If nominations for the 27th Annual Blues Music Awards -- formerly known as the W.C. Handy Awards -- are any indicator, fans of the genre are beginning to think outside the box. Sure, the majority of the nominees -- including Guitarist of the Year contender Bob Margolin, Entertainer of the Year candidate Buddy Guy, and Acoustic Artist of the Year competitor Corey Harris -- are culled from the blues mainstream, but when nominations were announced last month, several unlikely challengers emerged from the fringes to take on the big boys.
"Blues music has a great deal of diversity, and the folks who do the nominations -- DJs, journalists, and other industry insiders -- have diverse thinking as well," says the Blues Foundation's executive director, Jay Sieleman. "The biggest surprise was that four of the five albums nominated for Album of the Year (Hubert Sumlin's About Them Shoes, Magic Slim & the Teardrops' Anything Can Happen, Nick Moss & the Flip Tops' Sadie Mae, The Mannish Boys' That Represent Man, and Little Milton's Think of Me) came out of the traditional market. Most years, we have a more contemporary selection, but right now, traditional albums seem stronger across the board."
Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head, a retail shop and record label located in Clarksdale, Mississippi, says that he was "stunned" to hear that his first release, Big George Brock's Club Caravan, was nominated as Comeback Album of the Year. "It never dawned on me to try for an award," says Stolle, who produced the album of the 73-year-old St. Louis harmonica great to help Brock "get a little recognition and better gigs.
"We were relying on a more grassroots approach, so I was surprised to see the industry's response," he adds. "I'm a marketing guy, and I see this as great publicity. We're already getting overseas booking and better guarantees. This year, Big George is going to Europe for the first time to play the Parma [Italy] Roots & Blues Festival in June."
Brock, Stolle says, was speechless when he got the news. "Getting this kind of attention," he says, "never even crossed his mind."
As producer Amos Harvey, who cut his teeth as a tour manager for Oxford, Mississippi label Fat Possum Records, notes, "Something has shifted. People are either digging a little deeper, or more substantial music is surfacing."
Harvey has produced two albums for Georgia blueswoman Precious Bryant, who received her second nomination this year, as Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year. "Precious is really flattered," he says. "Being in competition with these heavy hitters -- performers like Ruth Brown, Etta James, and Koko Taylor -- makes her feel good.
"But," he adds, "she wasn't even thinking about a nomination when we cut her last record, The Truth. That's the beauty of some of these rural artists. They're not out there to compete, so they let the music speak for itself."
Over the last few years, Bryant has emerged from obscurity to become the best-selling artist on Atlanta-based Terminus Records, a label that specializes in jam bands and world music. Yet Harvey cautions, "If you're looking for a hit maker [in the blues genre], you're gonna be looking for a long time. The music is getting better, but making a living isn't getting any easier. It will be interesting to see how more traditional artists like Big George, Precious, Willie King [a Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year nominee], and Duwayne Burnside [whose album, Under Pressure, received a Best New Artist Debut nod] will fare. What's gonna float to the top will be what the public likes the best."
"We love it when new people get nominated. It helps spread the wealth," Sieleman says, confirming that this year, the nonprofit Blues Foundation decided to retire perennial recipients in two categories -- guitar virtuoso B.B. King and barrelhouse piano giant Pinetop Perkins, who racked up an astonishing 12 awards apiece as Blues Entertainer of the Year and Blues Pianist of the Year, respectively.
"Pinetop decided that he would be happy to step away from that category. He'd won every year, and he wanted to let other pianists have a shot at it," Sieleman explains. "It was the same thing with B.B. We thought it was a good idea. It allows the younger generation -- in Pinetop's case, 78-year-olds now have a chance -- to have the opportunity to win, which is a real honor."
Last year, the Blues Foundation also decided to rename its annual award ceremony, because, Sieleman says, "we needed a name that basically explained itself. We're not the Grammys or the Oscars, and the Handys didn't have that name recognition outside the blues industry."