The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
This year’s festival, set for May 5, will include:
- JD McPherson, who works out of East Nashville and brings a combo of sound rooted in the rock and roll, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues music of the 1950s;
- Blues guitarist/vocalist Samantha Fish;
- Amy Helm, a singer/songwriter and the daughter of the Band’s Levon Helm; Kenny Neal, who is returning after playing at the festival in its sixth year;
- Randall Bramblett, who has played the festival several times and was part of the Smithsonian exhibit in Thomson five years ago; and
- Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who played the festival last year.
Don Powers said Paxton is a great young musician who channels the music of the teens, ‘20s and ‘30s.
“He’s almost savant-like in what he can do with a wide variety of instruments,” Powers said.
Blind Willie McTell was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in the early 1990s, and the local festival began when the late Dot Jones, the tourism director for McDuffie County at the time, had the idea to have a festival to honor McTell in the place he was born and is buried. Her mission was to create a tourism piece to bring people to the area.
“A lot of people don’t realize they’ve heard his music,” Tourism Director Elizabeth Vance said. “The Allman Brothers made one of his songs ‘Statesboro Blues’ incredibly famous, and a lot of modern musicians follow him too such as Jack White. They all have been influenced by him.”
Powers, of the Activities Council, said McTell’s music was lyrically inventive, and McTell had a unique voice and guitar-playing style.
“It was almost a unique subpiece of the country blues genre of music,” Powers said. “The country blues genre of music is essentially African Americans in the early part of the 20th century playing music and accompanying themselves on the guitar.”
The festival was held every fall for the first five years, and Don Powers, Thomson city administrator and one of the festival organizers, said it was largely funded by the county.
“In the first five years the focus was strictly blues,” Powers said. “It was very rare that they venture out into associated genres in music. After five years, the county decided that it was not a money maker, and they decided they would have to suspend activities until such time that they could figure out how to get it rolling again.”
During the first five years, a consultant named Gary Erwin was in charge of creating the music lineup for the festival each year, and Powers said his band, the Crosstie Walkers, had played at every festival from the beginning.
Because of this, the chairman of the county commission at the time Joyce Blevins reached out to Powers and his band to see if they would be interested in putting on the festival with some financial underwriting from the county. The festival skipped the fall of the sixth year, but by the spring of the next year, Powers said the Activities Council was ready put on the festival.
The Activities Council of Thomson, Inc. was a nonprofit organization started in the 1970s by some people from Thomson who wanted to promote art and downtown Thomson. Some of the people were Gay Vaughn, Georgia Ann Knox and Bob Ballard.
“In year six, they handed that nonprofit to us, and we started using the Activities Council as the agent that puts the festival on,” Powers said.
Powers added that for the past 10 or 11 years organizing the festival has been a joint effort between the Activities Council and the Tourism board.
Financing comes partially from McDuffie County but also from the sale of souvenirs, refreshments and tickets as well as underwriting from private foundations like the Knox Foundation. Another key supporter is AB Beverage in Columbia County.
With the festival being put on by a nonprofit, Powers said local support is very important.
The festival is on the smaller side as far as music festivals go. With all the vendors, volunteers, festival goers, stage production, security and musicians, Powers said at each festival there are approximately 1,500 people.
“It’s a good level that the feeling at the festival is comfortable for the people who are there,” Powers said. “It’s not so big that it’s impersonal. It’s very personal in my opinion. The comments we get are almost overwhelmingly positive. It’s a great day, and if we had more people, I think it would ruin the vibe.”
Elizabeth Vance, executive director of the Thomson-McDuffie Covention and Visitors Bureau, added that the personal feeling is one of the things people enjoy most about the festival.
“You have the quality of music from the artists on that day and you’re not constantly being run over by people on that day and you’re not having to deal with crowds everywhere,” Vance said. “It’s kind of an added benefit that you’re not having to deal with a lot of stuff like at the bigger festivals.”