At first take, the Bridging the Blues initiative sounds like a case of misplaced loyalty. Why would a bunch of Mississippians work so hard to boost attendance at the upcoming King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas, and why would Mississippi tourism organizations and leaders — and their counterparts in Tennessee — back their effort?
However, organizers of Bridging the Blues, which will be held Sept. 27-Oct. 13, say look again. They are touting the effort as regional economic development in its purest form, maintaining that what is good for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, to be held next month just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Ark., is also good for cultural/heritage tourism in Mississippi as well as Tennessee.
“This is the quintessential example (of regional economic development),” said Malcolm White, head of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division. (MDA has provided funding for Bridging the Blues.) “The average stay of tourists in Mississippi is 2.5 days. Bridging the Blues has the potential to bring visitors into our state for up to 10 days, including many who would not have come if not for the King Biscuit Blues Festival and the other events packaged around the festival both here and in Tennessee by Bridging the Blues. This is right up my alley, and I’m excited about it.”
While today many are involved in the Bridging the Blues project, now in its second year, it was the brainchild of one man. Wesley Smith is a Greenwood native who grew up with a love for the Mississippi Delta and its heritage, particularly blues music. Over the years he became a regular attendee of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, often camping out on the grounds.
Choosing tourism for his career, Smith would work with several organizations, including blues-focused work in Memphis, before landing his current position as executive director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Greenville. (He is also president of Mississippi Delta Tourism Association and has worked on many blues-related tourism projects, including the Mississippi Blues Trail.)
“I began to think of how we could possibly package events here in Mississippi as well as in Tennessee around the King Biscuit that would give us a chance to show all of the opportunities we have here while also helping grow King Biscuit,” Smith said. “I saw it as a great chance to really tell the story of the blues.”
With that, Smith reached out to others, one of whom was Allan Hammons. Hammons heads the Greenwood-based advertising firm Hammons and Associates and has played a key role in large blues-based projects, most recently the GRAMMY Museum going up in Cleveland on the campus of Delta State University.
Hammons told Smith he was in. The next move was to find a Mississippi event that would be willing to play the weekend before King Biscuit.
The first step in the journey was not positive. Smith contacted Billy Johnson, who established the Highway 61 Blues Festival and is curator of the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland. Smith asked Johnson if he would be willing to move his festival to the weekend before King Biscuit.
Initially, Johnson said no, but then the massive Mississippi River flood of 2011 forced the cancellation of the Highway 61 event. Shortly after the announcement, Johnson called Smith wondering if he was still looking for a pre-King Biscuit event.
Then a stroke of serendipity — Smith had developed a friendship with Arkansas native David Bush, who served on Smith’s board in Greenville. Smith subsequently learned that Bush was a longtime friend of Munnie Jordan, executive director of King Biscuit. Bush promptly agreed to set up a meeting with Jordan.
Smith, Johnson, Bush and Hammons made a trip to Helena to see Jordan, who quickly gave them a nod.
“I saw the potential for Bridging the Blues immediately,” Jordan said. “A lot of visitors will fly into Memphis or Little Rock (Ark.). Why not give them something else to do as they make their way here? I thought it was a great idea.”
“Partnering with King Biscuit is a win-win for the festivals and the fans,” Johnson said in a statement. “Fans will have two weekends of music to count on with a week of blues activities — across the Delta in both Arkansas and Mississippi — in between.”
The group worked to recruit organizations in Arkansas and Tennessee, and the initiative was announced in March 2012. Today, Bridging the Blues is a partnership between Mississippi Delta Tourism, Arkansas Delta Byways, Arkansas Parks & Tourism, Mississippi Development Authority, Memphis CVB and the Mississippi Arts Commission.
Feeding off what organizers say was a successful inaugural year, Bridging the Blues has grown its offerings for 2013.
The biggest news is Mississippi’s new marquee event during Bridging the Blues. The Mighty Mississippi Music Festival, which incorporates the Highway 61 Blues Festival, will be held Oct. 4-6 at Warfield Point Park on the banks of the Mississippi River at Greenville. Developed by local musicians Steve Azar and Jason Fratesi, the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival will feature Drive-By Truckers, North Mississippi Allstars and Edwin McCain among others, including local artists Eden Brent, Azar and Fratesi.
A sampling of other Mississippi events in the Bridging the Blues lineup is the Delta Busking Festival in Clarksdale (Sept. 27-29), Tours and Blues Jams at Dockery Plantation (Oct. 1), Delta Country Jam at the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation in Tunica (Oct. 4) and Mississippi Blues Fest in Greenwood (Oct. 5).
In addition to music festivals, Bridging the Blues offers such blues-related happenings as preservation tours, Delta State’s DMI Mobile Music Lab, art and photography exhibits and more.
Events culminate with the 26th-annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, to be held Oct. 10-12 in Helena. The musical lineup includes Gregg Allman, Robert Cray, James Cotton, Bobby Rush, Marcia Ball among others. Other King Biscuit events include a Blues Symposium, 5K/10K fun run and an all-new barbecue cook-off competition.
Where Bridging the Blues goes from here is still being developed. The initiative has little funding, and most everyone working on the project has full-time jobs.
But, Smith thinks they have only begun to develop the event’s potential, and some talk has begun to develop a Bridging event in the spring.
“Our thought was to get it going, get two or three years under our belt and see where we are,” Smith said. “It’s another step to developing our blues-based economy. If we had not had the Mississippi Blues Trail, maybe we wouldn’t have landed the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. If we hadn’t landed the B.B. King Museum, we might not have landed the GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland. We just have to keep it rolling.”
For more information on Bridging the Blues, visit www.bridgingtheblues.com.