The alternative/ Americana musical marriage known as The Mastersons inaugurates a new summer slate of free Songwriters in the Park concerts, Friday night at Riverside Gardens.  

The dog-day nights of July and August are that time of year when the waterfront walkways and terraces of Riverside Gardens take center stage in local life — with this Thursday seeing the return of the long-running Jazz in the Park concerts, and the weeks to come offering a packed schedule of free family-friendly movies, free evening Zumba sessions, even a free Comedy in the Park event on August 1.

All welcome diversions for a midsummer’s night, to be sure. But tonight, Friday the 13th, marks the long-awaited return of a series that you’ll find nowhere else but Red Bank — Songwriters in the Park, a slate of top-shelf artist showcases presented for a seventh season by Brookdale Community College listener-supported radio station 90.5 The Night.

While there have always been such things as songwriters busking for beer money in city parks, this songwriters series is an altogether different animal than most beach-towel-and-lawnchair community events —  a format that pairs a genuinely buzzworthy, national-profile act with likeminded local/regional artists. Previous outings have spotlighted such well-known performers as Dramarama, Steve Forbert, Jeffrey Gaines, John Wesley Harding, Bongos frontman Richard Barone and the Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio.

In other words, this is a free concert series that music snobs can really sink their teeth into. And when all the stars in the Sirius sky align — superior sound, great sight lines from anywhere in the park, a gentle breeze off the river and those complimentary Navesink sunsets — it’s as listener-friendly an experience as any you’ll encounter up and down the Jersey Shore. Even the sounds of a busy downtown Friday night (including the occasional ambulance) add to the unique character of the concerts, making for a welcome alternative to the chirp of suburban crickets.

Songwriter’s songwriter Willie Nile returns to the banks of the Navesink, as part of the 2012 schedule presented by Brookdale Public Radio 90.5 The Night.

There’ll be NO chirping allowed (but plenty of opportunities for applause) during tonight’s inaugural entry in the seven-week series, when The Mastersons — that wife/husband duo who otherwise serve as crucial components of country contrarian Steve Earle’s ace band The Dukes and Duchesses — take the stage with their wry and pleasing take on alternative-Americana pop that’s made them darlings of the houseparty-and-festival circuit.

Both native Texans transplanted to the hipster hollers of millennial Brooklyn, fire-haired fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and bespectacled guitarist Chris Masterson bring their experience as solo artists, sidekicks and sweethearts to bear in promoting their debut album Birds Fly South. Opening the program is Diego Garcia, who “draws from his Argentine roots” and “explores his Latin heritage” with a sound that “conjures the spirit of 1970’s troubadours like Sandro and Jobim as well as singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Harry Nilsson.”

The schedule continues July 20 with Mindy Smith, a Nashville-based New York transplant who’s paired on a bill with Emily Grove, one of the most acclaimed young performers on the Asbury music scene. The evening of July 27 brings two UK bands (each undertaking its first American tour) all the way from the pubs of Leeds to the public spaces of Red Bank:  Scars On 45 (led by former pro footballer Danny Bemrose) and the family-based unit The Dunwells.

Friday, August 3 spotlights a band that’s appeared on Letterman, opened a major tour for Barenaked Ladies and wowed crowds everywhere from Lollapalooza to South Jersey’s popular Appel Farm Festival — Jukebox The Ghost, touring behind their just-released third album with Asbury-based indie folkies Lightning Jar as openers.

August 10 marks the return to Red Bank of a true “songwriter’s songwriter” and a New York music figure whose credentials are as formidable as his trademark hair. Willie Nile — who’s shared local stages with Bruce Springsteen, Glen Burtnik and many others in Light of Day and other benefit blasts — is joined here by series veteran Bruce Tunkel.

On August 17, Joe Michelini fronts the cellos, trumpets and string things of River City Extension — the locally bred eight-piece band that’s played all the major festivals (from Newport Folk to Vans Warped) and shared stages with some of the hottest acts in newgrass/ roots music. They’re joined by the live lineup of Jesse Herdman’s Brooklyn/ Jersey acousticana project Accidental Seabirds.

The free concert series wraps on August 24 with Red Wanting Blue, an Ohio-based band that’s made a lot of local friends through frequent forays to the Garden State; opening that set is Rick Barry, the top-hatted musician-ringmaster whose skills as songwriter and impresario made him a longstanding fixture at The Saint in Asbury Park.

August 31 is being reserved as a possible rain date for any of the prior songwriters events, all of which are set to start shortly after 7 pm.