The state of Mississippi is actively engaged in a campaign to “package” the blues in an effort to promote regional tourism, a prime example being the multi-state Mississippi Blues Trail.
That is also the mission of the Bridging the Blues (BTB), a tri-state music pilgrimage that takes in more than 100 musical events, including 15 separate festivals and hundreds of musicians, artists, scholars and personalities. The events, which include the unveiling of three new Mississippi Blues Trail markers, will be held across numerous communities in Mississippi as well as Helena, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.
Now in its third year, the 2014 BTB, a cooperative effort of the states of Mississippi, Arkansas and the city of Memphis, will run from Sept. 26 through Oct. 12.
“This is the quintessential example (of regional economic development),” Malcolm White, head of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, told the Mississippi Business Journal.
The BTB is the brainchild of Wesley Smith, a Greenwood native with a background in tourism and a love for the blues.
“I began to think of how we could possibly package events here in Mississippi as well as in Tennessee around the King Biscuit (Blues Festival) 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.”
Munnie Jordan, King Biscuit former executive director, shared Smith’s vision.
“I saw the potential for Bridging the Blues immediately,” Jordan told the MBJ before last year’s event. “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.”
In terms of expected attendance, BTB’s biggest events are the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival and King Biscuit. The Mighty Mississippi is slated for Oct. 3-5 at Warfield Point Park, located just south of Greenville on the banks of the river. This year’s festival features Southern blues-rockers Gov’t Mule and Hall of fame singer/songwriter/pianist Dr. John.
In its 29th year, King Biscuit will be held Oct. 8-11 in Helena, Arkansas. The musical line-up will perform on multiple stages and is eclectic — everyone from blues vocalist Delbert McClinton to Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians, best known as the house band for Conan O’Brien’s late night TV show.
The “Biscuit” will also offer the fourth-annual Call and Response Blues Symposium. To be held Oct. 11 at the Malco Theater in Helena, the symposium a discussion about the blues with musicians, artists, writers and industry insiders, including Roger Stolle, filmmaker, columnist, oft quoted authority on Delta blues and owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in historic Clarksdale, who will host part of the symposium.
The BTB includes other events for those interested in a deeper, academic understanding of the genre. There will be special exhibits up at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, the B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola and the Delta Cultural Center in Helena.
Perhaps the biggest addition this year will be the International Conference on the Blues. It will make its debut Oct. 6-7 at Delta State University in Cleveland, where the first Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles is under construction, and will feature an interview and performance by Grammy award-winner Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Bridging the Blues has attracted tens of thousands of visitors from across the nation and around the globe and was recently named an event to watch in ABA’s Top 100 Events in North America for 2015. Mississippi Tourism Association named BTB as the 2013 Tourism Achievement Winner and Acoustic Guitar Magazine also named Mighty Mississippi Music Festival as the “do not miss” festival in Mississippi.
Smith said, “I believe we’ve hit a tipping point. Year one we had 51 events; year two we had 78. This year we have about 230 Bridging the Blues events. Going into year three, I feel like we are about a year ahead of where we had hoped to be.”
For a complete list of all events, line-ups, ticketing information, etc., visit BTB’s website at www.bridgingtheblues.com.