With music and more, this Blues Festival will have you singing a happy tune.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Take your ears to Thomson, Georgia, and you’ll be very glad you did.
Come to the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival to hear some tunes and you’ll get treated to an impressive lineup of talent…plus food from local vendors, camaraderie with friendly folks, sidebar entertainment in the form of people watching, photo ops, and great weather—OK, so the sunshine isn’t guaranteed, but the organizers will do their best.
The 25th annual Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival was held on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Attending the annual event for the second time myself this year, it continued to impress. Expect to relax while being entertained.
The festival is named for Georgia native Blind Willie McTell, a musician best known for writing “Statesboro Blues.”
McTell was born William Samuel McTier in 1901 just south of Thomson, and lost his eyesight in childhood. He became an accomplished musical theorist, able to both read and write music in Braille. While few of his recordings ever earned mainstream popularity, his influence on music is widely known. His songs have been recorded by several other artists, including the Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan—who even wrote a song about him.
Considered to be one of the most accomplished guitarists and lyrical storytellers in Blues history, Blind Willie was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990.
The festival named after him was launched 25 years ago as a fundraiser for Thomson’s local arts community. Several folks who attended and even performed that first year consider it a “can’t miss” event and make it an annual pilgrimage.
The year’s music lineup wasn’t strictly limited to blues: You could hear some Americana, Cajun influences, country and touches of funk and soul. But no one in the audience seemed to mind a bit. It was all toe-tapping, dance-stepping good fun.
The scene-stealer this year was Samantha Fish. An amazing talent with the chutzpah of a major star, she impressed with her music, her voice, and her presence. The hair, the outfit, the eyeliner, the musical ability, the turquoise heels, the “I could kill you with this guitar” swagger…awesomeness! I had never seen or heard of her before, but I’ll be buying her new album Belle of the West (her fifth studio album, which was released Nov. 2017). Belle of the West closely followed Fish’s March 2017 release Chills & Fever, which achieved top 10 status in the Billboard Blues charts. These facts were not clear to me until I returned home and started researching this article—and that’s sort of a key point: You need not be a music aficionado to have a great time at this festival; an open mind will do just fine.
Part of the fun of attending the festival is discovering new talents and sounds. The lineup this year also included JD McPherson, Amy Helm, Kenny Neal, The Randall Bramblett Band, and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton who opened his set with the promise, “You will get to hear some old man music.” (His lyrics were often quite clever!) One of the best things about this festival is its pace: Each musical act gets the stage for what seems like a just-right amount of time: Long enough to appreciate them, not too long to grow weary of them. Just as you start wondering when the next act will come on, it generally does.
There’s a laid-back, mix-and-mingle vibe. Get up and dance or sit and relax while gnawing on some barbecue and sipping a cold beer. You can bring a tent or umbrella for shade or just wear a hat and sunglasses…though if it does drizzle that umbrella might come in handy.
Just come prepared to have a good time, no matter which way the wind blows and whatever tunes may dance through the air.
The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival is held in a field one mile north of Interstate 20 at Thomson, Ga., Exit 172. (It’s about two hours east of Atlanta.)
For the 2018 event, tickets were $40/person at the door.
Odds of Encountering Children: Children age 12 and under are allowed to attend for free, but we didn’t see many of them. Among the hundreds of festival goers, we counted only 6 children.
-Photos © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. Thanks to Thomson-McDuffie Co. GA CVB for hosting my experience.