King Biscuit Blues Festival – The Jerusalem of the Blues
ON October 16, 2014Posted in: Arkansas Blues, Blues, Blues Articles, Blues Festivals, Detroit Blues, Events, News
Festival logic says that the headliners are the high point of the show, that the last night is the capstone, that buskers are acts not ready for prime time on stage and that the minor stages are just that. The 39th King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas defied festival logic. The opening act on the main stage was one of the best of more than the scores of performers. One of the buskers performing all day for two days is a 40-year veteran who’s released 17 CDs, and the most energized act I saw performed at 1 in the afternoon in a room no bigger than most people’s living room.
Mr. Sipp was this year’s International Blues Challenge winner and clearly the best of the finalists in that Memphis competition, a statement I can’t make for most of the past winners’ performances. A veteran of 25 years as the gospel singer/songwriter and producer Cat Cole, this Mississippi born performer began playing guitar at six and first took the stage at eight. As one of the prizes of winning the IBC he had the honor of opening the Biscuit Thursday morning, October 9 at 11:30 with a set that channeled two of his mentors, B. B. King and Albert Collins, while updating their style with original music and jumping around the stage in spasms as if his guitar strings were attacking him back. Traditional enough to be a comfortable decendent of his mentors but original and contemporary enough to make him a contender.
Explaining his switch from gospel, he says, “There are seven notes in music, and no matter how you play those notes or where you play those notes, if you play a C in church, it’s a C. If you play a C at a blues festival, it’s a C. If you play a C on a country stage it’s C. Wherever you play it, it’s a C.”
He and his band had been playing blues only a few weeks when they played the 2013 IBC. They knew only three songs, and when they made it into the finals they ran back to their hotel room and wrote a fourth song in order to have enough material to fill their allotted time. The song “Hey Hey Hey Hey” is on his It’s My Guitar CD. This year he took first place with the same song. Many remembered him for no other reason than the black-framed WalMart glasses with tape holding the frames together at the bridge.
There’s no glass in those frames.
He wears them because his daughter was picked on when she got similar glasses in the third grade. “At that point, I was working on my seventh gospel CD and was going to a photo shoot. (I told her), ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to buy some framed just like yours. I’m going to pop the lenses out and put the tape in the middle of them and make it cool.’”
When Guitar Mac left Helena, Arkansas in 1968 his baby sister was 10 years old. When he came back in 2000, she was 40. He’s busked the Biscuit every year since, flying in from California and sitting in front of the official merch. store watching his guitar case fill with dollar bills. He plays a National Steel guitar he bought for $500. He’s seen similar ones on the wall for $6500. He also has Dobro number 184 and plays the music of Tampa Red and Petie Wheatstraw whose nickname he says with a sly cackle was “The
High Sheriff from Hell.”
At 68, Mac is the only one of his childhood friends left alive. He remembers his first sip of corn liquor. It gave him a soar throat for a week. He learned his licks from a transistor radio tuned to WDIA with deejays Rufus Thomas and Blues Boy King. He couldn’t afford records because he was earning only $3 a day chopping cotton. He’s released 17 CDs, has 250 works on ASCAP but claims to get only $15 for 1500 plays on iTunes and earns more money busking at the Biscuit than he does gigs in California.
Oh, and he’s good. When he first came back to Helena, The Biscuit’s Godfather, Bubba Sulivan had him sit in with The Jellyroll Kings. “He thought because of going to California my style had been sanitized.” It hadn’t. Mac’s got the mojo.
Lonnie Shields met Sonny Boy Williamson at age four when his dad took him to KFFA radio station to hear him perform on King Biscuit Time. Now 59 Shields was back playing the Front Porch stage with a six-piece band that couldn’t all fit on the stage. He flew off the stage whirling through a packed hall swirling around and around like a hurricane, singing Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King and Al Green classics at the top of his lungs.
“It comes from the heart,” he says about his intense delivery. “I play that way, and the people make me feel that way. And I give myself to God, and all of my stuff comes from Him. That’s the higher power, whatever you want to call it. I feel it. I mean I close my eyes and just feel it. I feel the notes in my head. I just deliver.”
I had the honor of once again hosting the first hour of the Call and Response Seminar. The second hour was handled by blues Renaissance man Roger Stolle. Nashville blues singer Nick Nixon got the biggest laugh describing his disturbing reaction to Jimi Hendrix whom he befriended at Fort Campbell in 1962. Nixon and his friends thought Hendrix just couldn’t hit the right notes. But it was Paul Thorn who captivated the crowd in concert and at the seminar. While never claming to be a blues man, he nonetheless has become the Biscuit’s favorite son since the passing of Robert Lockwood, Jr. He told the crowd that the theme of his new album Too Blessed to Be Stressed is about being positive. If you can afford to come to the Biscuit and take your wife out to the Cracker Barrel, you are blessed, he said. And he left the seminar early so he could spend time with his wife and child.
Roy Rogers and Sonny Landreth performed for the first time together. Rogers is the fastest and most skilled slide player alive, and Landreth is the most original. Rogers’ work with the late Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek showed his ability to stray from the blues format in some very creative ways. Together, Rogers and Landreth stuck closer to traditional slide classics like “Walking Blues,” “Terraplane Blues” and “Shake Your money Maker” and at times the onslaught was withering, but it would be interesting to see what they would come up with if they put the time into creating new music together.
Reba Russell is a perennial favorite at the Biscuit. She told a Friday afternoon main stage crowd, “Heaven came to Helena, and the devil, he let go.” That could be the mantra for the weekend. The line between religious and secular is blurring into a spiritual awakening that is the keynote of this annual pilgrimage to the fertile delta whose music was born out of the brothels, gambling houses and jukes of the 1940s and the music that KFFA broadcast into the noonday cotton fields.
Mr. Sipps has transitioned from gospel to blues and been baptized with a thumbs up after playing “The Thrill Is Gone” with B. B. King. Paul Thorn’s daddy is a preacher, but his uncle is a pimp. Guitar Mac says he’s not religious but he believes in doing the right thing, saying, “Only sinners need to go to church because if you’re not a sinner you don’t need to go to church.” Shields credits God with his talent, and Sunshine Sonny Payne soldiers on through more than 17,000 episodes of the King Biscuit Time Radio show as people from around the world travel to King Biscuit, the Jerusalem of the blues.
Making The News
The Montery County Herald
Pickin' The Blues
Guitar Mac plays the Blues on a "steel guitar" to the Garden Stage audience at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival.
by John Hulsman
Guitar Mac and the Blues Express were set up next to a large patio with tables, chairs and the beer and wine concession, and across the park lawn from the Farmers Market shelter with its farmers, merchants and food vendors. The Blues Express was Rick on guitar, Tammy on bass, and Eric on drums. There was no sound system, just the amplifiers for the bands instruments. True to his name, Guitar Mac had five guitars (that I could see) - everything from a steel hollow body to a rectangular solid body reminiscent of Bo Diddleys guitar. For the most part Guitar Mac played slide guitar - not the Roy Rogers style of maximum notes in the minimum time, but a style with a slower blues feel sho nuff. The play list spanned the blues genre from Robert Johnson to Jimmy Hendrix and included quite a few Elmore James and Jimmy Reed songs, yes, yes. Some songs were played to the traditional arrangements while others were played to the bands own arrangements. Id say that feelings are mixed regarding some of the bands arrangements, but they do get one to give the songs a fresh listen. Rick played at least one extended solo in each of the three sets while Guitar Mac took the tip jar through the audience. The size of the audience impressed me. The lawn and patio were filled with a cross section of the Davis population (and a few interlopers). There were several toddlers and preschoolers, brought by their parents or grandparents, jumping and turning to the music a new generation of dancers learning to appreciate the blues. Two adult couples danced near the beer and wine concession for a time, but the Picnic in the Park is mainly a place to kick back and enjoy food, drink, good weather, great company and good music.
- By Andy Grigg
It's very easy to complain about a situation that bothers you, but it's another thing altogether to do something constructive and productive and positive to change whatever is that's "not right." Those people, who take it upon themselves to be the catalyst or leader in a situation where both hard work (often thankless) and imagination are in demand, are to be admired, comended and hopefully copied by others. Guitar Mac has become known as the very vocal and very visible leader in the movement to promote and preserve blues music in the Sacramento area of California.
A relatively young man by blues standards, Mac has a unique understanding and appreciation of the blues that few of today's younger blues artists can lay claim to. Mac was born and raised in blues country; rural Arkansas, at a time (1950s) when blues music was at its peak as a past time and a form of entertain-ment. Having experienced first-hand the country juke-joints and the hard life that made those jukes an essential outlet for Black Americans in the South, Mac was also witness to the whole l960s; the "decade-of-change" that ushered in Civil Rights, Soul Music, Black Power and a total change in attitude towards blues music by Black America.
Now, in the l990s, things have come full
circle it seems with today's African-Americans wanting to study and even embrace the music
they had dis-missed and rejected ten years ago. Guitar Mac has worked diligently over the
last 20 years to build his own career, but one can quickly come to the realization that
Guitar Mac has been working even harder for the greater good, the 'Big Picture' - the
future of the blues. His love for the blues transcends any ego related career promotion.
His work in schools with the children, his concert festival organizing and especially his
blues radio shows all show his desire and dedication to ensure that blues is understood,
accepted and ultimately revered as the single-most important music form in American
AG: Where were you born?
Please See the current copy of "Real Blues" Magazine for the full article.
You are visitor number: 158