Festival revamps this tiny town’s long, legendary blues legacy

Last updated: February 26, 2020

No place grooves to its own tune better than Bluefield, home of the Bluefield Blues Festival.

This city has a surprisingly rich and storied musical heritage— they know 12-bar blues and shuffles like it “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” The festival keeps that history alive by bringing in some of the biggest names in blues.

A music history hotspot

“Not many people know it, but Bluefield is a happening music place,” said Jamie Null, Executive Director at Mercer County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

It’s a fact that surprises most folks— even native West Virginians. But Bluefield’s 5 historic theaters have lured musicians and crooners for decades. Even some of the biggest names in musical history, like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, treated the town to performances.

“[One of Billboard’s top performing jazz musicians of all time] Louis Jordan shouts out to Bluefield in ‘Salt Pork, West Virginia,’ ” Jamie said.

The song gets its catchy rhythm from lyrics that list major cities. One of these is Bluefield. Supposedly, Jordan wrote the piece after a friendly justice of the peace excused his speeding ticket.

There’s also the story Teddy Weatherford, the “Count Basie of the Far East.” During the early 1900s, he lived in Bluefield and studied piano and music theory. The future world traveler honed his skills with a local dance band, too.

With such a history, Bluefield’s annual music celebration seems only right. Even its setting is a nod to these rich musical roots: players set up on Commerce Street, right across from the Granada Theater, where Grammy Hall of Famer Fats Waller once played its grand organ.

The fancy Wurlitzer organ was— and still is— the Granada’s prize possession. Back when silent films flickered on screens, it enhanced movies with sound effects. Fats Waller probably heard about the Wurlitzer’s special horns and whistles. After playing a short set on Commerce Street’s WHIS radio, he popped into the Granada for a quick recital.

Bringing back the blues

All that history is revived in Bluefield’s new music festival.

“It had been an idea of mine for a long time, and I wanted to do something in our downtown area,” chairman Richard Bullins said. “So myself, [musician] Bob Campion and Tom Cole— the city mayor— got together.”

With the help of the Bluefield Preservation Society, they set their sights on recreating the town’s grand music scene. Their biggest goal was attracting big regional and national bands (just like they had in their golden era.)

This year’s headliner is Biscuit Miller & The Mix, a 2012 Blues Music Award Winner. You can also jam to music by southern rock group One Eyed Jack and Victor Lawson & Boogie Chillen, a blues ensemble from Virginia. Jamal Millner Trio and The Tommy Cox Band will round out the schedule.

“The genre of blues music is multi-generational, so we always have a large age group attending our festival,” he said. “Having the festival in our historic downtown area really makes for a great outdoor venue.”

Set against the backdrop of 19th-century buildings and Art Deco attractions, the festival evokes old-time nostalgia. Richard hopes the event will keep up Bluefield’s old-time music legacy, too. The inaugural event drew 500 people, and he expects 800 this year.

Local eateries add to the festival’s appeal, too. Get hot southern chow from The Big Whiskey BBQ Co. and fresh sandwiches and salads from The Blue Spoon. Or order up fest classics like brews, pepperoni rolls, kettle corn and peanuts.

All the intrigue of the Bluefield Blues Festival is packed into just one day, so give Aug. 27 room on your calendar. And there’s more to do that weekend: Lemonade Festivalcelebrates the best of “Nature’s Air Conditioned City” with free concerts, art vendors, lemon-themed games and more.

What are you looking forward to about the blues festival?