Sunflower River Blues and Gospel
With less than a month remaining before Clarksdale’s 15th Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, all area motels are booked solid, the lineup is complete, posters are going up and all systems are looking great, report co-chairmen Nat McMullen and Melville Tillis.
“This is shaping up to be one of our best festivals,” comments McMullen adding that writers and photographers from as far away as Dover, England, have called for press credentials and interviews with area musicians.
“We still need volunteers and donations to keep the festival free and open to the public,” says Tillis. “We’re grateful to the Chamber of Commerce for organizing volunteers and handling the hospitality booth this year and for our major sponsors, the Isle of Capri and Coahoma Community College.”
Approximately 20,000 attended last year’s weekend event including music fans from 17 countries and 38 states, according to Stephanie McMullen, who headed the 2001 hospitality booth.
To whet the appetite of many drawn here to experience Clarksdale’s aura as the home of Delta blues, the association is encouraging all local clubs to book bands Thursday night Aug. 8 before festival begins and also for late night Friday and Saturday shows after the festival stage closes, says McMullen.
“We’ll be publicizing these locations in our program and on our web site (www.sunflowerfest.org),” continues McMullen.
The Delta Blues Museum arts and education program kicks off Thursday, and a 2002 festival innovation is the gospel stage’s move from Clarksdale Station to the Civic Auditorium. “This will give us a great deal more room,” explains Tillis.
Although all three Sunflower blues headliners – Big Jack Johnson on the Friday night stage – Charlie Musselwhite and Bobby Blue Bland on the Saturday night stage – merit international star status, many other performers draw equal attention, emphasize Blues Association members.
Included in this category are Sam Carr, Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, O.B. Buchana, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Eddie Cotton, Terry Williams, Geneva Red, Jimbo Mathus, and John Mohead.
“Our festival is recognized for showcasing great musicians rarely seen anywhere else including young ones just getting started,” says association secretary Yvonne Stanford.
The Delta Blues Museum students kick off the festival at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, followed by Pure Blues Express composed of former museum students Venessia and Fazenda Young. On stage next are The Deep Cuts, a blend of veteran bluesmen Josh Stewart and “Dr. Mike” James with former students Anthony Sherard and Lee Williams.
Once a student of master teacher “Mr. Johnnie” Billington, Terry “Big T” Williams who performs at 6:30 p.m. Friday paid his musical dues playing with Big Jack Johnson, the Jelly Roll Kings, and his own band.
Opening at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, the acoustic stage will be held again inside Clarksdale Station, the former passenger depot and closes around 1:45 p.m. with Otha Turner’s procession from the train station to the Blues Alley main stage.
The Rev. Norman Collins and family open the gospel stage at 2 p.m. in the Civic Auditorium. Finales include James Williams and the Messengers at 4 p.m. and the Mississippi Hall of Fame musicians, the Jackson Southernaires at 4:45 p.m.
The Sunflower River Blues Association is a non-profit organization. Donations, which are tax deductible, can be mailed to Box 1562, Clarksdale, Miss. Annual membership dues are $15. Prospective volunteers are requested to call the Chamber of Commerce at 627-7337.
Spreading the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival news from his famous hot tamale mobile on the corner of Martin Luther King and Yazoo Avenues in the heart of Clarksdale’s historic blues district are Oscar Ornsby (right) and his son Otis.