The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival marks a 20-year milestone this year, but organizers say there’s nothing extra planned to highlight it.
“It’s always a good festival. It’s always special. We have a super line-up just like every other year,” said Don Powers, Thomson’s city administrator and a member of the Activities Council of Thomson, which puts on the festival each year.
Gates open at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 18, at the festival site on Stagecoach Road – one mile north of Interstate 20 at Thomson, exit 172 – and music starts at noon. Tickets are $25 in advance from tixonline.com or $35 at the gate. See blindwillie.com.
The headlining act is Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, whose recent album Buddy and Jim, hit the top of the Americana Music Association’s charts. Lauderdale is a singer and songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Patty Loveless, Shelby Lynne, George Strait and the Dixie Chicks.
Miller is known for his guitar-playing and has produced albums for Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin. Lauderdale and Miller are on their first tour as a duo.
Other performers include Tab Benoit, a Cajun blues guitarist, who won the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Best Contemporary Male Performer at the Blues Music Awards (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards) in 2007; Eric Lindell and the Sunliners; the Randall Bramblett Band; the Revelers; and the Crosstie Walkers.
The festival is named for blues musician Blind Willie McTell, who according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia was born on May 5, 1898, in Thomson. His family name was either McTear or McTier; his tombstone reads Eddie McTier.
He was a major force in blues music in the 1920s and 1930s, recording more than 120 songs.
“Like other musicians at the time, he recorded on different labels under various nicknames to skirt contractual agreements. Thus he was Blind Willie for Vocalion, Georgia Bill for OKeh, Red Hot Willie Glaze for Bluebird, Blind Sammie for Columbia, Barrel House Sammy for Atlantic, and Pig ’n’ Whistle Red for Regal Records. The latter name came from a popular drive-in barbecue restaurant in Atlanta where he played for tips,” according to the encyclopedia.
McTell died in Milledgeville in 1959.
His music continues to inspire musicians. His song, Statesboro Blues, was made famous by the Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
“In 1993, the county had the idea of developing a festival that tips its hat to the history of Blind Willie McTell,” said Powers.
People come from all over the Southeast to hear the music.
“People like the festival. The prices are moderate. Where else can you spend $25 for nine hours of top-rate music?” he asked.
The festival draws between 1,500 and 2,000 patrons each year, and Powers said that’s about the maximum the volunteer organizers can handle. He does see the festival going strong for years to come.
“This year, our 20th, seems like a good time to think about the future of the fest, and we have. I suspect that the original small group of folks running it will step back a bit in the years ahead. It’s growing a bit weary handling everything. I’d like to cut my involvement back to just working to build the roster each year and leave the details to some younger bloods,” he said.