Down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, it's a busy week for the blues: The town is hosting a Sunflower River Blues Festival benefit on Saturday, April 10th; then, seven days later, it will be the site for the first Juke Joint Festival & Planter's Celebration. "The goal is to get us in good shape for the blues festival in August," says Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and, as a member of the nonprofit Sunflower River Blues Association, the chairman of the free festival's booking committee.
"Sometimes we wonder if we'll have enough entertainment, but so many people have donated their time to play," Stolle says of Saturday's fund-raiser, which will begin at 6 p.m. at Ground Zero Blues Club in downtown Clarksdale. "With a $10 ticket price, we hope to make enough money to pay for a few local acts and kick off our membership drive for volunteers at the blues festival this year," he says, pointing out that the free festival depends on private and corporate donors as well as grants and merchandise and beer sales to survive.
"The festival -- our 17th annual -- is just six months away," Stolle says, adding that the Sunflower River Blues Association plans to announce the headliners for this year's festival -- to be held August 13th-14th -- during the benefit.
Scheduled performers at the benefit include Clarksdale favorites Super Chikan, Wesley Jefferson, Big T Williams, Jacqueline Gooch, and Razorblade of The Deep Cuts Band, as well as Pontotoc native Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Abbeville's The Perry Family, Arkansan John "So Blue" Weston, and Memphian John Lowe, whose one-string cigar-box guitar will be raffled off at the benefit.
"The Sunflower River Blues Festival was the first fest I ever played," Lowe says. "Plus, I find the people in Clarksdale a lot more hospitable about the blues than anywhere else I've been. As the home of the blues, they're really nurturing. They don't try to classify different types of blues or overwhelm it with dogma. They're just glad to get the scene going."
Lowe will return to Clarksdale for the Juke Joint Festival & Planter's Celebration on Saturday, April 17th, where he will play a free show outside Stolle's store alongside Bluff City Backslider guitarist Jason Freeman, author Steve Cheseborough, Bill Abel & Cadillac John, and a handful of local musicians. A petting zoo, a train, and pig races will provide family fun while dozens of bluesmen and -women will be stationed around town.
Arriving at a juke joint at 10 o'clock in the morning seems a bit extreme, but that's when local fave Mr. Tater will crank it up at Club 2000. Roots player Bill Durham will perform at the Clarksdale Visitors Station at 1 p.m., and Greenville R&B stalwarts Barbara Looney and Mickey Rodgers will play outdoors on the Delta Blues Museum stage at 5 p.m. Bean will close the free part of the festival with his set at Delta Amusement CafÇ at 7 p.m.
After dark, a $10 wristband will allow you to party at seven Clarksdale jukes. Although Ground Zero and the Hopson Commissary are relatively new establishments, most of these places -- Sarah's Kitchen, Red's Lounge, and Jacqueline's Blues Bar -- are the real deal, folks. Expect quart bottles of beer, bottles of whiskey in brown bags, and spine-chilling, bone-tingling blues.
"We wanted to have a small-town festival combined with the blues -- something to satisfy the local community and bring in tourists at the same time," Stolle explains. "The idea was not to set up stages and bring in bands from out of town. Instead, we're using all the local venues as stages and using primarily local entertainment. It's as much about the venues as the artists."
But has the 2003 "Year of the Blues" campaign brought more tourists to town? "It's interesting," Stolle says, "because we didn't see an impact last year. Over the past few months, we've had a lot more film crews, writers, and photographers coming through. It's been a delayed reaction, but I've sold a lot more things to first-time buyers recently. I was skeptical at first," he admits, "but hopefully we'll get more residual effects."
Shelley Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, agrees. "We'll see a long-term impact," she says. "Our visitation has been up since January. Of course, the diehard blues fans already know about Clarksdale. Through events like this benefit, we can open up to a broader audience and prove that the blues is still a viable force."
"There's so much stuff going on right now," Stolle says. "[Last year] the Juke Joint Festival didn't exist, the Crossroads Bikes & Blues Rally didn't exist, the visitors' center didn't exist. Now there's talk about another club here in town, we have another art gallery down the street, and other people are looking for commercial property downtown. The Delta Blues Museum is making great strides. Things are less bleak."
For a complete schedule of events, go to SunflowerFest.org or JukeJointFestival.com.
Meanwhile, Clarksdale legend Ike Turner is preparing for his performance at the Memphis Heroes Awards, which take place at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, April 13th. "I'm supposed to play two songs, on guitar and piano," Turner says of the NARAS-sanctioned event, which is replacing the Premier Player Awards this year. "Man, it's an honor. Something I thought I'd never live to see," Turner says. "I go around to places where I used to live at, on Crump and so forth, and I can't believe it. God directed me from there. I was very fortunate."
Catch Turner alongside Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana (who are being honored alongside the late Bill Black), Big Star, and Louisiana bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown at the Heroes Awards, which begin at 7:30 p.m. --AL
Music News and Notes: East Memphis record buyers will notice more changes at the corner of Poplar and Highland. What five years ago was Blockbuster Music and changed to Wherehouse and then to Turtles is being reborn next week as Spin Street, a chain that will bring changes such as DVD and game rental and a memorabilia section. But rather than buy out the entire Turtles chain, Spin Street has stepped in to purchase the Memphis location individually, a move that's unsurprising given the history of the store, which manager Geoff Albert says was the most profitable in both the Blockbuster and Turtles chains and second for Wherehouse. The store's grand-opening event on Monday, April 12th, will serve as a pre-party for the next night's Memphis Heroes Awards, with most award recipients and presenters expected to attend a VIP party at the store Monday night. Of more interest to the public will be the unveiling of a new version of the store's gigantic Elvis Presley cutout that peers over the parking lot. "It's been up for so long and has faded," Albert says of the original installation, which debuted in 1995. "We thought about repainting it but decided it'd be better to really flash it up." The Blues Foundation has announced performers for the 25th W.C. Handy Awards, which will take place Thursday, April 29th, at the Cannon Center. The lineup includes Deborah Coleman, Bettye Lavette, Mark Lemhouse, Maria Muldaur, Charlie Musselwhite, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Taylor, and Kim Wilson In other Blues Foundation news, listen for highlights from the organization's annual International Blues Challenge, which took place on Beale Street earlier this year, on next week's edition of the locally produced radio show Beale Street Caravan The Bo-Keys' The Royal Sessions, which was released locally last year, will get a proper national release May 4th. The album was recently featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered Community radio station WEVL continues its spring pledge drive this week. Call 528-1990 to offer your support The Caravan, the all-ages punk and metal space at 1337 Madison, has apparently closed its doors, according to a message posted last week on the affiliated Web site OurMemphis.net. Most shows booked at the club, including upcoming shows by Eighteen Visions and Jet By Day, appear to be moving to The Rally Point at 616 S. Highland. --CH