Birth of the Blues
By Donna Clayton Lawder
The planning for Silver City's annual Memorial Day weekend music festival starts way back in November. The dust of the Millie and Billy Ball and Fiesta de la Olla have barely settled and the new performance season is just under way when staff and volunteers of the Mimbres Region Arts Council (MRAC) begin building the event the organization is most known for—the Silver City Blues Festival. This year's 11th annual festival will be May 26-28.
Faye McCalmont, executive director of the arts council, also serves as the festival director, leading and working with the Blues Fest committee, staff and special event subcontractors.
"There are a lot of people who play a part," McCalmont says. "We've gotten good at it over the years, so people don't see all the hard work."
McCalmont says the Blues Festival grew out of a small group of arts council friends' love of blues music. A start-of-summer festival seemed a great addition to the MRAC's cultural offerings to the community.
In its inaugural year, the festival drew about 500 people, McCalmont
recalls. Last year's festival—memorably interrupted by uncharacteristic
torrential rain and lightning— was on pace to break previous records
and drew an estimated crowd of up to 7,000 fans.
The first step to building a music festival, as one might imagine, is to decide which musicians and bands are going to play. To determine the lineup of bluesmen and -women, McCalmont pulls together all the CDs and press kits she's received all year "plus all the other ones we've had from previous years who haven't gotten in (into the festival) yet." The CD collection place typically is her dining room table.
"My table was literally covered with all the offerings," McCalmont recalls with a smile.
Then she calls together the core Blues Committee, breaks out beer and snacks, and the group hunkers down for an intense, evening-long listening fest. The committee is an organic gathering of blues-loving friends, many of whom have been helping put the festival together since the first one 11 years ago. McCalmont says new ears are always welcome.
Among the diehards are Silver City attorney Alan Wagman and his oft-volunteering wife, Anne McCormick. Neysa Pritikin, who with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage is a long-time supporter of MRAC musical events, was one of the "original instigators" of the festival, along with pals Sandy Urban and Joe Kurmaskie. McCalmont's predecessor as MRAC director, Kurmaskie was there for the first festival, but later left to pursue a writing career.
Steve Collie and Susan Mosely have been on the Blues Festival committee for about five years, and others have come and gone, McCalmont says. Former board member Dan Swanson has been on the committee for years, and also runs the festival merchandise booth—a huge job—all festival weekend long.
After McCalmont took the reins at MRAC, she tapped Silver City musician and sound professional Jason Hammond to emcee the festival. He's been a key contributor ever since.
"Jason played a pivotal role in developing the festival," McCalmont says. "He really set the tone of the event, and was instrumental in getting Springfield Shakey for us."
McCalmont says the listening committee's first and biggest challenge is choosing those headliners—the "names" who will draw audience and represent the high quality of the event. It's a case of "so much talent, so few slots." McCalmont points out, "There are just two spots open on Saturday and one, maybe two, on Sunday."
Over the years, she adds, the festival has developed
an identity, both in style and quality. "We stick with traditional blues, and our
biggest component is Delta blues, but we add flavor here and there with
Cubano, Zydeco, Cajun, gospel," she says. "Saturday night's
performer is always a hot guitarist playing straight-ahead blues."
By December, the deliciously painful task of musician selection completed, it's time to set contracts. While most of us are hanging mistletoe and bellying up to the wassail bowl, McCalmont and crew are thinking "summer" and nailing down blues performers.
"We have to find out if the musicians are available for when we want them and if they are affordable for the Arts Council," McCalmont says. It's a nail-biting, nerve-wracking process, almost like putting together a huge musical jigsaw pu--le. Can the Phil Guy Band play Saturday night? Can the MRAC afford Odetta? What slot best fits the well-known Harry Manx?
Phone calls and emails fly back and forth, sometimes from agents, sometimes from the artists themselves. Eventually contracts get signed on the dotted line and returned to McCalmont's eager hands by early January.
This year's headliners include, yes, the Phil Guy Band on Saturday night and Odetta on Sunday. Harry Manx, it was decided, fit perfectly between regional band The Bad Habits and beloved blues duo Paul Rishell and Annie Raines.
In addition to the headliners, there are numerous local and regional musicians and bands. One of McCalmont's great satisfactions, she says, is that the Blues Festival provides a large audience for local and regional performers. Local musicians Ed Teja and Scott van Linge are among those who have played at the festival, as have regional duo Chris Dracup and Mark Fuller and local groups The Night Owls and The Mudcats, among others over the years.
In addition to the Memorial Day weekend happenings in Gough Park, the festival planners also put together kick-off events at other venues on Friday night: a free street dance on Yankie Street from 7- 9 p.m., plus wailing good times at the Buffalo Dance Hall ($10 ticket), 9 p.m.-1 a.m., and out at the Opera House in Pinos Altos ($8 ticket), 7-10 p.m.
The street dance, McCalmont says, will be geared for the younger crowd and families, with local favorite the Brandon Perrault Band, featuring Maggie Garcia. Dr. Mojo and the Zydeco Cannibals will perform "rocking, danceable" music at the Buffalo, and the Pat "Guitar Slim" Chase Band, featuring Pat Dutton, will play a more acoustic offering out at the Opera House.
This year's festival will see the addition of a Sunday night event. When Odetta finishes up, there will be a movie screening in the College Avenue Plaza courtyard on the life and music of well-known Chicago bluesman Lurie Bell. Beginning about 8:30 Sunday night, Ed Teja, Scott van Linge and Bruce McKinney will playing acoustic blues until around 9:15, or when it gets dark enough to show a movie. Then the filmmaker will introduce the documentary, answering questions afterward. Finally, Lurie Bell concert footage will then be played for anyone who wants to stay.
But festival planning isn't all about music. McCalmont says another task that falls in December is sponsor solicitation. She breathes a sigh of relief when mentioning the sponsors who have financially supported the Blues Festival year after year: "It means so much to know we can count on them." Wells Fargo Bank, MasterCraft Metals and Texas-New Mexico Power have signed on and written checks for years now, as have Scott Nichols Motors and Chuck Johnson for State Farm Insurance. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Mexico signed on as a sponsor for the first time last year, and is a major donor this year.
J&J Signs has been the festival's sign sponsor for years, providing many of the event's banners and those helpful little logistical signs that dot the festival grounds—pointing the way to the port-a-potties, for example. It's become tradition for Larry's Music in Las Cruces to donate an electric guitar for the big raffle.
"That really kicked off the raffle in a big way, and the raffle is so very important because it helps sustain the festival. It helps us keep it free," McCalmont says.
Long-time volunteer and previous MRAC board treasurer Jane Janson has been coordinating the festival's raffle for several years. She solicits donations of goods and services from local merchants, coordinates all the nuts and bolts of tickets and money and drawings, as well as all of the raffle booth volunteers, and—oh, yes—works the booth herself the entire weekend and announces the winners between music sets.
Music Express in Silver City has also made product donations for the raffle, and KSCQ 92.9 is the MRAC's media sponsor, providing promotional airtime. Gila Hike & Bike, the Sparks Clinic, Century 21 Thompson Realty and Tucson attorney Hector C. Estrada have all come on board with financial support for various aspects of the festival.
Yet even with the regular cast of sponsors on board, as the festival grows bigger every year, so do the costs of producing it. And so the search for new sponsors continues. By signing on as a sponsor, organizations help finance the Blues Festival and raise their own profile in the community as an arts supporter.
Jack Brennan, co-owner of Gila Hike & Bike, says he gets satisfaction from being a repeat sponsor of the Blues Festival on a couple of different levels. "We get a lot of nice compliments from people, saying, 'Hey, that's really great of you to support the festival,' and 'Thanks for helping to bring the Blues Fest to town.'"
Knowing how much work is involved with running a multi-day event—Gila Hike & Bike is instrumental in orchestrating the Tour of the Gila Bike Race, after all—Brennan adds, "Hey, it's great just being a sponsor for a change! Faye's the one with all the headaches, doing all the work for it," he says. "I get to go down and have a beer and just enjoy it!"
In January, Gough Park is booked for Memorial Day weekend and requests for bids go out to local graphic artists to produce the festival brochure and the official Blues Festival Poster. Some of the posters will be signed by all the performers and raffled or sold as memorabilia. This year's brochure and poster were designed and produced by Marya Gendron.
"It was an exciting challenge to design for the Blues Festival because it is such an important event in Silver City," Gendron says. "Art and music are so essential to the health and vitality of a community. I've found great pleasure in design work because I've had the opportunity to design for organizations whose work I respect and believe in.
"Working with Faye on the Blues Festival design was a nice change of pace from the more environmentally oriented work I've done in the past, because the materials needed to be more playful and fun while still giving the impression of a sophisticated event."
The thousands of brochures go out from the MRAC offices in response to requests for information. Brochures also are distributed through the arts council's brochure stands, local hotels and visitors' centers.
Besides the brochure and posters, since 2000, the MRAC has contracted local artists to design and produce a commemorative print, the proceeds from which benefit the festival. This year, Diana Leyba is the artist and the print will be available at the festival. An artist opening reception for the print will be held on May 19 from 5-6:30 p.m. at Leyba and Ingalls Arts.
In February, it's time to solicit food and crafts vendors. McCalmont remembers the simpler—and, for her, more individually burdensome—arrangements in the festival's early days. "We did the food ourselves," she says simply. "Floyd (her husband, Floyd McCalmont) did the MRAC barbeque."
While providing grilled beef for 500 or so participants in the early days was one thing, providing sustenance for the thousands who attend the festival these days is quite another matter. "We leave it to the pros now," McCalmont says of the dozens of food and crafts vendors who pay a fee to do business at the festival each year, hauling in trailers and goods and setting up their own pop-up canopies in booth sites.
Beginning with the sixth festival, the MRAC contracted a vendor coordinator. For the past several years, Mattie Johnson has done a "fabulous job," according to McCalmont, soliciting vendors, setting the parameters for their participation, setting the booth fees and overseeing vendor set-up.
In addition to the "Food Court" vendors that set up in a special area just for food, the festival has numerous "crafts" booths, with local, regional and national artisans who sell their wares at the event. A special section for "Community" booths gives mostly non-profit organizations a place to display information about their services.
Vendors and artisans have been known to bring their Blues Festival booth application in and fill it out at the MRAC office the very day they receive it, stating their location preference—usually "last year's spot," McCalmont says. The festival has garnered such a good reputation as a profitable venue for vendors that booth slots are filled before April is out.
March is the time to send out mailings, including thousands of pieces sent bulk mail to blues fans from all over the country. Numerous "die-hards" make a trip to Silver City for the Blues Festival a regular part of their summer vacations. Because area hotels, inns and camping facilities are packed for the big weekend, the MRAC keeps a list of local residents willing to rent out a room or guest house, passing along contact info to desperate out-of-town callers.
Also in March, McCalmont and crew handle some nuts-and-bolts issues, such as mapping out the Beer Garden and making sure all is square with the event's liquor-license holder and the Town Council.
March is also time to solicit volunteers in earnest. Volunteers sign on for two- to three-hour shifts in a variety of areas, from parking cars to selling T-shirts, picking up trash to making sure the performers have meals and water. In addition to the satisfaction of helping out and enjoying a fun day in the sun with blues surround-sound, volunteers get an official Blues Fest T-shirt.
"We couldn't do this without volunteers," says McCalmont. "It's a big part of how we keep the festival free for the public. Without volunteers, we'd have to pay so many people to do so many jobs, and that would change the whole nature of the festival."
Diane Miller, the MRAC's new volunteer coordinator, has hit the ground running, putting eager hands into Blues Fest service slots. "I love working with volunteers. People who are there because they want to help out and to be a part of things are very special people indeed," Miller says. "Being newly hired at the arts council, I will be cutting my teeth on the Blues Festival, which would seem like a very big job! But all the organization that's been done by those who came before, and the experienced staff MRAC has, is a huge help to me. Also, people are drawn to such a great, fun event. I'm getting inquiries every day from people wanting to volunteer."
Veteran volunteer Teri Matelson says, "MRAC's Silver City Blues Festival is like getting 'Bingo!' It's all fun, even the hard work leading up to spending a couple of days around a whole bunch of amazing musicians from all over the country."
Matelson is a professional Web page designer (www.tmatelson.com) who created, designed and manages the MRAC Web page at www.mimbresarts.org, constantly updating the page's content with arts council events, including the myriad details of the Blues Festival. Matelson worked in the MRAC office for the past several years, managing the organization's database system and mailing lists, among other key tasks. She is now employed to manage the MRAC's Web tools, developing an interactive page for teachers connecting to the MRAC's youth and educational programs. She also volunteers for MRAC's youth performances and the folk concert series.
Matelson adds, "I love volunteering for all sorts of arts council events and helping make such neat things happen here. The year-round offerings are a real gift to the region—not to mention Tucson!—and involve people of all ages. It's thrilling to hear hundreds of school kids cheer all at once for a live performance at the (WNMU) Fine Arts Center Theater—gives you goose bumps."
MRAC staff, in addition to their regular working hours, plug themselves into the equation whenever and wherever most needed. Part-time bookkeeper Dea Gros has been known to go beyond her festival shift of running items back and forth between the MRAC office in the Wells Fargo Bank building and Gough Park, helping the raffle volunteers, sales table and others, filling a slot a volunteer didn't make, or troubleshooting.
The MRAC also has a volunteer "secret weapon," if you will—"The Floyd Factor," the in-house nickname for Floyd McCalmont. In the early days of her directorship, Faye McCalmont's devoted husband—devoted both to her and to the arts—probably volunteered as many hours as she was paid for by the MRAC. Even today, at staff meetings, when the MRAC team goes over timelines and tasks needed to pull off the plethora of performances and events in their busy calendar, she often puts in, "Oh, Floyd will do that" or "Floyd can get the guys to help him set that up."
One day a staffer piped up, "Faye, what would we ever do without the Floyd Factor?" The name stuck.
Floyd McCalmont, the co-owner of MasterCraft Metals, often donates the use of his trucks and even pays his employees to do some of the heavy lifting required to pull off MRAC events. In the early days, his wife recalls, "He made the gazebo (in Gough Park) festival-ready."
April is product time on the Blues Fest timeline. The final design is chosen for the official Blues Festival shirts and ball caps. There are typically a couple of different styles of T-shirts and tank tops, sometimes with long-sleeved tees and denim shirts in the mix. McCalmont says sales are always good—last year's first-ever rainout notwithstanding—as festivalgoers want to have something cool to wear in the summer heat. Ball caps are just the ticket for shading eyes and faces.
"People often suggest that we have a Blues Festival sweatshirt made," McCalmont says, "and we did that one year." But as temps climb well into the 80s, a sweatshirt is far from anyone's mind, as McCalmont can tell you: "It took us forever to sell those!"
Morning Star, a sportswear and imprinting company in downtown Silver City, has been the MRAC's vendor for several years. When the huge boxes of shirts come in, the MRAC holds T-shirt folding parties. Volunteers come in for shifts to fold and sort by size the hundreds of shirts, facilitating the merchandising process for the products-booth volunteers down the road.
Asked for her "best and worst festival moments" McCalmont easily picks the worst: "Last year's lightning and torrential downpour was definitely the biggest challenge," she says. "We had a back-up plan—people went to the Buffalo (Dance Hall) and the music continued down there. We got the word out to the crowd as best we could (lacking electricity for microphones, the change in venue had to be passed by word of mouth), and accommodated as many people as we could. It went quite smoothly, considering."
Of course, T-shirt sales suffered, as did door sales for the later regularly scheduled concert event, as people stayed in the Buffalo from late afternoon into the evening's event. Some humorous passing of the "Blues Bucket" throughout the evening helped ease the financial losses.
"People really appreciate the festival and want to keep it a free event," McCalmont says.
One of her greatest satisfactions with the event, she says, is what it does for Silver City's downtown. "It's just full, the streets are full. It's fun—great for people-watching," she adds with a mischievous smile. "And our shops and restaurants do well. The hotels benefit, the gas stations."
In fact, a special Gallery Tour on Sunday morning, before the music starts, is designed to bring out-of-town visitors looking for something to do into the rich downtown arts district.
Her greatest pride comes from the event's high profile and great reputation, McCalmont adds. "When people move here, they hear 'Just wait until Blues Festival.' It's a great thing and people do love it."
One of McCalmont's funniest festival memories came the first year attorney Alan Wagman dressed up as the "Blues Princess." "It was just hysterical," she recalls. Clad in a mostly pink fairy-princess costume, Wagman ran through the crowds with a bucket, soliciting donations to "help keep the festival free," eliciting laughs and spreading good will along the way.
What some people won't do for love of the Blues.
Senior Editor Donna Clayton Lawder knows the Blues Festival