Although J Blackfoot and Lonnie Shields command distinctive blues styles – both share a signature trait – the charismatic power to communicate with crowds and transform a steamy August night into a memorable experience.
This projection about the Sunflower River Blues Festival’s headliners for Aug. 10-11 is the gospel being preached by Nat McMullen and Melville Tillis, co-chairman, and the all-volunteer crew staging this free event for the 14th year.
“Although big bands are backing Lonnie and J, the festival is featuring a number of surprises as well as the traditional favorites that earned our reputation as ‘America’s purest blues festival,’” says McMullen.
The festival may also become the centerpiece of a 48-hour blues marathon attempt to break a Guiness Book of Records being organized by Blues Station owner Joyce Ordway.
Among the 2001 Sunflower surprises is the appearance of Spoonful of Blues, a quartet of international recording artists from Clarksdale’s sister city, Notodden, Norway.
“Thanks to support from Coahoma Community College, we’re delighted to present this talented group of musicians appearing for the first time in America,” said Tillis.
Other surprises include the performance of Jimbo Mathus, founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who cut his teeth on Delta blues during visits with his Conerly Shoe Store grandparents, relatives and his babysitter Rosetta Patton Brown, daughter of blues pioneer Charley Patton. Mathus and his Knock Down Society recorded an album for her, “Songs for Rosetta,” with Rooster Blues in Clarksdale.
Clinton-based bluesman James Cotton, who reigned on the Living Blues magazine 2000 fall cover, is another festival surprise with national star-quality, predict McMullen and Tillis.
LB Editor Scott Barretta says the guitarist/organist/vocalist, who is also the musical director of a traditional evangelical church, “unites updated, funkified interpretations of the music of Muddy, Wolf, and Hound Dog Taylor with the soul sensibilities of Marvin Gaye, O.V, Wright, and, most notably, Al Green. . .”
Hometown heroes Sam Carr, James Super Chikan Johnson and John Mohead will be returning to the Sunflower stage as well as harpist Arthur Williams, and popular Memphis vocalist Sweet Brown Sugar who appeared in the spring festival benefit.
Other traditional hometown musicians include the Wesley Jefferson Band, the Terry Williams Band with Arthniece Jones, Deep Cuts, the Delta Blues Museum students, Blues Prodigy and the Pure Blues Express.
Following the tradition of hill country blues picnics, Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band will pipe blues fans in a procession from the Clarksdale Station acoustic stage to the Blues Alley Main Stage.
For the first time in festival history, the gospel stage will be held in Clarksdale Station from 2:30 – 5:30 p.m. Saturday instead of Sunday afternoon.
“This move was made to consolidate festival resources and to make the crowds more comfortable inside the air-conditioned building,” explained Tillis.
Headlining the gospel festival are the Pilgrim Jubilees of Chicago. Other celebrity groups booked for the event are James Williams and The Messengers, The Myles Family, The Rev. Lloyd Johnson and the New Traditions, and Yolanda Troupe-Williams of Vicksburg.
“We invite the hometown crowd to enjoy this free event and to help welcome our many visitors from abroad and across the country,” said Yvonne Stanford, festival secretary.
According to Stanford, visitors from 33 states and 11 foreign countries registered at the 2000 festival.
An estimated 20,000 attended the 3-day celebration last year, a figure transforming the festival into Clarksdale’s largest single tourism event, according to McMulllen and Tillis.
According to data from the Coahoma County Tourism Commission, receipts from Coahoma County’s tourism tax collected from restaurants (1 percent of sales) and motels (2 percent) average $23,000 per month.
Tax collection from August 2000 reflecting meals and hotel bookings during the Sunflower River Blues Festival soared to $28,242, a 36-percent jump from the 2000 July figure of $20,821.21.
Clarksdale has 500 motel rooms and the Isle of Capri in Lula has 435. All were full during the Sunflower Fest, according to Chamber officials.
“We put about 600 letters seeking financial support into the mail last week,” said Catherine Clark, festival treasurer. The Blues Association is a 501 (c) 3, (non-profit) organization, and is supported solely by grants, corporate and individual donations.
“We certainly appreciate any and all support,” she said. Volunteers are also needed and asked to sign up at the Chamber of Commerce, 627-7337.
A multiple winner of the Top 25 Southeast Tourism Attraction list, the festival is also supported by the Mississippi Arts Commission as one of the state’s leading cultural heritage events.