After winning the Solo Artist award at the Central Florida Blues Challenge in August of 2014, I began to wonder how many mountain dulcimers had been at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. I sent an e-mail to Joe Whitmer, Chief Operating Officer of The Blues Foundation, which puts on the challenge, asking if he was aware of any mountain dulcimers in the competition. He replied, "we do not keep records of instrumentation, but I have witnessed dulcimers in the past." After doing some searching online, the only instance of a mountain dulcimer player at the IBC was one David Kimbrough III.
David was brought to my attention by Darren Dortin, music director of the Ozark Folk Center and a formerly touring drummer who had worked with T Model Ford among other bluesmen. Darren had loaned me a copy of Kimbrough's "Dulcimer Blues" record and, upon listening to it, I heard the unmistakable influences of David's late father, blues legend Junior Kimbrough. Reaching out to David on Facebook, I told him that I was going to Memphis to compete and asked him what his own experience was like in the solo/duo category.
"I played the dulcimer at the second IBC. It went over well, [the judges] just didn't understand it so, what the hell, gave it a shot," he wrote, adding, "go get it, my brother!"
So, as far as I could tell, only me and David Kimbrough III had ever taken the mountain dulcimer to the International Blues Challenge. My work was definitely cut out for me
Jae and I drove 12 hours straight from Orlando on the 20th of January to the parking lot of Corky's, where we indulged in some BBQ brisket and beers before checking into our hotel and crashing for the night. We awoke early the next morning ready to wring as much out of the experience as possible. Many IBC aficionados say that it's not about winning the contest, it's about networking while you're there and I came prepared to maximize every opportunity that came my way. We slipped into Rum Boogie Cafe, headed upstairs and I was interviewed by Vinny Marini on-air for "Music On The Couch." (I can be heard on the program here - show #253.) We hung out and schmoozed at Club 152 at IBC headquarters for awhile before heading over to the New Daisy Theater to check in, register and be present for orientation. Pretty soon, it was time for the quarterfinals to begin.
My stage was at the Westin Hotel off Beale, set off the lobby near the bar. An unusually spartan environment for a bunch of blues performers. Set to go on last, I hung out and listened to the other acts, taking pictures, observing closely, getting up occasionally to go outside and vape a bit. We sat right behind the judges. One of them was Mick Kolassa, member of The Blues Foundation board of directors and author of a much-reposted article regarding advice for competitors. As it turned out, Mick not only played mountain dulcimer but has also built them as well, so it was comforting knowing that he "got it" as I climbed up on stage and played my heart out. Afterwards, he showed me pictures of his creations. I had a good feeling about that.
I didn't party too much that night, knowing that another night of quarterfinals performances were taking place on Thursday. There was also a special engagement that I had scheduled for the early morning, so I hung out a bit, handed out a few business cards and then headed back for the room.
Thursday morning, I packed up the car and drove over to Ditty TV for a live performance that would be captured by multiple cameras in a state-of-the-art television studio. What a blast! In between songs, I was interviewed by host/producer Rev Neil Down and the whole thing ran incredibly smoothly. Those in the chat room watching live seemed to enjoy it immensely. Then I went across the street and had the best cup of coffee I've ever had.
By the time I got back to the room, it was pretty much time to head back out and do it all again for a second night of quarterfinals; this time, I was second up. Having seen all the performers already, I'd do my thing, and then be free to cruise Beale and hear some of the other music in all the venues. There were definitely more people there; I was glad of that. And it wasn't until I got off-stage that Jae pointed out the fact that one of my judges was Big Bill Morganfield. The son of Muddy Waters. Whoa.
Because of the better exposure on the second night, I was stopped just about everywhere we went. People raving about the set, handing me business cards and inviting me to perform at festivals and clubs. Like the song says, I was walking with my feet "ten feet off of Beale" and loving every moment. We went to Coyote Ugly to see my fellow Orange Blossom Blues Society awardees The Pitbull of Blues Band perform and the night rolled on and on. I crawled into bed at some incredibly late hour and glanced at my phone before slipping into dreamland.
There were the results. I'd made it to semifinals.
Jae was already asleep, so when she woke me up in the morning, I gave her the news and she let out a yell. The Blues Foundation would announce the new venues at noon, so we headed down to Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe for some chicken and waffles, which I'd never had before and, I swear to God, it won't be my last time, either. Ridiculously good.
The venue turned out to be Silky O'Sullivan's on Beale St., and I was stoked to finally be actually playing on the famous street itself. I was also up first, which gave me plenty of time to get situated, sound checked and ready to rip. The pub was jumping, packed with people and when they announced me, I took off like a shot:
I hadn't expected to make it to Memphis. The competition in the quarterfinals was pretty good, but I had the feeling that making the cut was within my reach. After checking out some of the acts during the semifinals, my hopes were high, but I was okay with the idea that I might not advance. I came into the Central Florida Blues Challenge as a blues fan, performer and teacher of the blues, but nowhere near as steeped in the genre as so many others who have devoted their entire lives to playing the blues. The way I saw it, I was in the first chapter of my journey, and making it to semifinals was far more than I ever expected. More important than winning the challenge was introducing a new audience to the mountain dulcimer and my music. By this point, that had already turned out to be a winning situation.
After my set, I went out into the courtyard of Silky's and just let the cold wind wash over me. The emotions were reeling, heart was racing, smile grew bigger than the soul it was revealing. After a while, we headed out to see The Pitbulls perform in their semifinal set at Wet Willie's. Then, I lost myself in the hazy magic of Beale and didn't come back to the hotel until 5 in the morning. By then, the finalists had been announced and I hadn't advanced, the news of which I took with a smile and an acknowledgment that I'd brought everything I had.
Next time, I'll bring even more.
Saturday brought sleeping in and a lunch at Rendezvous, where even more BBQ was consumed, and not lightly. This week in Memphis was almost as much about the food as it was the music. We trucked over to The Orpheum Theater to take in the finals, do some more connecting and prepared to head back down south. It was here, at the single largest gathering of IBC attendees during the challenge, that I made some incredible new friends and heard some wonderfully encouraging things. I talked with a handful of IBC judges who weren't at my stages. Apparently, there was a buzz on the streets about this mountain dulcimer blues player in the competition. Sweet music to my ears.
I actually knew one of the judges, Andy Cohen (husband of mountain dulcimer musician Larkin Bryant), and he put the whole thing in perspective for me.
"You've taken the mountain dulcimer somewhere that it's never been; to the semifinals of the International Blues Challenge!"
And then it hit me. All of the work that I'd done over the past few months, all of the intense studying of Mississippi Hill Country blues artists, all of the fiddling with different string gauges, slides and techniques on the resonator mountain dulcimer, all of the practicing, writing and rehearsals that went into recording "Unresolved Blues"; all of it was self-motivated locomotion. There were no paths to follow, no mentors to advise, no expert in the subject of blues on mountain dulcimer to sit at the knee of and observe. This was new ground I was plowing in a musical genre dominated by six--strings. I had to figure out a way to bring this music to the instrument that I love dearly and make it speak to an audience that would first have to get past the eternal question "what the heck is that?"
Just before leaving the Orpheum en route to Gus's for yet more eating, I ran into Mick Kolassa sitting by the concession stand in the lobby and we talked for a while about all things musical. Right before we parted ways, he gave me his card and said, "you know, in all the time that I've spent with mountain dulcimer, I'd never once thought about using it to play the blues." Then, he smiled. "You've inspired me to take it off the wall and give it another look."
Wow. As far as I'm concerned, that's what this whole dulcimer blues pilgrimage is about. It's about connecting with people through music. No matter what style of music I'm playing on the instrument, it's the connections that matter the most. Everything else falls in place as long as the focus remains on the people and the passing along of traditions.
That makes us all winners, doesn't it?