Big Time In Bluestown

Beale Street - pre-Challenge

Beale Street - pre-Challenge

I got the key to the highway, billed out and bound to go/I’m gonna leave here runnin’, because walkin’ is much too slow...
— "Big Bill" Broonzy

We arrived in Memphis on Monday afternoon and proceeded directly to SOB, a place that has been featured on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."  It was none of those things; a clean little eatery with a whiff of upscale that reflected the re-purposed and gentrified area that it occupied south of Beale St.  Despite its Food Network cred, we weren't terribly impressed with the cuisine.  Jae's meal was rather bland, she said, and we didn't care much for the deep-fried rice balls that served as garnish for the ahi tuna appetizer.  I fared somewhat better with a spaghetti squash and veggie dish that was my way of stoically attempting to remain on diet plan during the tempting week of southern food and big-ass beers that awaited us.

The soundtrack for the drive was blues music, of course, setting a mood and tone for the 2016 International Blues Challenge.  As we drew nearer to the "Home of the Blues", I soaked up guitar licks and mournful melodies and reflected on my tuneful journey. As an Americana artist, my short-attention span theater of live performances veers violently between folk and pop, Celtic and blues, touching upon everything in between.  Blame it on my ADD, baby. Even still, audiences have seemed to appreciate the whiplash changes in genre; maybe it feeds into our multi-tasking mentality as a society.  In any case, "Americana" is a wide umbrella under which so many different types of music can be found, as long as it's got its bare feet firmly planted in the dirt of our collective cultural existence.  As I prepared to compete in the 2015 International Blues Challenge, I listened to a lot of blues in an effort to soak up the ethos of a people.  My people.  Or at least most of my people.  With a mixture of African, Northern European and Native American running strong in my blood, I've long had a hard time connecting with any one kind of music as a home.  But the more I dug into it, the more the blues felt like I'd finally found a place to live as an artist.  

On the run-up to 2015 IBC, I switched to a heavy diet of nothing but the blues.  Ate it at every meal, digested it, internalized it, swam deeply into the dark, muddy waters of it, recorded "Unresolved Blues" and went in with every intention of living it as authentically as I possibly could.  Advancing to semi-finals wasn't something I'd even considered with all of the huge global talent that would be present.  The whole experience was encouraging, enlightening and whetted my appetite for more.  So, here we were, back in Memphis for the 2016 IBC and, with a year of growing into my new focus, I was aiming to at least equal that semi-final showing while exposing this eclectic audience even more to the mountain dulcimer and my way with it.  Walking up and down Beale St. that night, I peered into the windows of clubs and gazed silently at the near-empty cobblestoned street, seeing the ghosts of blues past and anticipating the crush of humanity that would soon dwell up and down the blocks.

Tuesday morning brought a visit to Miss Polly's for chicken and waffles; a delicacy that I'd been dreaming about and lusting after since the previous year.  It blew all of my Weight Watchers points for the day, but it was worth every single fork-full. As we got back to the Doubletree Hotel, Jae and I ran into Joe Whitmer, Chief Operating Officer of The Blues Foundation. He asked me about my new motorhome and if I'd sold my old one yet, jokingly suggesting that he might be in the market. It was a nice exchange and his encouraging welcome set a nice tone for the week to come. That evening, as musicians began to emerge from every direction, we retreated to legendary Sun Studio, where luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Little Milton had all laid down tracks in a room that remained seemingly unchanged by the years.  We had booked four hours of recording time and, right on up until that morning, I had no earthly idea what I was going to record until it struck me in the afternoon; lay down some of the oldest songs in my repertoire.  The ones that I forget to sing, the ones that were recorded with other bands, the ones that deserved a fresh look in a new time.  In such an old and noteworthy space, I'd be revisiting my past while sitting in a place that had been built on the past.  We met up with engineer Curry Weber, who'd worked on recordings for The North Mississippi Allstars and Huey Lewis and The News and prepared for the session.

When it was all said and done, I'd recorded 14 songs with most of them being captured in one take, just like many of the famous artists that had tracked in the same studio.  No overdubs, just mountain dulcimer and voice in front of a big, old microphone that probably belonged in The Smithsonian.  I really reached deep into history with this project, pulling up tunes written and recorded when I was 21 years old ("Talking") along with songs that had been demoed but never placed on an album ("The 11:55", "The Angle", "This Cool") and quite a few that had never even been performed onstage before.  Many were composed outside of my comfort zone as a performer and it felt good to wrap myself around them again with a simpler musical approach and a voice that was up for the challenge.  Often times, I'll go back into my demo collection and do crude surgery, snatching a line here or a melody there, cobbling them together with material written in the present.  But this was almost like getting an album full of new songs, as far as my fans are concerned, and with a few choice covers thrown in for good measure (Tonio K.'s "You Will Go Free" and Preston Foster's "Got My Mojo Workin'", to name a couple) I decided to call the album "Everything Old Is New Again" and anybody can take that multi-layered title in any way that they want.  It also served as a good workout and warmup for the first night of quarterfinals on Wednesday.

I did a lot of walking around Memphis, trying to keep my activity points high so that I didn't have to eat salad all week.  All along the Mississippi riverfront and down the back alleys and side streets ringing Beale.  Again, just soaking up the history and feel of the place.

Micah Kesselring in the quarterfinals.

In my striding,  I ran into Mick Kolassa, who was one of my judges on the first night of quarterfinals in 2015. It was nice to see him and visit for a brief moment; it felt like another nice intro to the week.  Both he and Joe Whitmer had been very encouraging in my virgin IBC experience and running into them before the place blew up seemed like a bit of Divine blessing.  Mick did mention that I had some stiff competition at Peoples, my venue for the quarterfinals, in Mark Telesca and Micah Kesselring.  What I found out, while waiting to perform that night in the last slot, was that the talent in the room was even bigger than that with Kalo, Luther Trammel, Jeremy Short, Franc Robert, Nick Wade, Wayne Holden and Mikey Ethelston leading a parade of hard-hitting blues pros.  It was different than last year though, where I spent the two nights of the quarter-finals in the decidedly un-bluesy Westin Hotel and most of the performers kept to themselves.  Here, we hung out and talked, stood outside and smoked (or vaped, in my case), congratulated each other on our sets and generally chilled out in a very friendly way.  It kept the energy cool and the stress levels low. On top of that, my co-horts at Ditty TV, Sam Shansky and Liz Rabalais, came out to cheer me on. It was because of IBC 2015 that I hooked up with Ditty TV and began hosting the "Rhythm Roots" show, so it was sweet to have the two of them there in the audience. Early on, I also met up with Michael "Hawkeye" Herman", whom I've declared my blues guru for helping me to puzzle through the transferring of traditional blues to the mountain dulcimer.  Hawkeye gave me a big shot of confidence in my first IBC and it was truly great to see him again (on numerous occasions.)

Josh "The Pitbull Of Blues" Rowand

Thursday night, I went on much earlier and was able to run about and catch some of the other acts including my friends Josh "The Pitbull of Blues" Rowand and the other two members of his band, father Deny Rowand and drummer Richie Coricelli, performing as Hat and Matching Suitcase.  All three of them knocked it out of the park.  Semifinalist announcements were due to be made sometime long after midnight and I just couldn't sleep without knowing, so Jae headed back to the Doubletree while I slinked around and checked out some of the jams while waiting.  It was about 2 am when the announcement was made; we'd all made the semifinals.  Needless to say, I went to bed happy.  The Orange Blossom Blues Society sent both me and The David Smash Band, so I was proud to see that they had, too, made the semifinals.  With a larger state pride thing going on, it was satisfying to see that fellow Floridians The Bridget Kelly BandTC Carr and Bolts of Blue and the J.L. Fulks Band had all made the cut as well.  Florida was surely representing at 2016 IBC.  It felt good to be a part of that and Facebook and Twitter lit up with congratulations. 

With Sam Shansky and Liz Rabalais of Ditty TV at quarterfinals on Thursday night!

Joe Whitmer likes to tell the acts, at orientation, that the IBC is a "challenge" and not a competition.  We're not in some kind of battle of the bands where we're out for each other's throats.  We're competing against the score sheet; against ourselves, basically.  It's in the spirit of the blues family that the acts have a camaraderie with each other, helping out with set change overs and wishing for spectacular sets.  Just getting the chance to perform on Beale during the world's largest gathering of blues musicians is both a thrill and an opportunity to shine and take the ball and run with it.  Festival organizers, talent buyers, A&R reps and record label bigwigs are all down there, mingling with the fans and artists, so the challenge is also in representing yourself, and your blues society, as professionally as you can while still having a good time.  True to that, I didn't drink before my shows and limited my intake even after my sets were through.  It took some self-denial, but what did I desire more?  A drink?  Or a career?  The answer took care of itself.

InnerVision in the semi-finals.

Friday rolled along pleasantly as temperatures rose from fairly chilly to perfectly temperate. With memories of last year's semifinal round fresh in my head, along with the intense ramping up of talent, I maintained a surreal level of calm as I did my walking around Memphis, stopping by the Mississippi to drink in the inspiration that has resulted in the writing of many a blues tune.  Back in Silky O'Sullivans, where I was for semifinals last year, and first up once again, I dug deep and let fly with my best set of the week.  Maybe it's playing in an Irish pub that does it for me, something I'm fond of doing.  Deny and Richie were in there too, and we all rooted for each other.  There was also Adrian Duke and Theresa Richmond, Michael Schatte, Graham Guest, Debra Power, Robert Sampson and InnerVision, whom I'd been told that I had to check out and, sure enough, was blown away by their set.  It was an intense parade of talent, but I somehow just tapped into the fun of being onstage and didn't care one way or another if I advanced.  I'd picked up a few more gigs and won some new fans besides gaining some valuable extra experience.  No worries, I thought.  Time to go and enjoy the night.

Sonny Jim Clifford in the semi-finals at King's Palace.

I was hanging out with a cool guy named Sonny Jim Clifford that I'd just watched play a smashing set at King's Palace when Micah walked up to me and we compared notes on how our semifinal sets had gone.  Suddenly, his phone went off and he said, "I think they're about to announce finalists" and we all dashed inside Tin Roof to hear the list.  The place was packed and the names were being read as I pushed forward, straining to hear, arriving within clear earshot just in time to hear my name being called.  And for a brief moment, all the sound went away, I was living inside of my head, just silence and a dull thumping sound as I stared straight ahead, and when the sound returned, I looked around in a daze and found people standing around me, clapping me on the back, shaking my hand and saying "congratulations!"

I remember posting to Facebook: "holy crap, I made it to the International Blues Challenge finals!"

With The David Smash Band at 3 am on Beale after our impromptu street jam.

It didn't seem real.  More like a dream.  So, me and Jimmy went over and I bought him a drink and we just stood there and talked, about anything but the IBC.  Dealt with a drunk guy who appeared to be well-meaning and I ended up giving him some of my eJuice in a bottle to take home before heading back down Beale and sitting on the curb with Jimmy and just picking some tunes, busking-style.  Soon, along comes The David Smash Band and we're all out there at three in the morning, jamming and smiling.  That, in its very essence, is what the IBC is all about.

Barbara Newman and Joe Whitmer at Tuesday orientation.

Suffice it to say that I was feeling a little rough the next morning as I walked towards my 11:15 am call at The Orpheum Theater where the final round would begin at noon.  A week of almost 100,000 steps walked, three shows played, one album recorded and moderately good sleep had mixed together with the vocal stress of talking in loud bars and clubs plus a persistent allergy issue that had me popping Mucinex like Tic Tacs.  I felt a little underpowered and more than a little intimidated by the day ahead of me, especially since I somehow managed to snag the penultimate set slot of the finals.  No pressure there.  Still, after orientation, I went out front and sat with Jae, watching, in particular, the solo-duo acts.  Sizing them up, seeing what thrilled the audience and what didn't.  During vape breaks, I checked my phone to see the avalanche of "go get 'ems" and "all the way's" that flooded my Facebook feed.  The belief of my family, friends and fans was like warm air under the wing of a glider and I felt a quiet peace throughout the day as I downed bottle after bottle of water, attempting to heal my ragged throat and rejuvenate my system.  

The Orpheum Theater.

Out of a field of 257 total acts, I was one of 16 that had gone the distance and watching the 7 in my field gave me a mixed sense of pride and humility.  These cats were good.  The Mighty Orq brought steely grace and grit; Sonny Moorman brought elegance and authenticity; Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons absolutely dazzled with their old-school mastery; Trey Johnson and Jason Willmon were highly entertaining and electrified the audience; Michah Kesselring, my fellow Peoples venue bud, was Micah, thrilling and energetic and the crowd showed their love; Dave Muskett displayed good humor and searingly spot-on guitar skills and InnerVision, whom I'd just witnessed in my semifinal venue, ramped up the excitement to fever pitch with their smooth, silky professionalism.  By this point, I was backstage, tuning up and preparing to wait in the wings while the final band performed.  I enjoyed all of the bands immensely, but my blues study has focused on the solo musician and this is where I paid the most attention.  There were no nerves, no self-doubts and nothing roiling within me except the desire to unleash the inner bluesman, unchain my spirit and hold nothing back.

I strolled onto the stage, got my microphone placed and tuned up my Folkcraft beauties.  Then Joe Whitmer introduced me and I said, "hello, you beautiful people."  It was on.

When my 20 minutes was up and the crowd applauded, I felt good.  I had steadied myself and kept it together.  The slapback in the auditorium was a little disorienting and it was, indeed, a challenge to remain focused and deliver the best show that I possibly could.  Did I have a chance?  Sure, I was competing against the scorecard but so were the other acts.  Those scorecards would be compared and that would be the deciding factor.  How did I rate?  In a blues world of guitars, basses, horns, harps and drums, where did a mountain dulcimer fit into the picture?  Was it something that people could get used to?  Was it a sound that people felt they could identify with?  The crowd response was enthusiastic enough and I tried to let myself understand that, most of the time, they would be in a music room just listening to me play and not watching me compete among some of the best musicians I'd ever seen in my life.  When I walked back into the room where the other acts had been hanging out all day, a remarkable thing happened.  They all began to clap.

It's one thing to have an audience cheer you on.  It's quite another thing to have your peers do the same.  It felt like validation.  It didn't matter what happened with the results.  I'd made it to finals and played The Orpheum stage in an extraordinary field of talent.  It was all I needed to make the next step forward.  Seeing Joe and The Blues Foundation president Barbara Newman entering the backstage area, I followed them in and stood in the wings to see how these particular chips were going to fall.

After giving the award for best self-produced blues album ("Blues In A Bottle" by Rob Lombard), Barbara took to the mic.

"Okay, what we're gonna do next is tell you who won the Solo ready?  So, congratulations to Bing Futch from the Orange Blossom Blues Society!"

The crowd erupted and I stood there for a second, not sure if I was hearing her correctly. Stunned, I slowly ambled back out onto the stage and the cheers escalated.  Joe hugged me. Barbara hugged me and said, "go on, say something."  And as I walked, sleep-walked was more like it, towards the mic, all I could say was, "wow" as she said, "we gotta get you the guitar, too."

I'm not even sure what I said at that moment; the audience must've thought I was stoned (I wasn't.)  I remember thanking the Orange Blossom Blues Society. I remember thanking Jae for being the one to convince me to enter that first Central Florida Blues Challenge in 2014 and I remember thanking the fans.  The fans.  Isn't that why we do it?  Joe handed me the gorgeous St. Blues 4-string Premier Flor De Las Antillas Cigar Box Guitar after my brief, low-key acceptance speech and then I was directed to stand in front of a cluster of photographers gathered at the stage's edge as they snapped picture after picture of me, still smiling dazedly, holding the guitar.

As I stood in the wings, clutching it to my chest like a newborn baby, I looked over at Sean Carney and Jonn Del Toro Richardson and asked, disbelievingly, "how does this happen?"  Jonn replied, "you did all the right things; that's what happened!"

Sunday brunch at the world-famous Arcade.

That was Saturday.  This is Tuesday and I'm sitting here, typing this blog, looking occasionally over at the cigar box which is now holding court with my dulcimers in the rack, and it still feels a little bit like a dream.  The Solo-Duo Finals awards 1st place (which went, deservedly, to the excellent Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons), 2nd place (which went to the stunning duo InnerVision) and the Solo Guitar or "Best Guitarist" award, which I'm led to understand means that the judges thought I was the best thing on strings out of 8 Solo-Duo acts in the finals.  I sat there and watched all those guys thinking, "there's a lick I'm gonna steal" and "that's an approach I need to be using" and am completely gobsmacked that my cream rose to the top.  I'm not self-hating or doubting my proficiency.  Not at all.  What I wonder is, what did they hear?  What did they see?  I'd really like to know so that I can never stop doing it.

Sunday brunch: one of the reasons I still gained five pounds at IBC.

Sunday morning, I'm leaving the Doubletree and I see Sean talking with someone, but I didn't want to rudely interrupt, so I lit out for my morning walk.  I'd had fried EVERYTHING at Pearl's Oyster House immediately after leaving The Orpheum and to hell with my diet.  It was a victory meal of southern goodness and big-ass beers, so I needed to walk that off.  I heard a familiar voice say, "alright, Bing" and turned around to see that it was Joe Whitmer who Sean had been talking to.  He hugged me again and congratulated me on the win, adding, "you know, that cigar box is a perfect compliment to what you do on the dulcimer."  And I realized that he had a very good point.  I'd taken up guitar after IBC last year with the intention of learning more about how the blues is extracted from those six strings.  By looking at it from afar with a telescope while developing my style, I'd missed some of the communications.  Getting my hands on the frets brought gnosis, an understanding beneath a microscope that brought me closer to the blues than ever before.  As I hugged Sean, one of my big blues inspirations, and continued down Union Avenue until I ended up back at the Mississippi River, I reflected, once again, on my musical journey.  Where it's taken me, where I've been with it and, most importantly, where it was going to take me next.  I'll always be, first and foremost, a mountain dulcimer player.  It's the instrument that I love with a passion and it has brought me closer to heaven than near-death itself.  

Standing on Beale Street with my big ol' Folkcraft bag.

Standing on Beale Street with my big ol' Folkcraft bag.

But as I expand my sonic horizons and introduce new tools into my toolkit for making music, it's pretty significant that this big win at the IBC brought with it a lovely parting gift that would also prove to be practical and, yes, instrumental in the next phase of my development.  Beginning and ending my week on Beale St. with Joe's warm encouragement seemed like the perfect bookend to an experience that not only brought me closer to my fans but also nearer to the musician that I still hope to become.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying the hell out of this ride.

Bing Futch2 Comments