Blues Breakout 

Harmonica master Billy Gibson is having a very good week.

The hits just keep on coming for Memphis music this month, with last weekend's Memphis In May Beale Street Music Festival (Friday through Sunday) giving way to the relocated Ponderosa Stomp roots-music festival at the Gibson Guitar Factory (Monday through Wednesday) spilling into an entire weekend worth of musical events kicked off by the Blues Music Awards, held Thursday, May 11th, at the Cook Convention Center.

Sponsored by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation and known until this year as the Handy Awards, the BMAs (basically a blues-specific answer to the Grammys) are big for Memphis but are particularly big for one Memphian this year: harmonica master Billy Gibson, whose The Billy Gibson Band album is nominated for "best new artist debut." The only other Memphis nomination is Alvin Youngblood Hart for "best contemporary male blues artist."

"I think for someone like myself, it's probably more beneficial than for someone like Alvin, who has a more established name," Gibson says, who will precede the Blues Music Awards with a slot at the Beale Street Music Festival and follow it Friday, May 12th, by performing at a showcase event for his record label, Memphis-based Inside Sounds.

"I'm excited about being in the best new artist category," Gibson says. "I think it probably takes my profile from a local one to a national one. Since the nomination, I'm getting calls from festivals all over the country, and we're putting some tours together. It really just gives me some ammunition to take myself and the band out on the road."

Gibson recorded The Billy Gibson Band in early 2004 at Charlie Wood's Daddy-O Studios with a backing trio of Beale Street veterans David Bowen (guitar), James Jackson (bass), and Cedric Keel (drums), musicians he'd been familiar with for a long time.

"When I first came to Memphis, I used to go down to Beale Street, and I would look through the window of B.B. King's and watch Ruby Wilson," Gibson remembers. "Her house band was called the King Bees. The King Bees were Bowen on guitar, Jackson on bass, and a guy named Lloyd Alexander on drums. So [playing with those guys] is real honor for me. Those guys are my heroes from way back."

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It might seem odd that Gibson, who has released a couple of solo CDs and recorded with the blues-band junkyardmen a few years ago, would be nominated as best "new" artist. But his current record is the first release for the Billy Gibson Band and seems to have launched him to a new level within the sometimes self-contained world of contemporary blues.

"That CD has been getting a lot of attention," says Inside Sounds owner Eddie Dattel, who is also pleased to report that the BBC World program Destination Music was scheduled to film Gibson's Music Fest performance. "It's not the same-old, same-old blues. The Billy Gibson Band is as tight a band as you'll ever find. It's just a real tight recording."

Dattel cites the recent success as a combination of a strong record, good PR, and a little luck. "The label has been getting a lot of recognition in the blues world. And we've sent out promo copies -- 800 to 1,000, a lot for an indie label. [But] blues writers and DJs [already] know Gibson from his solo CDs and the junkyardmen."

Gibson, who released an album of standards, The Nearness of You, a few years ago, is not strictly a blues artist but chose to cater to that audience with The Billy Gibson Band.

"The difference with this record and the ones that I've done in the past is that when I went into the studio, I specifically went in with the idea of making a record for blues fans," Gibson says.

The result was an album that, according to Dattel, spent three months on the Living Blues magazine blues radio chart before landing the BMA nomination. And for Gibson, a ubiquitous local figure who has been seen on a national Chili's ad and blowing his "Mississippi saxophone" at Grizzlies games in addition to regular Beale Street gigs, it signals a career shift.

"I basically just finished my Beale Street tenure," says Gibson, who was named Beale Street Entertainer of the Year for 2005. "I gave up my house gig at Rum Boogie Cafe. With the success of the record and the nomination and all the opportunities I was getting to perform, now is the time to share the music with more folks. It's time to take advantage of this experience and let it push me to something else."

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