The 39th annual Blues Music Awards turned into something of a one-year anniversary party for Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’.
Their acclaimed collaboration TajMo, which was released on May 4, 2017, picked up both Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album honors at this all-star ceremony that The Blues Foundation hosted on May 10. An American roots music legend who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009, Taj Mahal also was named the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and best Acoustic Artist, while his equally heralded musical partner Keb’ Mo’ was chosen best Contemporary Blues Male Artist.
Rick Estrin was the night’s other big multi-award winner. Estrin, who had garnered the most BMA nominations with eight, was selected best Traditional Blues Male Artist, his song “The Blues Ain’t Going Nowhere” won Song of the Year, and Rick Estrin & the Nightcats earned the Band of the Year honors.
Little Steven Van Zandt was a masterful host for the festivities presented at Memphis’ Cook Convention Center. He also served as one of the evening’s award presenters along with such revered musicians as Tony Joe White, Joe Louis Walker, Candi Staton, Janiva Magness, David Porter, and Ruthie Foster. Van Zandt capped off the night by joining guitarist Mike Zito on stage to close down the dynamic show on a high note.
Mike Zito also was picked as the best Blues Rock Artist, which was one of the two new categories that the Blues Foundation added to the Blues Music Awards this year. The other new category, best Instrumentalist-Vocals, was nabbed by Beth Hart.
Ruthie Foster not only was a presenter but a winner too of the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues Female Artist. Another fine blues guitarist, Samantha Fish, was chosen Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist, while Mavis Staples retained her title as Soul Blues Female Artist. The Soul Blues Male Artist winner also was a returnee from last year, Curtis Salgado. Victor Wainwright, similarly, held on to the Pinetop Perkins Piano Award for Instrumentalist–Piano, a title he has won four of the last six years.
Doug MacLeod, the Acoustic Artist award winner the last two years, topped the Acoustic Album category this year for Break the Chain. The other best album honors went to Walter Trout’s We’re All In This Together for Rock Blues Album, Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter’s Right Place, Right Time for Traditional Blues Album, and Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm’s self-titled effort for Soul Blues Album.
Wainwright and Hart’s fellow winners in the Instrumentalist categories were Trombone Shorty as Horn Player of the Year, Michael “Mudcat” Ward as Bass Player of the Year, Tony Braunagel as Drummer of the Year, Jason Ricci as Harmonica Player of the Year, and Ronnie Earl as Guitarist of the Year.
The Blues Music Awards encompass a broad range of blues styles as well as recognizing both great old and new blues performances. This year’s winner for best Historical Album was Ruf Recordings’ Luther Allison compilation A Legend Never Dies, Essential Recordings 1976-1997, while the Best Emerging Artist Album went to hometown heroes Southern Avenue for their eponymous debut on Stax Records.
The packed house of top blues musicians, music business professionals and devoted fans from around the globe not only got to salute the best in blues for the past year but also enjoyed a night filled with terrific live performances. Many of the nominees and winners lit up the stage, including Keb’ Mo’, Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, Walter Trout, Southern Avenue, Monster Mike Welch & Mike Ledbetter Band, North Mississippi Allstars, Guy Davis, Vanessa Collier, Larkin Poe, and The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra featuring Vaneese Thomas, Trudy Lynn, Sugaray Rayford, Wee Willie Walker. Blues music continues to grow and thrive; half of the performances on the BMA stage were led by artists who are under the age of 45, with many still in their 20s and 30s. Blues Foundation President and CEO Barbara Newman reports, “We are watching the trends closely, and the blues, as a genre, is definitely on an uptick, with younger musicians being drawn to create and play this style of music and a continually growing following of the music on our social media outlets and beyond.”
Here is the complete list of Blues Music Award winners:
Acoustic Album: Break the Chain – Doug MacLeod
Acoustic Artist: Taj Mahal
Album: TajMo – Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’
B.B. King Entertainer: Taj Mahal
Band: Rick Estrin & the Nightcats
Best Emerging Artist Album: Southern Avenue – Southern Avenue
Contemporary Blues Album: TajMo – Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’
Contemporary Blues Female Artist: Samantha Fish
Contemporary Blues Male Artist: Keb’ Mo’
Historical: A Legend Never Dies, Essential Recordings 1976-1997 – Luther Allison (Ruf Recordings)
Instrumentalist-Vocalist: Beth Hart
Instrumentalist-Bass: Michael “Mudcat” Ward
Instrumentalist-Drums: Tony Braunagel
Instrumentalist-Guitar: Ronnie Earl
Instrumentalist-Harmonica: Jason Ricci
Instrumentalist-Horn: Trombone Shorty
Pinetop Perkins Piano Player (Instrumentalist – Piano): Victor Wainwright
Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female): Ruthie Foster
Rock Blues Album: We’re All In This Together – Walter Trout
Rock Blues Artist: Mike Zito
Song: “The Blues Ain’t Going Nowhere” written by Rick Estrin and performed by Rick Estrin
Soul Blues Album: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm – Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
Soul Blues Female Artist: Mavis Staples
Soul Blues Male Artist: Curtis Salgado
Traditional Blues Album: Right Place, Right Time – Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter
Traditional Blues Male Artist: Rick Estrin
Mavis Staples had more to celebrate this week besides being named the best Soul Blues Female Artist. The day before her Blues Music Awards victory, her father, the late guitar great Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. This year’s other new members included the incomparable drummer Sam Lay; the renowned blues pianist and songwriter Georgia Tom Dorsey; acclaimed Chicago blues band The Aces; the first “Queen of the Blues,” singer Mamie Smith; and, in a non-musician category, Al Benson, the legendary Chicago disc jockey, promoter and music entrepreneur. The historic recordings honored by the Blues Hall of Fame were Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider Blues,” Albert King’s “Cross Cut Saw,” Joe Turner’s “Roll ‘Em Pete,” Booker T. & the MG’s’ “Green Onions,” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” while B.B. King’s 1967 album Blues Is King was this year’s Classic of Blues Recording Album entrant. Additionally, the Bob Riesman authoritative 2011 biography I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy was inducted as 2018’s Classic of Blues Literature selection.
While the Blues Hall of Fame Induction ceremony and the Blues Music Awards certainly rank as highlights, the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Week also contained a variety of special events, including a Little Steven concert, a special meet-and-greet with painter Michael P. Maness (whose art is currently on display in the Blues Hall of Fame Museum), a Bob Porter book signing, a Recording Academy luncheon, free health screenings hosted by the Blues Foundation’s HART Fund, and a lively jam session fundraiser that followed the Induction ceremony.
As Little Steven said in his introductory speech, “At a time our country is more segregated than at any time in the past 100 years, music holds us together and touches all our souls.”