Wayne Andrews, the executive director of the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, attributes to "sheer luck" that the three-day event has stayed free for its 19 years. But that was one of the smaller problems this year.
For a while, the festival’s home was in doubt, until Helena city government and the festival resolved differences. There’s also a lingering question about whether the festival can keep the King Biscuit name, owned by others.
But for now, Helena will be singing the King Biscuit Blues. The 19th festival is set to go Oct. 7-9 along the Mississippi River levee, with historic Cherry Street and downtown nearby. Headliners include Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown on a Saturday that’s loaded with other big names, such as the Holmes Brothers; Daniel "Slick" Bollinger on Thursday, and Kenny Neal and Coco Taylor on Friday night. One must-see act, Andrews suggests, is bluegrass/blues guitarist William Lee Ellis on the Saturday acoustic stage.
"We’re a slightly different animal than other events, although we do try to show a profit," said Andrews. "We view ourselves as a cultural arts event, rather than a concert event." That, Andrews says, wouldn’t be possible without important sponsorship from the Isle of Capri casino across the Mississippi from Helena.
Still, a strapped Helena city government, claiming that the festival didn’t bring anything to the city financially, tried to hit up the festival for a portion of the meager after-expenses proceeds last year. The festival board looked at cotton fields outside of town and even across the river in Mississippi as alternate sites. Residents finally convinced city fathers that maintaining the festival was important. An economic impact study said it churns up $2 million in spending.
"Hotels between Little Rock and Clarksdale [Miss.] are booked for the weekend," Andrews noted. All 48 continental states and 13 countries were represented by festival-goers last year. The festival has drawn an estimated 100,000 people each of the past three years, Andrews said.
To further its mission of promoting an original American music form, the festival added an Emerging Artist portion to the program. The project recognizes a simple fact: As nature runs its course, there are fewer original blues performers.
"This gives artists a chance to perform, be discovered, gain exposure, get a connection in the recording industry and to preserve the art form and develop future legends," Andrews said.
The festival’s name comes from the King Biscuit Flour Hour, a still-running blues music radio program that originated 65 years ago in Helena and was sponsored by a flour company with a mill in town. The first festival 19 years ago was a small event on one stage with a few bluesmen. Now, more than 100 acts are brought together, including gospel artists. Many fans camp for the duration near the levee, and many enjoy the arts and crafts and food vendors lining Cherry Street.
Blues variations range from Chicago-style to Delta to Cajun music and more. It’s not all three-chord, "I lost my job and my woman and I’m gonna get drunk" music, though you can find that, too. It’s also artists like 87-year-old Pinetop Perkins, who taught Ike Turner and directly influenced the music we hear today.
"What I like about the King Biscuit," said Andrews, "what the 19 years has done is, even if you don’t know the names, people now come because they are trusting us that we’re going to put people on that are worth hearing. We don’t sell the festival by having a superstar of music to bring fans in. We’re programming an event for people who want to hear a style of music with an authentic feel. I think that’s why people come back, or book their hotel rooms a year in advance."
For a complete list of performers and activities, visit www.kingbiscuitfest.org via the Internet.
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