By Teresa Gubbins
Artwork by Kate Miller
Denton Live Fall/Winter 2005
At the annual Denton Blues Festival, big-name acts like Pops Carter, Johnnie Taylor, and Little Milton take to the stage.
In a city better known for jazz, an annual festival has been doing its best to make room for the blues.
Now in its eighth year, the Denton Blues Festival, which takes place September 17–18 this year, has become not simply an autumn entertainment mainstay, but also a worthy blues gathering. The event has hosted well-known national artists such as Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, as well as local acts, especially blues icon Pops Carter, who has played the festival nearly every year of its existence.
“We had Pops Carter the very first year,” recalls one of the festival’s founders, John Baines. “Then one year we didn’t have him, and the community got on our case. So we always make it a point, as long as Pops is alive and able, for him to play the festival. He’s a local legend.”
An accountant by day, Baines started the festival in 1997 as the first chairman of the newly launched Denton Black Chamber of Commerce.
“We were looking for a banner event that would give us some exposure as an organization, and at the same time fill the needs of the community,” he says. “We tried an African-American jazz festival, and then a gospel extravaganza. We liked the jazz idea, but didn’t want to compete with the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival. We had a couple of members on the board at the time who were blues aficionados. I myself am a former R&B singer.”
So the blues became their thing.
Baines recalls the first year as a haphazard affair, “held together by prayer, chewing gum, and shoestring,” with a sound system rented from a pawnshop. Today’s festival has expanded into a family-friendly affair with activities like auto shows, talent contests, and a concert lineup that has included such luminaries as Tyrone Davis, Sam Myers, Denise LaSalle, and Smokin’ Joe Kubek. But despite its growth, the event has no paid staffers. Baines and the members of the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce do it all on a volunteer basis, learning new lessons every year in the ABCs of concert promotion. Some of the logistics have changed over the years, just as the festival and its organizers have evolved.
For example, in its early days, it was a free event held at the Civic Center Park. But it quickly mushroomed — nearly out of control. In its second year, when Johnnie Taylor headlined, it attracted some 10,000 people. “The difficulty was that we couldn’t control the inflow of outside food and drinks,” says Baines. “And we use that as part of our fundraising.”
Their search for a gated facility led them to the North Texas State Fairgrounds. They also began to charge a $5 parking fee, as well as a $5 admission fee, which is a relatively small cover for a full day’s worth of entertainment.
Like any North Texas festival, this one has the usual assortment of arts and crafts, food vendors (turkey legs, anyone?), and face painting. The kids’ program includes a talent search orchestrated by local DJ, Harold Jackson. “It provides an opportunity for the youth in the community,” Baines says. “A lot of kids who are interested in rap or singing don’t have a venue.”
This year’s lineup of bands won’t be finalized until late summer, but Pops Carter and his four-piece band, the Funkmonsters from Outer Space, are a sure thing. Carter has been a local hero since moving to Denton in 1969. A fixture around town and on the University of North Texas campus, he’s like an ambassador for the blues, helping to coalesce the genre and its followers at events like the Blues Fest.
“It’s been good to me and good for everybody,” says Carter.
What he says he cherishes most about the event has been the opportunity to perform on the same stage as some of his favorite acts. “When Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland was at the festival, I got to open for him,” Carter recalls. “I open up for all of them guys every year.”
The festival has also helped fuel a blues resurgence of sorts. In March of 2004, Sandy Hall, a Denton resident and former booking agent, founded an organization called the Denton Blues Society (dentonblues.com). The group hosts an event on the first Saturday in November called the Fall Denton Blues Crawl, and also sponsors monthly blues jams in local clubs. In May, Cleveland transplant Jeff Dyson co-founded the Blue Shoe Project (blueshoeproject.org) with his brother, Michael Dyson, whose goal is to promote blues and roots education programs in area schools.
Hall says that when founding the Denton Blues Society, she was inspired at least in part by the Blues Festival. “We had about 10 volunteers who came and worked for free and helped them out,” she says. “We’re all trying to push in the same direction. Anytime there’s a venue and an opportunity for a blues program, that benefits the bands and the fans, and we love it. Live blues music is what we live for.”