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You know you’ve got a good music festival going when everyone’s trying to latch on to it or beg for a piece of the pie. That’s all you have to know about the weekend event that for 19 years was called the King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Wayne Andrews, who is in his fourth year as executive director of Helena’s major annual October event — now known as the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival — can provide the figures that show little net profit at the end of the day, which is probably to be expected for an event that doesn’t charge admission. Still, there are those who want to grab onto it, or maybe schedule their own show against it, all to the detriment of an Arkansas treasure, Andrews says. He worries about its future, and he’s not alone. But he’s the one out on the roads of the Delta region marketing it as the days wind down to the festival’s Oct. 5 opening, and he’s where the buck stops.
“This is one of the largest blues and cultural festivals in the country, and we have one of the poorest counties in the country,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how big this is outside of Helena. We had 133 media outlets here last year, from the Italian press to the BBC. ... We have people here from 48 states and 13 foreign countries. To me, it’s a national event.”
The festival draws an estimated 100,000 people over three days and has an economic impact of $4.8 million on Phillips County, which is losing population by the hundreds each year. Traveling Highway 49 through Helena on the other 51 weekends of the year offers the quintessential picture of decay in the Delta.
But on blues festival weekend in Helena, “this is Christmas,” Andrews said.
The biggest names in blues music have played the festival over the years, and this year’s lineup, featuring the Fabulous Thunderbirds on Friday night, is another good draw.
Andrews says that when you say “King Biscuit” anywhere around the world, “they knew you were talking about Arkansas and our blues festival.”
Now, they can’t officially call it “the Biscuit,” though supporters buy shirts off the festival’s website bearing the slogan, “The Biscuit will always be in Helena, Arkansas,” and, on the reverse side, “The home of the blues is in the Delta, not a restaurant.”
Andrews and the festival’s board, the Sonny Boy Blues Society, have had a number of battles to fight in recent years, none bigger than the one over the festival’s name. King Biscuit Entertainment Inc., which at one time broadcast a syndicated radio show called the “King Biscuit Flour Hour,” sued the festival over the rights to the name. (The festival was originally dubbed King Biscuit because of the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, still broadcast on Helena’s KFFA radio station.) It’s a far more convoluted story than that, and appears to involve several players who have tried to make a buck off the festival in the past, but the bottom line is that, rather than wait until the case went to trial and potentially have to pay damages for using the name, Andrews said, the board agreed to change the name to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival before last year’s event.
Steve O’Dell, a blues lover, founder of the Arkansas River Blues Society and a regular at the festival for the past 11 years, said, “It didn’t make a difference last year what they were calling it. We had people from all over last year and this year I’ve got people coming in from the Netherlands, so I know it doesn’t matter that it was switched. They could call it the Beanie and Hotdog Roast Festival and it wouldn’t matter. People know the festival and know where it is.”
Thousands come to Helena, Andrews said, just to experience the Delta, with its farm fields that early blues players tended during the day before they headed for a juke joint to play at night.
An outdoor festival’s success is always contingent on weather, and Helena’s lost money two years ago when it rained all three days. Andrews said that festival lost $30,000, but the ones before and after made $7,000 and $20,000 respectively. The Sonny Boy board operates with a $250,000 annual budget. Half of that is tied up in securing the talent for the festival. A major contributor to the budget in recent years has been the Isle of Capri Casino across the Mississippi River in Lula, Miss. This year, Isle of Capri offered a $20,000 matching contribution, encouraging other businesses to donate up to $20,000 as well.
O’Dell breaks down the festival’s money woes this way: “If people who attended just put one dollar in the kitty, it would be fine.”
Still, there are others who envision lots of green.
“A bunch out of Memphis came over a few years ago, saw what the festival was doing and said, ‘We’ll run it for you,’ and thought they’d make a lot of money,” O’dell said. “Well, they lost around $125,000 one year and $250,000 the next.”
Roy Moore was the promoter out of Memphis who tried to run the festival, and whom Andrews succeeded as executive director. Moore, Andrews says, is still behind the scenes with another group that includes Memphis entrepreneur John Elkington, who helped redevelop Beale Street into a modern entertainment draw. Andrews says the New York-based King Biscuit Entertainment Inc. also got involved with them through Moore’s work. Speculation earlier this year was that the group was going to schedule a festival in Memphis opposite Helena’s blues festival, call it the King Biscuit, charge admission, and make it a big rock and blues festival along the lines of Memphis in May’s Beale Street Music Festival. A press release was issued a few months back. “Since then, we’ve heard nothing,” Andrews said. “If they’re still having it, they’re keeping it a secret. That’s not to say they won’t do it next year.”
Moore claims to have bought the name “King Biscuit Blues Festival” from the city of Helena when he was running the festival, Andrews said. There is even an agreement in writing, and Main Street Helena did receive money from Moore. “He can’t own the name because it wasn’t the city’s to sell,” Andrews says.
Then, last year, Andrews had to deal with some city leaders who felt that the festival should pay them a portion of the profits. They’ve also suggested charging $1 admission. Andrews pointed out the money local businesses brought in over the blues festival weekend compared with the rest of the year, not to mention the cost of securing the festival site so admission could be charged, and that talk died down. The festival sells beer at $2 a can, but doesn’t limit the three local liquor stores just steps away from the three festival stages who will sell it for even less.
It’s obvious Andrews is a born negotiator. He grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut and was involved in putting on concerts there. He came to Memphis and attended law school for a while — “I know enough to be dangerous,” he said — before becoming involved in running Memphis in May. He was hired on to direct the Sonny Boy Blues Society four years ago. Andrews still has other irons in the fire at home in Memphis but makes it down to Helena three days a week for blues festival duties.
Anyone can join the Sonny Boy Blues Society for a $10 contribution.
In the meantime, Andrews works the Delta for more support of the festival with limited resources.
“I’m excited that we’re bringing in some new sponsors, and we’re coming off a year of everybody talking about the name change,” he said two weeks ago in Little Rock. “We have an opportunity to get more businesses interested, but we’re also 30 days out. There are only a handful of us from the society, though, and hundreds of people to contact.”
The festival has reached out to Little Rock and cities such as Boston and St. Louis to encourage the blues artists in those regions to compete for a spot in the festival through its Emerging Artists competition that started last year. One sad fact about the blues is that many of the artists who made it popular are gone, and those who are left are growing old.
Andrews says he fights all these battles for the festival for one reason.
“For us,” he said, “it’s keeping a city alive.”