The State of the Blues in 2011

The state of the Blues is strong.

Young, vibrant talent continues to flood into the blues at a fascinating pace. Blues festivals continue to swell in numbers, size, and appreciation. This year, good blues music has garnered mainstream, national press from USA Today, The New York Times, and others. Albums by artists such as Nick Moss, Lurrie Bell, Louisiana Red, Bobby Rush, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, and so many more have won widespread praise, awards, and accolades this year. The Blues Foundation’s membership is flourishing, though make no mistake, it must continue to gain loyal members, and now is a better time than ever to become a member if you aren’t. Blues Tourism is up, with blues cruisers storming the ticket lines, more pilgrimages to the Mississippi delta, (especially at festival time), the Delta Blues Museum making a stunning addition as it grows and thrives, and the coming National Blues Museum in Saint Louis gaining steam this year. Blues tourists are filing into blues hot spots — Clarksdale, Memphis, Saint Louis, and Chicago. Events like the International Blues Challenge are attracting talent across the globe, as a growing number of blues fans, well into the thousands, descend upon Memphis to experience the best and brightest that blues music has to offer. And of course, long standing titans of music such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy have been unwavering in acting as gateways to the blues, thrilling packed houses every night. While it has suffered numerous and deeply painful losses, Blues music has nonetheless put on an impressive display of strength in 2011, and the debt of gratitude lays at the feet of two sets of people: powerful, devoted, soul-filled artists who continue to create groundbreaking and hip shaking new music, and the rabid, passionate, dedicated, and vocal fans that support the blues through buying albums, attending events, donating to causes, and continuing to change the hearts and minds of apathetic or “uninitiated” friends, family, and strangers alike.

Strength doesn’t come without trials

Hubert Sumlin

The late blues legend Hubert Sumlin

Blues Music’s tenacity does not negate the fact that, as a genre, it has suffered more than it’s share of challenges, setbacks, and tragedies in 2011. The Grammy Awards removed 50% of blues categories, while other closely-related categories such as Zydeco were slaughtered entirely. The prolonged, nationwide financial difficulty has made finding local gigs for artists harder than ever. Sadly, and Most importantly, nearly every fan worldwide will admit that this has been an astoundingly challenging year for the blues, with an unprecedented, tragic number of highly-respected, long-loved blues men passing; Hubert Sumlin, J. Blackfoot, Eddie Kirkland, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, Doyle Bramhall, Coco Robicheaux, Howard Tate, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and more have all moved on.

In the passing of so many of these amazing musicians and national treasures, and the absence that has been felt, there has been an abundance of support from across the globe, from all walks of life. The passing of both Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin were featured on the front pages of national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today, as was Eddie Kirkland. After their deaths, both men became trending topics on Twitter — a rare accomplishment for any topic. Blues fans and musicians held memorial concerts and mini-fests to honor the fallen, donated to blues charities in their favorite artist’s name, and fondly remembered shows they’d experienced, stages shared, or their star-struck story of the time they met their most respected blues artist. “An outpouring of support” is hardly an adequate phrase, as blues and music fans rallied to celebrate the dynamic and greatly impressive lives of the people that brought us so much joy through their music. Mainstream musicians made powerful stands to show their fans where their inspirations and influences came from, with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger footing the bill for Hubert’s funeral, guitarist Slash frankly discussing his love for the late guitarist, and a number of others such as the Steve Miller Band and George Thorogood showing their support.

While it’s easy to lament, with great bereavement, the many losses that blues music has experienced this year, and show concern for the genre, the overwhelming embrace from legions of music lovers during this year’s many challenging times is a concrete sign that these longstanding great’s powerful legacies are secure, that blues fans are active, proud, and vocal, and that the music will continue to be influential, loved and appreciated long after artist’s physical passing. As a recent Chicago Tribune article pointed out, Hubert’s New Jersey funeral wasn’t attended by a great many, but as the article failed to point out, the Chicago-based celebration of his life at Fitzgerald’s Club was, and raised thousands of dollars for the HART Fund, while the support in the wake of his passing made many international waves.

It’s all in the Music, baby

Inside the blues “world”, the genre, while certainly challenging, is far from suffering, with many blues men and women artists attracting thousands of fans to blues festivals, blues award shows, and competitions, which in turn continue to successfully grow. American Blues Scene writers attended dozens of festivals and shows this year, and were collectively thrilled to find seats filled, fans jubilent, and unkempt energy electrifying stages from coast to coast. Vibrant and talented (very) young musicians like Tallan Noble Latz, Quinn Sullivan and Matthew Davidson are frequently taking up the mantle to much widespread fanfare. Acts such as Girls With Guitars, featuring the Cassie Taylor, the daughter of the great Otis Taylor, recent BMA nominee Samantha Fish, and Dani Wilde are storming the country and world. The many young up-and-comers add encouraging weight to an impressive lineup of well known, long established names, such as Joe Louis Walker, Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, James Cotton, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, who continue to headline festivals & bring the thrill of the blues to their many fans. With the losses experienced in 2011, it is now more important than ever to laude, support, and promote the hard working artists, both young and seasoned, that are keeping the beat and continuing to make music.

Few blues musicians will ever enjoy the same financial success of popular rock or pop bands, but thankfully, an impressive number are able to make a career through crafting amazing music, thanks to the support of fans everywhere who attend the shows and purchase albums & merchandise. This doesn’t, however, mean continued and increasing support isn’t absolutely necessary. Many blues musicians of all calibers still struggle, some of the best blues artists work hard in relative obscurity outside of their region, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a health plan, retirement fund or 401K for artists. The support from fans in the form of album and ticket sales, as well as word of mouth is absolutely necessary for the continued strength and growth of the blues. 

‘Renaissance’ is not a word to be used lightly

A staggering number of the most popular artists on the planet have, since the dawn of their musical odyssey, loudly and firmly proclaimed their devotion and love of the blues as a genre… to the perplexing general disinterest of the people. But years of famous names shouting the blues from the rooftops is finally aiding in filling the void in blues’ place in current popularity.

I believe in my heart of hearts,” Joe Bonamassa recently told us, “that the blues will have one more, if not many more, renaissances.” He is not the only one that shares the sentiment, and indeed, there are a number of precedents in the past that show us that this 100-plus year old genre has staying power beyond nearly any other American art form. One of the benchmarks to watch out for in a renaissance is the support of popular figures, and in the past 2 years, that support has been graciously experienced in spades.

Brand names everywhere will attest that star power — using celebrities to promote a product — can be a hugely influential tool. That simple fact is the reason brands pay millions of dollars to feature celebrity endorsements in their commercials and ad campaigns. Fortunately, the blues needs no money to captivate any person. This year, nationally known and respected celebrities have continued to loudly and vehemently sing, sometimes literally, the praises of blues music. Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, (though it was released late last year) was a virtual shrine to the blues. Hugh Laurie, the British-based artist who portrays Dr. House on television and a nearly lifelong blues fanatic, released an album of New Orleans Blues. A relatively brief article of his thoughts on blues on this website gained over 10,00 hits in a single day. Popular figures bring open minds. In 2010, celebrated artists such as Robert Plant, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Petty, and Steve Miller Band set the stage, releasing and promoting blues albums while adamantly professing blues music’s impact on them to their many, many fans. This year, George Thorogood, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and Gregg Allman, every one a professed, dedicated blues fan, released blues albums. Allman’s was nominated for a Grammy. This kind of obsessive, loud star power is the oft unattainable holy grail for brand names, and blues music is receiving it in heaps at no cost. This is also a time, however, to call upon those artists who have gained so much from the creative influences of the blues to give back in support of it, for example, to the Blues Foundation’s upcoming Hall of Fame.

The benefit to the genre is plentiful, and can instantly be seen. Respected names endorsing the music helps to clear some of the irrational and offhanded “blues is sad/old/outdated/irrelevant” stigma, and gives the music the opportunity to speak for itself. Many have and will continue to try to listen to the music because their favorite star did. A great many of us “long term” blues fans were introduced the same way — through classic rock, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or another popular figure who sparked our curiosity about the music they liked, and the blues folks they insisted play at their shows; Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Muddy Waters. It can be argued that since the 1970s, with a few key exceptions such as the tragically-interrupted era of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the genre has seldom seen such widespread, mainstream focus. More fans coming to the blues means more demand for blues musicians in general, more musical exploration, and better pay through tips, gigs, product sales, and, as fan numbers grow, an increase in musicians’ pay at festivals and large events. In this climate of mass-marketed techno-driven pop, complete with synth and 80s-revival flare, the steady progression & quiet revolution of long-popular artists showing their roots is a welcome counter-balance.

 There is endless power in Community

Blues fans have, for years, felt somewhat of a fraternal kinship. “Oh you’re a blues fan?” is an often experienced phrase for those “in the know” — like a secret handshake. This tight-knit sense of national and international community, experienced at festivals, blues shows, online at communities like Blindman’s Blues Forum, the 70,000-fan strong Facebook Blues Fanpage, and the many Facebook blues groups, continues to define the strength-in-numbers of blues people everywhere. Fans sharing their favorite contemporary artists or an amazing new find with one another helps keep musical exploration and versatility within the genre strong.

As this year comes to a close, we can take solace in the fact that, in just over one month, thousands of fans and hundreds of musicians will descend upon Memphis, sent by blues communities on an international scale to show off each region, each city’s best and brightest. The Blues Cruise, which is so popular that tickets sell out many months in advance, will continue to storm the high seas, with dozens of the finest blues bands in existence. Major blues festivals across the world will continue to stay strong and grow, as they have even through a nearly unprecedented recession, and perhaps most importantly, great blues men and women everywhere will continue to put on shows and release albums.

What can a blues fan do to keep the music and genre strong? Simply, support it financially and through word of mouth. Go see blues acts, especially local blues acts, some of whom are among the most powerful you may ever see. Purchase new blues albums & artist merchandise. Buy food and drinks during artists’ gigs. Attend blues festivals. If you think an artist is talented, tell & bring your friends. Share artists’ fan pages and music on Facebook and other social media, one of the most powerful ways to help spread the joy of a blues artist. Join the Blues Foundation, a non for profit organization that works full time to celebrate the blues’ existence, preserve blues history, and support blues education across the world. Blues music fans are arguably the most dedicated fans of any musical genre, and blues musicians pack more collective soul & talent than arguably any other genre. The argument that the blues is dying or on life support is confusing at best, and damaging at worst. This year, the genre has ben beaten hard and relentlessly. It has been a painful year of loss, but in casualty comes hope, power, and a display of concord that steadfastly shows the genre’s dedication and true colors. In 2011, the blues has been strong.

 

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About Matt Marshall

Matt Marshall is an avid blues music lover and the editor of the American Blues Scene. In any given year, you can find him at dozens of blues events or festivals across the country. Matt also manages the American Blues Scene's official shop, where you can find great blues t-shirts. You can find Bluescentric on Facebook