Hitting the High Notes

Up-and-coming music festivals are just around the corner.

Jimbo Mathis, Kenny Brown, and Alvin Youngblood Hart at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic

Candise Kola

Memphis is well-known as the birthplace of the blues and the home of rock-and-roll, with plenty of opportunities to hear world-class musicians at clubs and other venues throughout the city. But within an easy drive are major concerts and festivals that showcase musicians in all genres, though most of them, as you might expect, shine their spotlight on the blues. Here’s a guide to a few coming up this summer.

North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic

June 24th-25th
Foxfire Ranch, Waterford, MS

This festival started in 2006, when Potts Camp, Mississippi, musician Kenny Brown decided to provide an event where artists would be honored at home with the same high acclaim they experienced globally. He witnessed first-hand the influence of Hill Country Blues through his long tenure with R.L. Burnside and travels with his own band, and so created the nonprofit organization, North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, Inc. Its goal is to educate and involve the general public in the tradition of the hill-country genre through performance, preservation, and interpretation. The picnic also features a guitar workshop, held on Friday before the festival begins, which is composed of four hours of one-on-one instruction with four of the festival artists: Luther Dickinson, DuWayne Burnside, Garry Burnside, and Kenny Brown himself. The workshop will conclude with a raucous jam between participants and instructors as the opening act for the picnic. The 2011 lineup features Kenny Brown, the North Mississippi Allstars, Duwayne Burnside, Blue Mountain, Jimbo Mathus, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, John Wilkins, Cedric and Garry Burnside, Duff Durrough, and many more. Camping will be allowed Friday and Saturday nights, coolers are permitted, and vendors will sell local delicacies like barbecue and fried catfish. A portion of each ticket will be donated to MusiCares, a charity run by the Recording Academy that provides free healthcare for musicians in need.

Full weekend pass: $65
Hill Country Guitar Workshop: $100
Day Pass: $25
Camping Pass: $15


Johnny Cash Music Festival

August 4th
217 Olympic Drive, Jonesboro, AR

This brand-new addition to the summer music calendar is scheduled to be presented annually by Arkansas State University. With participation from the Cash family, the daylong festival in the 7,500-seat ASU Convocation Center benefits the Johnny Cash Boyhood Museum Project in Dyess, Arkansas. The project involves establishing a museum in the university’s recently acquired New Deal Era Administration building, as well as developing a historical site at his boyhood home to honor the Johnny Cash legacy and promote growth in his hometown. The Cash family moved from Kingsland in 1935 to Dyess Colony, then part of the federal government’s Resettlement Association that came to the aid of farm families after the natural and economic disasters of the early twentieth century. His experiences there heavily shaped the man he became and his musical ambitions. The museum will include exhibits on his boyhood in Dyess, the influence of his family, and the impact his early life had on his later music; the former theater next door will be reconstructed to show an orientation film, along with Johnny Cash documentaries. The house he lived in for most of his childhood until high school graduation will be restored and re-created to accurately convey his early lifestyle. John Carter Cash will host the concert, with a lineup including: Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Dailey and Darrin Vincent, Gary Morris, and Rodney and Chelsea Crowell. The event will also feature an exclusive exhibit with photographs of Johnny Cash taken by renowned photographer Alan Messer.

Tickets: $37.50 - $150

Sunflower River Blues Festival

August 12th-14th
Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS

The 24th annual Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival is being dedicated to blues legends James Alford, Michael James, Wesley Jefferson, Big Jack Johnson, Sarah Moore, and Foster “Tater” Wiley. Alongside four stages of incredible blues and gospel performances, this bonafide Delta festival features round trips to Hopson Plantation on the Excursion Train with blues musicians on board performing for tips. The first Sunflower River Blues Festival took place in 1988, funded primarily by Clarksdale’s downtown merchants and organized by Jim O’Neal and Dr. Patricia Johnson. It featured dozens of musicians performing on outdoor stages on the banks of the Sunflower River beneath the Riverside Recreation Center and in the open space between Sunflower and Delta Avenues. Since those early days, the Blues Association has taken charge of the festival with members composed entirely of volunteers who love the blues and are committed to keeping the festival free and accessible to all. As blues sprang from the local culture, the event is dedicated to showcasing and celebrating musicians with roots in Mississippi. The Blues Association receives funds from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Early Wright Blues Heritage Award honors Early Wright, “The Soul Man” of WROX Radio, Mississippi’s first African-American radio disc jockey in 1947, who presided over the longest continually broadcast radio show in America and became the symbolic leader of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. The award is presented each year to a nonmusician voted by the membership for outstanding work and dedication to Early Wright’s commitment to “preserve, promote, perpetuate and document blues in its homeland, the Mississippi Delta.”


Otha Turner’s Family Goat BBQ Picnic

August 26th
985 OB McClinton Road, Senatobia, MS

An Otha Turner family tradition and an old-time Mississippi tradition, the Goat Picnic is nonstop down-home foot-stompin’ fun filled with great food, folks, and music. The catfish and goat barbecue are delicious and the ice-cold beer will keep you cool while enjoying the hot summer blues. The Turner family will carry on in the traditional picnic style, showcasing Otha Turner’s original Rising Star Fife and Drum Band with his granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, playing the fife and his grandsons playing the drums. At this picnic, there’s no schedule for performers and one never knows what Hill Country and Delta Blues musicians they’ll see. Past performers include T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, Sam Carr, “Big Jack” Johnson, Kenny Brown, Robert Belfour, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Cedric and Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Kimbrough, “Slick” Ballinger, Steve “Lightnin’” Malcolm, Blind Mississippi Morris, Big Daddy, and the North Mississippi Allstars. The live music lasts all day long and well into the night, and plenty of accomodations are nearby, with Memphis only an hour’s drive away.

Free: donations welcome

King Biscuit Blues Festival

October 7th-9th
Helena, AR

Founded in 1986, this festival has grown to become one of the nation’s foremost exhibitions of blues music. Held for three days annually in October, tens of thousands of blues enthusiasts converge in historic downtown Helena, Arkansas, to witness a truly American art form on the banks of the Mississippi River. The first festival was a one-day event, with a small gathering of local residents and a flatbed truck as a stage. Since then, the festival has grown to three days of music, spanning three stages, and featuring several activities, such as the Kenneth Freemyer 5K Run, the Blues in Schools program, and the Tour da’ Delta bicycle tour. Seven years ago, festival organizers were forced to change the name of the beloved event to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, as the result of a contract which effectively turned the King Biscuit name over to a management group in New York. The rights were then bought by Wolfgang’s Vault, a private company dedicated to the restoration of live concert recordings and the sale of music memorabilia, whose founder and CEO, Bill Sagan, sought to right the wrong and return the cherished original name to the festival beginning this year. The celebration of continuing this great historical legacy in music is sure to be one for the books. Headliners include Buddy Guy, Delbert McClinton, and Keb’ Mo’, along with almost 60 other performers.


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