Stripped down to its bare bones, the blues is an amalgamation of African call-and-response vocals and European harmonies; lyrically, it signifies heartache and depression.
No wonder, then, that despite the floundering economy, more than 1,000 blues fans have already dropped $125 apiece on tickets for the 30th Blues Music Awards, scheduled for The Memphis Cook Convention Center Thursday, May 7th.
"Blues fans are loyal. This is not an elective part of their life. It is their life, so it's not the first thing to be cut out of their budget," says Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation, the Memphis-based nonprofit behind the event.
Sieleman points to the number of independent record labels and small companies behind even the biggest blues artists and explains that, unlike many other musical genres, the blues industry is ahead of the curve when it comes to cutbacks and downturns.
"Compared to some other models, [most blues artists] were never part of the corporate machine," he says. "Even in good times, there aren't huge sums of money. Blues acts are a little more prepared for the current economy in that they've always sold CDs from the stage, and they've always been on the road, working."
A Chicago-based guitarist who performs more than 200 dates per year, Lil' Ed Williams embodies that image of the hard-working bluesman. He and his band, the Blues Imperials, keep costs low by traveling in a 16-passenger van driven by drummer Kelly Littleton.
"When I first started traveling, we were working seven days a week, Monday through Sunday," Williams says. "Now we're lucky to get a Wednesday gig, and when we do, it's low pay. We used to make $1,000 a night. Now it's around the $800 mark. I'm coping, and I believe me and my band are blessed that we're working."
Williams' positive outlook is paying off: This year, he's nominated for the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, and his band received nods in the Traditional Album of the Year and Band of the Year categories.
Like Williams, Clarksdale, Mississippi, resident Roger Stolle decided to take things into his own hands when sales at his store, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, dropped 15 percent in 2008. "Airfares went up, and the exchange rate made U.S. travel less favorable for Europeans," he says.
As the talent manager for Clarksdale's Ground Zero Blues Club and co-producer of the city's annual Juke Joint Festival, Stolle wasn't about to sit back and watch his customer base evaporate. Instead, he teamed up with Jeff Konkel, owner of the Missouri-based label Broke and Hungry Records, to produce M for Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues, a documentary film that celebrates the best, and most offbeat, of contemporary country blues.
"The main goal of the project was to get people to come to Mississippi and to promote these artists so they get booked other places. It's easy to sell the idea of blues museums or institutions that celebrate the blues of the past, but we wanted to promote the idea that even in the 21st century, you're able to travel here and experience the blues yourself," Stolle says.
The BMA-nominated DVD has sold nearly 2,000 copies worldwide. It's available on Netflix and has screened at festivals as far away as Norway.
"Why am I so obsessed with the blues?" Stolle ponders the question aloud. "Here's a black culture that literally came out of the cotton fields. How can I, a middle-class guy from Ohio, relate? I don't know what the answer is, but there's something in blues music that's so intrinsic to the human condition. Blues is truth, and people can relate to it."
Modern listeners, fighting off foreclosures and dealing with job loss, are rejoicing in the sentiment of the blues, Williams says.
"Blues is a sad and happy thing. It's a sad thing to know you have to go through a difficult situation, but it makes you happy to know the grass is greener on the other side. I do some slow songs, some crying songs, but I do let my fans know that there's gonna be a better day."
The 30th Blues Music Awards take place at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Thursday, May 7th, from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Go to Blues.org/BluesMusicAwards for more information.