12 Annual Oxford Blues Festival, October 12-14 at Lafayette County Arena
By Davis Coen
Mid-October is the time of year when blues music gets a local spotlight, as the Oxford Blues Festival returns to town. Almost annually since 2010, the festival has celebrated what might be the most universally known export to come out of the state of Mississippi, the ‘Birthplace of American Music.’
The long-running festival, now in its twelfth year, will take place for the first time at Lafayette County Arena, located at 70 F.D. Buddy East Parkway. Related events run from Thursday afternoon to Saturday evening, October 12 – 14, and include something for music lovers of all stripes.
Headliners this year represent an array of musical styles, mostly rooted in the blues genre. “Music is all so connected,” said Oxford native and festival producer, Darryl Parker, who doesn’t consider himself a purist, but welcomes and encourages originality as it relates to blues.
“Whether it’s blues, or rock, or Celtic music, I always wanted to keep it open, and let the bands express themselves any way they want to.”
This year’s line-up of musicians also reflects various parts of Mississippi. One of the more traditional blues artists, Little Willie Farmer, hails from Duck Hill, MS, while Anthony “Big A” Sherod strongly represents the Delta, and besides having toured extensively, is a mainstay in Clarksdale, MS.
Local blues is also well-represented, in the duo Wendy Jean Garrison & Andrea Staten, both based in Oxford, as well as Mud Alexander, who grew up in Taylor, MS.
“We don’t want to have an Oxford Blues Festival without having some Oxford people there,” said Parker.
Other regional musicians include Randy Ferguson, Andrew “Cadillac Funk” Yurkow, Mick Kolassa, and Mizz Lowe.
One thing setting this year apart from the past, is that female musicians make up one-third of the roster. This is refreshingly unique for a typically male-dominated professional field.
The festival commences at 1 p.m. on Thursday, with a free, live-panel event located at The Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, on the third floor of the J.D. Williams Library.
The guest panelists will be Red Paden, owner of the legendary Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, and Roger Stolle, who runs Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art shop in Clarksdale, and helps coordinate much of the city’s blues tourism. Their panel is called, ‘Juke Joints Unplugged: Tales and Tunes from Mississippi’s Soulful Hideaways!’
Also from Clarkdale, educator and co-founder of the North Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Brenda Luckett, will lead a panel named, ‘Soulful Sounds: Blues Music and the Ongoing Pursuit for Justice,’ starting at 2:30 p.m.
The panels will be followed later at 6 p.m. by a blues-laced segment of Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, featuring local players Davis Coen & Kinney Kimbrough, and New Orleans funkster Ernest Vincent. This will take place at The Graduate Hotel in downtown Oxford.
Ticketed events at the arena begin at 6:30 p.m. on Friday with the ‘Emerging Blues Artist Showcase,’ which is a competition between six newer artists and will award first, second, and third place honors to participants. This is all in the spirit of encouraging community interest in the blues, and inspiring musicians to play future festivals.
Bands will be judged mainly on originality (or originality at interpreting traditional blues) and overall stage presence. Those in attendance will also have a chance to vote on the competing talent, and ballots will be weighed together with the judges’ votes.
“There are people out there who are creative, so let’s foster that creativity, without having carbon copies of all these greats we’ve had,” said Parker. “I mean, there’s a place for that, but if somebody wants to combine blues and rock, or blues and hip-hop, or blues and metal – I’m not gonna say ‘no, you can’t play because you’re not of a certain mold.’”
Arena doors open at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, for the main event, and live performances run from 11:10 to 9:15 p.m. Over a dozen food trucks are also expected at the arena, as well as arts & crafts vendors. There will be drink sales on-premise, including sodas and adult beverages.
Tickets for students are discounted at $15, and general admission is $35. There is also a VIP package which includes reserved parking, private air-conditioned restrooms, complimentary food & drink from local restaurants, and priority seating for the live entertainment.
Parker encourages any active, working musicians to inquire in advance about free admission, in another effort to encourage and support the local arts. This can be done by visiting OxfordBluesFest.com/FreeGigTicket.
A music festival over a decade in the works
Although putting on the Oxford Blues Fest has not been without uphill battles for Parker, it certainly hit the ground running in 2010, its inaugural year. He returned to his hometown after being away for a while and became driven by what had become a vibrant local music scene.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish there were more festivals, other than waiting a whole year for Double Decker,’” he said.
Parker, who says he enjoys many genres of music – and that the festival could have just as well been for country or bluegrass – felt especially aback about the nearest blues festival in Mississippi being an hour drive away, in Clarksdale.
“Oxford’s not trying to be the Delta, but we like good music here, too,” he said. “And I like the blues.”
First intended to be a free, outdoor festival – somewhat like the annual Double Decker Arts Fest, but on a smaller scale – Parker was forced to take a different approach when his permit application was denied, mainly due to strict noise ordinances, which still plague live music events in the city today.
In turn, Oxford Blues Fest took place mostly at various indoor locations around Courthouse Square – including some now bygone, like Red House Burger & Blues.
Parker recalled that most of the performers the first year were playing to packed houses, which hosted hundreds of spectators. “It could have been just because it was the first year, but I was happy,” he said. “That didn’t only happen the first year…but seeing those people come together and the smiles on their faces – tapping their toes and dancing, and having a good time – I mean, those moments happen every year, but the first year was magic.”
Although Parker still hopes for a day when it could be a free, outdoor festival – as he had first intended – he is grateful for the use of the arena. This was facilitated by Wayne Andrews of The Powerhouse, who was also willing to share beverage sales with the festival, which will greatly help compensate the performers.
Also, local sponsorships are crucial for maintaining this annual celebration of a music genre practically synonymous with the Magnolia State. Parker asks businesses who still wish to participate this year to reach out through the website, OxfordBluesFest.com.
It should seem that in a thriving city, with the largest blues archive on the planet, that the community would only increase its support.
“Oxford is known for many things besides music,” said Parker, “but I think it’s a good thing to do this festival. Look at the joy that it brings people.”
“Particularly with the blues, it’s not just about bad times. It’s about the healing spirit.” – Taj Mahal.