For both Yellow Dog Records and Crows Feet Productions, Christmas came a little early -- Wednesday, December 15th, to be precise. That's when the Blues Foundation announced its nominations for the 26th Annual W.C. Handy Awards, scheduled for May 5, 2005, in Memphis. Two Yellow Dog releases, Big Joe Duskin's Big Joe Jumps Again! and The Bo-Keys' The Royal Sessions, were tapped in the Comeback Blues Album of the Year and Best New Artist Debut categories, respectively, while a handful of Crows Feet clients, including Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Oscher, Michael Powers, and Watermelon Slim, racked up multiple nominations.
"They're all extremely good albums in their own right," Crows Feet co-founder Betsie Brown says of her artists' nominations, crediting their success to multiple factors. "They were all well-produced, they had good visibility, they had decent money behind them, and we were able to get some recognition," she says, adding, "We really have to like the music to work an album. The enthusiasm has to be there for us to go out and sell it.
"Michael Powers [whose album, Onyx Root, landed him a slot in the Best New Artist Debut category] is one of the finest musicians I've heard in a long time, and he has a great history to sell," Brown continues. "Likewise, Watermelon Slim is a real character. He has a freshness, and he doesn't want to fit into the mold. Charlie's album, Sanctuary [up for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, while Musselwhite himself is nominated in two more categories], is simply incredible, and Paul Oscher has ignited this year," she says proudly.
A British-born publicist and manager, Brown currently sits on the Blues Foundation's board as vice president. She also chairs its annual International Blues Challenge, slated for early February. While she relocated from San Diego to Memphis two years ago, her business partner, Crows Feet co-founder Michael McClune, remains on the West Coast.
"Although the Blues Foundation is based in Memphis, it's an international organization," she says. "I didn't have many expectations about doing business for local musicians. I just thought Memphis was a great location in terms of helping my clients on the East Coast."
That changed when Brown signed on as harmonica player Billy Gibson's manager and began negotiations with the Cultural Development Foundation of Memphis about more city-centric projects. "Memphis is a quirky town, but that's what's special about it," she says.
"This is fantastic!" Yellow Dog Records owner Mike Powers (not the aforementioned blues artist) says, explaining that the label primarily serves unheralded musicians who need help getting the recognition they deserve. That, he says, was the case with both Big Joe Duskin and the Bo-Keys.
"Joe's been doing this for a long time," Powers says, referring to the 83-year-old Ohio bluesman's long-reaching career as a boogie-woogie pianist. "He visits Europe annually, but Big Joe Jumps Again! is just his second record on an American label. Bill Ellis and Larry Nager, who co-produced the album, call Big Joe the Mose Vinson of Cincinnati because he's so under-recorded."
This summer, Cincinnati's mayor proclaimed a "Big Joe Duskin Day" and awarded the pianist a key to the city. Last month, Duskin was inducted into the City Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame, and now he has a Handy nomination to celebrate. "I don't think he's enjoyed this kind of promotion since the '70s," Powers says.
"With the Bo-Keys' debut, our promotional focus wasn't on the blues genre," he continues, comparing The Royal Sessions' success to that of pedal-steel player Robert Randolph, a crossover from the gospel and jam-band markets. "While our publicist, Shore Fire Media, worked other genres, I sent it out to blues publications myself. Then several blues deejays picked up on it, and the album charted on Living Blues' radio charts two months in a row. It was a great test because they get immediate feedback via phone calls. They're the ones who are closest to the audience."
Yellow Dog has at least five albums slated for release in 2005, including New Born by jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn, a reissue of Newborn's '98 album UpCity, a second CD from former Memphian Mark Lemhouse, and an album from Portland, Oregon-based guitarist Terry Robb, which was recorded at Sam Phillips' Recording Studio last weekend.
Several regional musicians also got nods from the Blues Foundation, including entertainer Little Milton Campbell, guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, drummer Sam Carr, and fife blower Sharde Thomas, who played on Corey Harris' Mississippi to Mali, nominated for Acoustic Blues Album of the Year. For a complete list of nominations, go to Blues.org.
On a somber note, Mississippi hill-country bluesman R.L. Burnside is at home, recuperating from a heart attack that occurred earlier this month. The Fat Possum recording star -- a legend both here and on the road -- "retired" a few years ago, although he appeared on stage with the North Mississippi Allstars at Bonnaroo last June. When I spoke with Burnside's wife, Alice Mae, last weekend, she reported that he's feeling much better and expects to make a full recovery. Meanwhile, family and friends are planning a fund-raiser to help with debts incurred during his two-week hospital stay. For now, well-wishers can send cards to: R.L. Burnside, P.O. Box 5021, Holly Springs, MS 38634. •