Guitars are being tuned, dancing shoes are being dusted off and fans are making their way to Cherry Street in downtown Helena-West Helena for blues, food and fun during the 33rd edition of the King Biscuit Blues Festival.
This year’s festival starts for early birds on Wednesday, gets officially cranking on Thursday and ends late Saturday. More than 80 acts will perform an eclectic mix of blues, soul, gospel and roots music across six stages in the Delta town where singer/harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson and guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr. were broadcast on Nov. 21, 1941, on the very first airing of King Biscuit Time on radio station KFFA.
Main Stage headliners include Bobby Rush on Thursday, Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke on Friday and on Saturday guitarists Dave Mason and Steve Cropper.
The 84-year-old Rush was born in Louisiana, grew up in Pine Bluff and is a King Biscuit festival regular. He won a Grammy last year for his 30th album Porcupine Meat.
Georgia-based Blackberry Smoke carries the Southern rock tradition into a new era with their blues-tinged country groove. Find a Light, the band’s sixth and most recent album, was released in April.
Mason co-founded legendary British Invasion band Traffic and has played with Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and others. He is joined by Steve Cropper, guitarist and founding member of Booker T. and the MGs, the house band for Memphis soul label Stax and who played on dozens of classics like “Knock on Wood” and “In the Midnight Hour” and co-wrote “Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding.
Other notable performers include Mississippi’s Paul Thorn, Lonnie Shields, Willie Cobbs, the Robert Finley Band, the Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith Band, Carolyn Wonderland and the Oakland Blues Divas to name just a few. And don’t worry, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, the Texas outfit that has performed at all 32 preceding iterations of the festival, will be on the Main Stage at 5:35 p.m. Friday.
“We’re so excited. Our ticket sales are going great, and everything is looking good,” says Munnie Jordan, the festival’s executive director.
This year’s event is dedicated to the memory of “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, the longtime King Biscuit Time show host, who died Feb. 9 at age 92.
“We’re honoring Sonny, and also KFFA and King Biscuit Time,” Jordan says.
The program, which still airs Monday-Friday from 12:15-12:45 p.m., is the longest-running daily show on American radio with more than 17,760 broadcasts and won the George Foster Peabody Award in 1992. Payne was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010 and was also a recipient of the Arkansas Broadcasters Association’s Pioneer Award.
Payne will be remembered with a special performance Thursday night, which will be emceed by current King Biscuit Time host Thomas Jacques and feature performances by Rush and another frequent festival highlight, Reba Russell, who has written a song about Payne.
During past festivals, the Delta Cultural Center at 141 Cherry St., where King Biscuit Time is broadcast, would fill with fans and performers when Payne hosted the show.
Jacques, who is also assistant director at the cultural center, says he and his co-host, Holly Grove musician Marcus Cartwright, will continue the tradition.
“Marcus will be on hand to sing and back up anyone who shows up,” Jacques says. “We expect to have folks coming in and we look forward to talking with them.”
Jordan also suggests that fans not miss out on the Bit-O-Blues stage, which features young musicians from the region.
Brody Buster, the Kansas harmonica wiz who performs on the CeDell Davis Stage at 6 p.m. Saturday, is a former Bit-O-Blues Stage performer, Jordan says.
“He played the Bit-O-Blues, and we also have pictures of him playing years ago as a little boy on the Main Stage with [the harmonica legend] James Cotton,” Jordan says.
Jacques says he is looking forward to Rush’s performance in the more intimate setting of the center’s Front Porch Blues Stage at noon on Friday after his Thursday night headlining set.
“That will be pretty incredible, to have him in a little 100-seat venue like that.”
Fans will notice a few changes to this year’s event. Blues Bucks, the festival currency used in years past to buy food sold by vendors along Cherry Street are now mostly a thing of the past.
Vendors will take cash or credit/debit cards for food, Jordan says. Blues Bucks, which are sold at stands, will still be required to buy alcohol.
Another new feature this year is the Bloody Mary and Biscuits Bar from 10 a.m.-noon Friday in the Mark Twain Courtyard, 311 Elm St. Admission is $10.
“You can go in and build your own bloody Mary, build your own biscuits and get a signature cup with the festival logo on it,” Jordan says.
While the festival begins on Thursday, fans who want to get the party started early will be treated to a special event during Warm-Up Wednesday, which will feature an appreciation of festival veterans Bob Margolin and Bob Stroger beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the VIP Tent, 116 Cherry St.
That will be followed by the Michael Burks Memorial Jam, where Margolin and Stroger will perform with guests on the Main Stage.
There is more than just music during King Biscuit, Jordan adds. The Flour Power Run is a 5K that starts at 7:30 a.m. Saturday on Cherry Street.
Also on Saturday is the Tour da Delta bike ride with choices of courses that range from 65 miles to 35 miles, 20 miles and 12 miles. Some of the routes include a section of gravel road and all rides begin at the American Legion Hut, 409 Porter St. Registration information for the run and the tour can be found at kingbiscuitfestival.com.