The New River Blues Fest is one of the best ways in the High Country to mark the coming changing of the seasons. Lasting only one day from noon until about 6:30 p.m. this Sunday, Sept. 1, few events pack as much musical punch and good times into a short time frame than this blues-filled romp on the New River in Ashe County.
The New River Blues Fest is a unique concert held on the beautiful grounds of the River House Inn that transform into a natural amphitheater. This is a show where local blues greats the King Bees get to back up multiple blues artists from the southern blues circuit that come to visit our mountains on Labor Day weekend.
The artists on the bill for this year’s New River Blues Fest, which is produced by Donovan Murray, includes a return of the great Git Shorty, a blues guitarist who played with James Brown that can rip the old school blues a well as the more rockin’ Jimi Hendrix style. The “Blues Emperor” Donald Caesar is also on the lineup as well as Anthony “Packrat” Thompson and Robert “Top” Thomas, The Foddrells and Mojo Ike and Val Woods.
The King Bees will feature Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville on guitar, Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni on bass, Dave Brewer on drums and Big Mike Kincaid on sax.
There will also be a Blues Fest Pre-Jam Party at Boondocks Brewery in West Jefferson on Saturday afternoon on Aug. 31.
“Putting on a festival like this is always crazy,” said Baskerville. “Dealing with musicians is always an exciting but crazy thing and we have learned a few things over the years. With this being festival number 17, it tells us that we are doing something right. There is nothing like this festival in the rest of the country, so once the artists figure out the whole vibe, they want to do it again.”
“What is interesting is that as we do these festivals through the years, the artists who have come up to the High Country to play, coming from Mississippi or Alabama or Chicago; if they ever come just once to play at our festival, we hear from them again and again as they really want to come back,” said Zamagni. “It is kind of a hard sell the first time, but once they come here, they tell other musicians about it. That is why we have a few fan favorite repeats that are coming back this year like Git Shorty, Donald Caesar and Val and Ike Woods.”
What is beautiful about the New River Blues Festival is the natural setting as the venue is outdoors with the stage literally on the banks of the New River. It is not unusual for a bald eagle to fly over the event as the day goes on and the live blues music flows.
Once these veteran blues musicians find themselves performing in surroundings that are totally different than what they may be used to — good things happen. And, many musicians that have played the festival in past years have passed away, so this blues music celebration continues to provide music lovers a chance to see great acts while they are still rockin’ this planet.
“Git Shorty won’t tell us exactly how old he is, other than he is over 80,” said Baskerville. “The funny thing about Shorty is that while he is at least 80, when you walk off the stage with him you are drenched in sweat because he has worked you as hard as anyone can work you, yet he will say that he wants to turn around and do it again. He has boundless energy. I don’t know what it is that he has, but it is awesome. Plus, I have learned so much on the guitar from him that it is amazing. Nobody plays like him.”
“He has a special musical metabolism,” adds Zamagni, laughing. “Git Shorty wanted to come back, as has Ike and Val Woods. They are from Florida and they play the blues all over the Caribbean and overseas, yet they also have a real rootsy basis in gospel music. The same thing is true with the audience members of the New River Blues Festival as they keep coming back. The thing that I love to see, and I am becoming more and more aware of it these days, is that people meet each other at the festival and then become friends who start to get together outside of our event and plan to do things. Fortunately, that also includes meeting up again in Ashe County on Labor Day weekend.”
Donald Caesar has became a staple at the New River Blues Festival because not only does he do his own sweet set of music, his magnificent blues harmonica also fits in with all of the other acts that ask him to jam during the day.
The Foddrells, however, are new to the festival.
“Lynn Foddrell is from the African American Piedmont-style pickers that are from Virginia and his kin are known as the First Family of Piedmont Blues in their area going back three generations,” said Baskerville.
“Lynn is the last of the Foddrell line,” said Zamagni. “In the early 1980s, he was playing with his dad and his uncle at places such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., and more. Their tradition goes back to the late 1880s with their grandfather and great grandfather. Their musical tradition in Stuart, Va., also stretched into string band music, gospel and other mountain styles. We have been trying to get one of the Foddrells here to our festival for years, and this Sunday it will happen.”