially.”
Sparks began on the drums, before finding his way to playing guitar in high school bands. In his 20s, he visited his father in Panama City and picked up a few gigs during his stay. That led him to become the house act at the popular beach restaurant Pineapple Willy’s. “I never really thought about moving to the Gulf Coast. I was playing around Birmingham and Atlanta, and I was working in Nashville. It was just kind of fortuitous, and I think the fates wanted me to live on the Gulf Coast.“
Splitting his time between his house gig and touring, his priorities later shifted to family. “I would work at Pineapple Willy’s six months a year, and then I would go on the road six months,” says Sparks. “I got married and had a child. Of course, when you have a child, going on the road for 150 days out of the year is not necessarily that great. I needed to get off the road, and I did. I opened a little business and stayed close to home playing private parties and what have you. And raised my son.”
In recent years, Sparks has fully emerged from his semi‑musical retirement. He has written new music and has a new house gig at The Beach House in Sandestin. He calls his sound “songwriter meets Gulf Coast,” and his upcoming album will include a guest appearance from Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.
Sparks has plans to hit the studio in September and release new music before the end of the year. A 100‑day tour of the East Coast will follow.
BT Turner is a recent transplant from Jacksonville who’s called this area home for seven months. Turner’s boisterous laugh leads the way as he talks about his unconventional path as a musician. “I was a theater nerd in high school,” he says. “I went that route. I tried college theater, standup comedy and all that, and then fell into the DJ thing. It was still a way for me to be on the microphone and entertain. When that got a little boring, I learned how to play guitar. It’s a way to do the theater and the comedy and engage the crowd. I just do it with the guitar.”
After playing for nearly 20 years in and around Jacksonville, Turner felt it was time for a change of scenery. He’d visited the Emerald Coast before and was struck by the relaxed vibe.
“I moved out to this area to do what I’m doing—to play music in the kind of atmosphere and the kind of vibe that is here. I’m happy this is the area I chose, because it’s the perfect fit.” Turner credits the move for reigniting his passion for performing, “I’m so grateful that I came out here.”
Turner’s performance style is a mixture of covers, originals, and song parodies. “Some of the covers are very familiar, and I call them ‘sing‑a‑long‑able,’ and some of them are more obscure. Trop rock, country, variety—I’ll do anything.”
Tanner Gray, the youngest of the three, gigged here the last couple years during college breaks. He considers this his current hometown while describing himself as a “semi‑local.” Having graduated, Gray prefers to play in a band, and his last project the Peddlers was instrumental in his recent full‑length album of the same name.
He’s played guitar since he was 10, and his first gig was an unlikely selection of heavy songs during a beauty pageant. Gray isn’t sure where he will land, but one thing is certain for the young performer.
“I’ll keep doing music no matter where I end up at. It just kind of depends on what scale I’m able to…”
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