56 Blues Fest
It’s a sweltering Saturday on Memorial Day weekend. The air is so thick with humidity that I can practically cut through it with a knife. The festival and parking lot are packed so we park across the way and cut through the grass. Once I’m ready to go, I start snapping pictures of what is soon to be one of the most fun, albeit miserable, experiences of my life. It was fun because of the people, the history, the music, and the atmosphere, however, saying it was hot would be an understatement, and it was only going to get hotter.
When you think of the blues do you normally think of Memphis? What if I told you that the blues wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a small, historic town just north of Memphis? Brownsville, Tennessee is probably not what you would think of when thinking of the blues—you likely think of B.B. King. But Brownsville, home of music legends such as Tina Turner and “Sleepy” John Estes, is the hub and birthplace of the country-blues genre. And I wouldn’t have known that had I not attended the 7th annual Exit 56 Blues Fest hosted by the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center. The festival itself is a small affair, still in its beginning stages of becoming a tradition for the area, which is held for 2 days every Memorial Day Weekend.
I like music and I like festivals, so I figured this would be a fun experience—and I was right. Something unique about this festival is the variety of the blues genre in the lineup for the festival. Sonia Outlaw-Clark, the Executive Director of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, and a cheerful, blue-eyed woman, points out during our informal interview, “It’s a good mixture of all of the blues...because all blues doesn’t appeal to all people.” To Sonia, and probably the majority of music lovers, the blues is an important part of West Tennessee heritage and culture, as well as a major factor in the evolution of music during the twentieth century. That’s why it was important for Sonia and the community of Brownsville to start having a blues fest. “Because of the blues legacy in this area, it’s important that we continue to recognize that the blues is important to our music legacy.” Sonia goes on to describe a short version of the history of the blues in the area, citing “Sleepy” John Estes as the pioneer for what we now call country-blues. “Sleepy John Estes’ is the porch they’re [the bands] singing from right now—that was the last home that he lived in. He was from here. [He was one of the] pioneers in the industry in the early 1900’s when blues was just becoming a recognizable genre. Sleepy John wrote a lot of the blues standards that you hear nowadays, like ‘Drop Down Mama’ and ‘Someday Baby Blues;’ he wrote those songs. He wrote about what was going on in his life and what he felt at the time.”
The Exit 56 Blues Fest is a time for the town of Brownsville to not only celebrate the blues, its history, and its impact, but to expose more people and younger generations to the country-blues music genre specific to our area. “I think it’s just important that I put the blues music out there for people to hear and to feel,” Sonia tells me. “Something else I try to do, I try to have West Tennessee blues musicians to have that West-Tennessee-blues feel.”
Included in these West Tennessee blues musicians, is a ragtag country-blues band known as the Elam McKnight Band. They’re known for their country blues hit song ‘Radio,’ and their exceedingly young guitar player. “Music has always been a part of my life,” says Tucker Carroll, the 15-year-old lead guitarist for the band. “My favorite guitar player is Ed King...I had posted a cover of one of his songs on Facebook—3 months later and I’m having lunch with Ed King.” The young musician is certainly talented, blasting through riffs and tearing it up on stage through the rain and ungodly humidity to follow.
The Elam McKnight Band has played for the Exit 56 Blues Fest for “three or four years now,” says Eddie Phillips, the quirky drummer for the band. Eddie talked to me about the popularity of the blues both here in the states and overseas, “Something I just don’t think that [people] realize is how significant West Tennessee is to the music world.” Elam McKnight, rhythm guitarist and lead singer (and the band’s namesake),replies to the reach of their success by saying, “At the end of the day, it’s an honor to play for local regional festivals.” The band is based out of Tennessee and they plan on releasing a new album in the spring of 2018.
The blues festival also featured a Corvette car show. Tony Wright is a member of “Strictly Vets of Memphis.” His corvette is red with life-sized M&M characters as the passengers. When he started going to Corvette shows, his “signature” was to put the car on ramps staged with a dummy underneath. The dummy would have tools laying around it, as though he was working on the car, now it has evolved to the character dummies. Tony attends about 6 out of 30 shows each year.
Charles and Cheryl Peterson is another couple that we met at the blues fest, a couple from Chicago who traveled for the Exit 56 blues fest in their Corvette. Charles’ passion for sports cars—specifically Corvettes—started in 1975 when a coworker gave him a ride in his brand-new Corvette. Since then, Charles and Cheryl have had six sports cars, 5 of which were Corvettes. The one car that wasn’t was a 1975 Bricklin Gullwing. Charles and Cheryl are members of Chicago Crossroads Corvette Club. The Chicago Crossroads Corvette Club was established in 1992, and prides itself on the community work and outreach they do. The club donates money to Veterans Affairs, children’s hospitals, and has a scholarship program that chooses 3 applicants a year. It is also involved in public service with a tutoring program for inner city schools. The club has about 40 shows on the books, but Charles and Cheryl will only attend about 4 or 5; they treat the shows like vacations. The car Charles and Cheryl Peterson brought to the Exit 56 Blues Festival was a 1976 Stingray. They bought the car in 2009 as a project car.
The Exit 56 Blues fest is one of many ways for a community to gather and celebrate the heritage of that town. For more information on this and other events, contact the Brownsville West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call them at (731) 779-9000.