Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Festival offers music, food, fun for all

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2005

Greenville's inaugural Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Fest proved to be a weekend of laughter, music, dancing, good southern food and fellowship, set against the backdrop of a brilliant, cloudless blue sky and clear, cool night.

&#8220Isn't this perfect weather? Could you ask for a nicer day?” Priscilla Davis of Greenville, a volunteer with the humane society booth, said with a smile.

It certainly proved a great day for music lovers and the musicians who proved victorious in Saturday evening's acoustic blues competition.

A musician from the &#8220Great White North” won the hearts of the festival audience, taking home a check for $1,000 as winner of the competition.

Rick Fines of Peterborough, Ontario, won the top prize with his unique guitar styling, sly tongue-in-cheek humor and a distinctive voice, described by audience members as &#8220a mix of Leon Redbone and Randy Newman.”

Festival goers joined in on the fun during the afternoon as Fines performed his award-winning song, the amusing &#8220Riley Wants His Life Back,” just one of several original compositions the musician/songwriter shared with the audience.

The versatile musician transformed a song by fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot (&#8220The greatest blues musician of Canada”) into a blues number. He also performed blues standards from the 20s and 30s, &#8220Lay Me Down a Pallet on the Floor” (&#8220Here's one from way back in the 20s when I was just a young woman getting started myself”).

Fines, who arrived in town early to perform in last Thursday's Concert in the Park, praised the city for its hospitality. &#8220People have treated me so well, making sure I had plenty to eat and that I was happy,” he told the audience.

&#8220I'm so happy, in fact, I'm not sure I want to go homeŠbut if I do go home, I hope to come back very soon.”

Junior Thomas, who hails from Stockton, pleased the audience with his harmonica playing. With the assistance of skilled blues guitarist Luther Warble, on loan from his band, Triple X, Thomas wowed the crowds with numbers by Jerry McCain, Johnny Winters and more to take second place honors.

Sam Pointer of Birmingham took home a $500 prize for the best interpretation of the music of Greenville's own bluesman, Ed Bell, a top blues performer of the 20s and 30s.

Other competition performers included Jay Kirgis of Leland, Miss., Jeff Norwood of Camden, S.C. and Curly Cooke and Paul Green of Seattle.

‘A hotbed of blues'

Ansel Strickland, who organized the musical acts and the sound system for the event, told the audience some 80 years ago Greenville was &#8220a hotbed of blues music.”

&#8220The area known as Sweet Gum Bottom was the center of it. Ed Bell was a big part of that. He also toured and recorded around the country. Today, if you put together the top 20 blues recordings from the 20s and 30s, I guarantee you Ed Bell would have a few songs on that record,” Strickland said.

&#8220This is all part of Greenville's heritage we are celebrating here today.”

Strickland also praised &#8220the city and the citizens of Greenville” for supporting the event.

&#8220We've tried to give you something completely different with each of these actsŠNancy (Idland) and I hope this is just the beginning of something great for the city of Greenville,” he said.

Some of those who stayed through the acoustic blues competition and the high-energy plugged-in show featuring headliners Willie King and the Liberators and Little Jimmy Reed, echoed Strickland's words.

Several expressed hopes the smaller-than-hoped-for turnout wouldn't mean the end of the blues festival for Greenville.

Blues in the open air

&#8220I enjoyed every minute of it. They were all great musicians and the sound was wonderful. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of Greenville's very first blues festival - and I certainly hope it won't be the last,” Judy Messina of Greenville said.

&#8220This was great,” Mary Ann Hamilton of Greenville said late Saturday night as she held up her blues festival T-shirt, now covered with the signatures of the many musicians who had performed on Saturday. &#8220To be able to hear all this live blues music and not be in some cramped, smoky space, but out in the open air on a beautiful night - how terrific is that?”

She watched a nattily-dressed gentleman known only as &#8220Thomas” joyously dancing around to Reed's music and smiled.

&#8220It's great to see people having a good time.”

As for the criticism of some the $7 admission was too high, Sue Arnold of Greenville disagreed.

&#8220Look at how many acts - seven, eight - we got to hear for seven dollars. Think about how much you'd spend to go to the fair in Montgomery, not to mention the gas it would takeŠthis was a bargain,” she insisted.

Priscilla Davis thinks a $5 admission would have probably brought more people in, but agrees the evening was well worth it.

&#8220Those who missed it really missed something. For an evening, everybody forgot their problems, Katrina, prejudices and so forth, and really enjoyed the festivities and the music. I found it strangely healing. Hats off to Nancy Idland and everybody who had a hand in putting on this event.”

Both Davis and Messina expressed hopes the Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Festival can become a big draw for Greenville in the same way the Hank Williams Festival is for neighboring Georgiana.

&#8220Look what has happened down thereŠthis could be a really good thing for Greenville,” Messina said.

Family fun in the sun

While the festival ended with plenty of blues, it kicked off on Saturday morning with beignets, &#8220bouncy castles” and craft vendors, magic shows and crafty hats created from newspapers. &#8220Family Fun Day' lived up to its name.

Five-year-old Chapman Gregory enjoyed checking out a vintage John Deere tractor, while old and young alike admired the antique cars and trucks on display nearby. David Nordgren won the People's Choice award for his vintage vehicle.

Katherine Tillery, age five, of Greenville, enjoyed her pretty pink &#8220mask,' courtesy of face painter Jacki Sport of Luverne, a perennial big draw at festivals.

Another popular stop was the booth of Bill Jackson the caricaturist, with lines of folks waiting to have a humorous portrait drawn on the spot. Kids could also dress up in variety of garments and pose for an instant portrait.

Vivian Killingsworth of Greenville was enjoying a weekend outing with her young grandson, John David Thomas, who happily downed a cotton candy-flavored shaved ice. &#8220We're having a great time,” Killingsworth said.

Food proved a big part of the festival. The volunteers from Greenville Elementary School ran out of their camp stew before the day was over, and the Miss Greater Greenville Scholarship Board's &#8220Finger Lickin' Good” booth was doing great business with their fried green tomatoes, smoked turkey legs and other southern specialties.

Two ladies came away winners from the Pecan Cook Off sponsored by Just Julie's. Ann Miller of Greenville won best entr\u00E9e and $100 with her sweet potato casserole, while Carolyn Black of Greenville took home best dessert honors and $100 with her recipe for pecan dainties.

Priscilla Davis got to sample several dishes, and said she loved &#8220the cheese grits, boiled peanuts, sweet tea and barbecue.”

Linda Horn of Greenville, who praised the fried green tomatoes and jambalaya, said she also &#8220never passes up a funnel cake.”

&#8220Family fun day was just that - fun. I loved seeing all the kids engage in crafts, face-painting and outdoor activities. Kudos to all those creative volunteers,” Horn added.

Some homeless pets also got a day out courtesy of the Butler County Humane Society volunteers. Volunteer Kandys Killough was thrilled when Baby, a puppy featured in a recent Lifestyles article in this paper, found a new home with Cathy and Leander Pickens of Greenville.

&#8220We had to put our dog downŠand I think the best way to get over the pain is to get another puppy to love and enjoy,” Pickens said.

Ramona Martin of Greenville, who helped man the cookbook booth for Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, said Saturday's festival &#8220epitomized everything that is great about small-town life.”

&#8220There were plenty of activities for children, and they were able to roam around freely and safely. The weather was beautiful and everyone was in a fantastic mood and so happy to see each other.”

&#8220We hope everyone had a great time this weekend, and for those who missed it, I truly think they missed a treat,” Greenville Main Street Executive Director Nancy Idland said.

The Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Festival was sponsored by Main Street, the Alabama Council on the Arts, the Greenville Area Arts Council and a number of local sponsors.