Adapted and updated from an article printed in Buddy Magazine, October 1997
Updated 1/27/05, updated and extended 2/1/16
DFW Has the BLUES
Few Seem to Notice Just How Much
By DON O.
Ask anyone where the hotbed of Texas blues is and they'll probably answer Austin. Why is this? Well it's partly because they don't have the facts and partly due to the heavy promotion of the music scene in Austin by both their local press and government. At one time, Austin may have had the best blues scene in Texas (even if it was staffed mostly with DFW migrants) but that time is long past. Even the Austin Chronicle has run a cover story (August 9, 1996) on the demise of the Austin blues scene. Few Dallas/Fort Worth blues musicians move to Austin anymore and that's probably part of their problem. The fact is, Dallas/Fort Worth has the best blues scene in Texas and is, perhaps, second only to Chicago in the world. Now that's big talk, but there are facts and figures to back up that claim. It is no Texas brag. There are over 130 working blues bands and artists who live and perform in DFW but only a handful of clubs that book entirely or mostly blues. There are dozens of live blues events to choose from weekly.
Blues history in DFW runs deep. In fact, way back to the beginning of recorded blues. One of the very first blues songs ever published was The Dallas Blues, published in 1912. The first commercially successful male blues artist, "Blind" Lemon Jefferson, was discovered on the streets of Dallas in the mid 20's. T-Bone Walker made his first recordings here as "Oak Cliff T-Bone" in 1929. Alex Moore, Black Ace, and the Dallas String Band were recording blues in Dallas before anyone ever heard of The Delta or Chicago blues. Blues icon Robert Johnson cut 13 of his famous 29 sides at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas in June 1937. Ray Charles lived here in the early 50's. Lowell Fulson cut his seminal hit "Reconsider Baby" in a Dallas studio. Dallas was home to Freddie King from the early 60's until his death in 1976. Oak Cliff was the cradle of Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan. Just a few points of blues history, maybe not pertinent to the blues scene today, but very pertinent in the overall scheme of things. The blues has always been here. The blues has always been important here.
DFW blues is an important export. Anson and the Rockets, Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King, Jim Suhler, Holland K. Smith, Tutu Jones, Mike Morgan and the Crawl, Lucky Peterson, Cookie McGee, Bob Kirkpatrick, Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones, Hash Brown, Randy McAllister, and others regularly tour overseas. Memo Gonzalez did so well in Germany that he relocated over there in 1997. U.P. Wilson relocated to Paris, France in 2000. In addition to touring, foreign record labels have been jumping on the DFW blues bandwagon. Here's a few examples:
Foreign record labels are recognizing the talent here, recording local blues bands here, pressing the CDs overseas, then selling them back to us as imports! The music business sure is strange.
Believe it or not, DFW is now a blues tourist destination. Blues fans from foreign lands actually schedule vacation time to come here to see and hear Dallas and Fort Worth blues artists. I have personally given the "blues tour" to people from Ireland, England, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Austria, The Netherlands, and Belgium. I have met others from Italy, Australia, France, Brazil, Russia, and Greece. It's amazing that foreigners from so far away know more about our local blues scene than most locals. With the rehabilitation of 508 Park Avenue under the Encore Park project, there will soon be a museum at the site where Robert Johnson recorded. The new Texas Musicians Museum in Irving also draws music fans to their blues exhibits.
However it's not just foreigners who are appreciating our homegrown talent. Domestic blues record labels have long mined the rich lode of DFW blues artists. Blacktop Records' very first artist was Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. They went on to add Mike Morgan and the Crawl, and Robert Ealey to their fold. Bullseye Blues began their foray into the DFW blues scene with Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King then added Pat Boyack and The Prowlers. Later they used London's JSP Records as a farm club, picking up two of their artists, Tutu Jones and Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones, after their successful debuts. Cannonball Records also actively pursued area talent releasing a compilation CD with Henry Qualls, Big Al Dupree, and Big Charles Young. They also released Shawn Pittman's first two CDs and reissued Hash Brown's Parsifal CD. Soul blues labels Malaco and Waldoxy have their toes in the water with Johnnie Taylor, Sangin' Clarence, and Ernie Johnson. Ichiban countered with Gregg Smith, Bobby Patterson, and Vernon Garrett. The Paula, Icehouse, Lucky Seven, Verve, Fedora, and Trix labels have also dabbled in DFW blues.
Three local blues record labels must be credited as a major factor in the national and international recognition of the DFW blues scene. Chuck Nevitt's Dallas Blues Society Records was the first out of the block with the re-discovery of Zuzu Bollin. The label has gone on to record Henry Qualls, Big Al Dupree, Johnny Moeller, and Dallas native Denny Freeman. Richard Chalk's Topcat Records label has dabbled in a number of different areas including a compilation CD with 18 different DFW artists, original recordings of the Texas Blues Women (Chonita Turner, Jav-Lyn, and Lady Lotion), the Texas Bluesmen (Robert Ealey, Joe Jonas, and Curly "Barefoot" Miller), and Holland K. Smith, plus lease or purchase of recordings by Calvin Owens and Freddie King. When Topcat encountered financial difficulties, Chalk sold most of the catalog to Blacktop Records. He then used the proceeds to go right back into the recording studio. Hash Brown's Browntone label started out as a self-release label but has served several other artists as well. Local radio station KNON also released 5 local blues compilations in 1997, 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2010. The 2010 release was also pressed in vinyl.
Despite all of the label activity, not every artist can, or even wants to be associated with a record label. Fortunately, these days, just about anyone can record and press 1000 CDs for less than $5000. This is becoming more of a standard than label releases. The surprising thing is just how good some of these self-released albums can be. Texas Slim, Homer Henderson, Arvel Stricklin, James Hinkle, Sumter Bruton, The Fuzzy Whitener Band, Josh Alan, Mike Stockton and the Rhythmators, Kenny Kay and Storm Warning, Cold Blue Steel, Kenny Traylor, Kelly Hatcher, Mitch Palmer, Joey Love, Josh Davis, The Silvertones, Jake Crawford, Robin Bank$, Beth Garner, Betty Lewis, Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones, K.M. Williams, Dylan Bishop, Reo Casey, Steve Hill, Danny Hill, Jason Cloud, and many others have used this route to get their music heard and supplement their bandstand income.
The local blues club scene has declined a lot from its zenith a few years back, but continues to offer just about anything a blues fan could want. On most nights, a local blues fan must choose between many different events. Even on "tough" weekdays like Monday and Tuesday. Occasionally you can catch blues road acts at Poor David's Pub or R.L.'s Blues Palace #2. There are dozens of other clubs hosting local talent and blues jams. The importance of those many weekly blues jams must not be overlooked. They act as an incubator for new talent and as a meeting place for local blues players. One thing about the DFW blues community is that it IS a community. Community Radio station KNON 89.3 FM hosts annual Dallas and Fort Worth Blues Festivals and has many blues events throughout the year.
Despite the general apathy, and sometimes antipathy, of DFW media, the blues scene here is thriving. The downside of that apathy is no one knows about it. There are a few sources where information leaks out. KNON 89.3 FM's has10 hours a week of solid blues programming and blues continues to be the top money raiser during the non-commercial station's pledge drives. Over the years, Buddy magazine has probably carried more ink on the DFW blues scene than the rest of the local print media combined.
National and International blues publications have long recognized the strong DFW Blues scene. Living Blues has carried major stories on R.L. Griffin, Ernie Johnson, Big Al Dupree, Bob Kirkpatrick, Zuzu Bollin, Sam Myers, Vernon Garrett, Gregg A. Smith and many others. Blues Access carried several overview pieces and occasional feature pieces on artists such as Gregg Smith. Blues Revue's special Texas edition detailed the DFW blues club scene. International magazines such as Juke Blues (England), Blues and Rhythm (England), Il Blues (Italy), Blues News (Finland), Jefferson (Sweden) and others regularly contain information on DFW blues happenings and reviews of local self-released CDs.
Whither the Dallas Blues Festival?
Local entities are only now beginning to grasp the blues festival concept that has worked so well in other parts of the country. The City of Bedford Blues and BBQ Festival has grown each year. Even smaller towns like Wortham, Denton, and Nacogdoches have held annual blues fests, mostly staffed with DFW talent. The question is, when is the city of Dallas going to figure this out and promote this city's major contribution to world music? The city of Chicago has been doing it successfully for many years. Attendance at their 4 day free festival usually runs 500,000-600,000 with performers on 4 to 6 stages. People come from all over the world. With proper promotion, planning, and slow growth, the city of Dallas could do the same thing. Fair Park seems the perfect venue with ample parking, the practically unused bandshell, barely used Music Hall, and numerous locations suitable for sidestages. It would have to be timed to either late spring or early September to take advantage of the best weather and avoid conflict with the State Fair. Another key factor is to avoid the mistakes of booking agents who think you must book big country or rock acts to pack a blues festival. The key is variety within the blues. Book some soul blues like Bobby Rush or Denise LaSalle, book acoustic blues, and all the other varieties of blues music and let the country and rock acts have their own damn festival. Form a committee of knowledgeable people to choose the acts instead of some festival promoter or politician whose knowledge of blues is negligible. Finally, do it with a 3 or 5 year plan in mind. Successful festivals are "grown" over a period of years, not thrown together with instant success.
The Dallas/Fort Worth blues scene is one of the most "happening" in the world. Artists here range from young up and comers like Dylan Bishop and Reo Casey to grizzled veterans like Big Charles Young. It's time we stand up and recognize what a great blues scene this area has. They recognize it in London, Stockholm, Berlin, and Tokyo. It's time to spread the news to the people that live here.