The 29th Blues Music Awards (BMAs) were held Thursday May 8, 2008 at the Grand Casino Event Center in Tunica Resorts, Mississippi. It was the first time that the awards ceremony took place outside Memphis, Tennessee. We hadn’t attended the awards since 2003, and at that time they were still being held at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis. Since then a lot has changed to improve the awards. Back in 2003, hardly any nominees attended. This year more than 65 nominees attended and many of them performed at the awards show. The 2008 show followed the format of the sold-out and critically-acclaimed shows of recent years. It used to be an awards show with some music, now it’s a music show with some awards. Blues performers, industry representatives, and fans from all over the world were on hand to celebrate the best in blues recordings and performances from the previous year. Each year, The Blues Foundation presents the BMAs to the artists selected by its members. The BMAs are universally recognized as the highest honor given to blues artists.
From the moment we landed at the Memphis Airport, the reunion of old friends and camaraderie began. As we boarded a shuttle bus to the rental car agency, none other than Andrew Galloway of Electro-Fi Records was on the bus. When we arrived at the Grand Casino's Veranda Hotel, the hotel lobby was swarming with artists such as Donnie Walsh, Pinetop Perkins, Dave Riley, Bob Margolin, Willie Smith, Big George Brock, and Nora Jean Bruso. During our stay at the hotel, one morning I was in the coffee line with Lurrie Bell and Jimmie Vaughan. How cool was that?
The awards ceremony began at 5pm with an outdoor pre-party, where we heard this year’s International Blues Challenge winners Lionel Young and Trampled Under Foot. As well, we enjoyed mingling with the nominees and blues industry personnel. The formalities began promptly at 7pm. As we walked inside the venue, while looking for our dinner table, we were greeted by the real deal Mississippi blues of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. We were honoured to sit at a table with Barbara Hammerman, Amanda Gresham, Bruce Iglauer, Evan Caleb (Candye Kane’s son), Laura Chavez, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and members of his entourage.
The musical highlights for us included a can’t sit still version of I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On performed by Tommy Castro with Deanna Bogart, Tad Robinson performing with the same great horn section he recorded A New Point Of View with, newcomer John Nemeth who swooned and crooned like a veteran, and Chicago’s Big James Montgomery who gave one of those performances that left the audience saying “wow”, “incredible”, and “I could have listened to that all night.” I’ve been one of his biggest fans for years. I’m thrilled that he opened so many eyes with his febrile performance. The unanimous best performance was Nappy Brown's remarkable version of Night Time Is The Right Time. Brown rolled around on the stage, waved his legs in the air, and sang in the middle of the crowd. Although it was scheduled to conclude by 1am, the event actually went on until 3am. I bailed out at 2:30am. On my shuttle bus home, there was Holger Peterson (of Stony Plain Records) and Lionel Young. We were all riding high from having experienced blues heaven.
There were a couple of areas that could be improved for future years. The service at the Grand Casino Event Center did not live up to the southern hospitality that we have come to expect, and the air conditioning was too cold for those sitting in the balcony. Still, this year's BMAs were one of the best blues events that we've attended, and we spent a large part of our year attending blues events throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Everyone was touched by the first-time awards for Bob Stroger and Sam Lay. But I wonder how many more years they would have had to wait to win awards had the eligibility rules not been changed this year? If you aren’t already a member, be sure to join the Blues Foundation for your opportunity to cast a vote for next year’s awards. Here is a list of all the winners.
1. DVD - Kenny Wayne Shepherd – 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads
2. Traditional Blues Male Artist - Hubert Sumlin
3. Traditional Blues Female Artist - Koko Taylor
4. Acoustic Artist - Bobby Rush
5. Acoustic Album Bobby Rush - Raw
6. Pinetop Perkins Piano Player - Honey Piazza
7. Instrumentalist-Guitar - Bob Margolin
8. Soul Blues Male Artist - Bobby Rush
9. Soul Blues Female Artist - Irma Thomas
10. Soul Blues Album - The Holmes Brothers – State of Grace
11. Historical Album - Epic/Legacy – Breakin’ It UP, Breakin’ it DOWN
12. Contemporary Blues Album - Tommy Castro - Painkiller
13. Contemporary Blues Female Artist - Bettye LaVette
14. Contemporary Blues Male Artist - Tab Benoit
15. Instrumentalist-Harmonica - Kim Wilson
16. Instrumentalist-Bass - Bob Stroger
17. Instrumentalist-Drums - Sam Lay
18. Instrumentalist-Horn - Deanna Bogart
19. Instrumentalist-Pedal Steel- Robert Randolph
20. Best New Artist Debut - Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy – Cotton Field to Coffee House
21. Song - “Gonna Buy Me a Mule” – Koko Taylor
22. Traditional Blues Album - Koko Taylor – Old School
23. Album - Watermelon Slim & the Workers – The Wheel Man
24. Band - Watermelon Slim & the Workers
25. B.B. King Entertainer - Tommy Castro
In the end, it didn’t really matter who won awards. It was far more all about being part of the entire experience. Regarding that Bob Margolin said, “You gave us a couple of nights when the blues seemed like a big deal instead of a marginalized niche market, and those of us who are dedicated to this music felt gratified and redeemed in each other's company." At the BMAs, we got to see and hear the best blues artists, reacquaint with old friends, make new friends, and hang out with the artists in a very casual environment. If you have never been to the BMAs, start making plans now to attend the 30th annual awards, which will take place May 7, 2009 in Memphis. Watch The Blues Foundation website www.blues.org for updates.