For the Love of the Blues
Twenty-five years ago, six blues lovers gathered at Franco’s Lounge in downtown Williamsport, and each slapped fifty dollars on the table to help fund a small blues festival along the Susquehanna River.
“There were a couple different ideas where to have it, but we decided the best place would be down by the river, where we could make believe it was the Mississippi Delta, only it was the Susquehanna Delta,” explained Bonnie Tallman, one of the original organizers.
Interest in the musical genre had been stirring in Billtown, thanks to a few passionate blues fans including a radio disc jockey, a record store employee, a sprinkling of blues musicians, and the Franco’s Lounge family, who regularly booked touring blues bands who were eyeing a spot to tuck in between the big cities.
Tallman, a Tioga County native who now lives in Muncy, is often credited with being the first to suggest the blues festival, but she is too modest to take credit and only points to the efforts of others and the blues-building influences.
“A lot was going on…and it just gelled,” she said.
From that first gathering of about 100 people on June 24, 1990, to the present-day Billtown Blues Festival now attracting upwards of 3,000 fans to the Lycoming County Fairgrounds in Hughesville, the twenty-five-year-old event has been pulled off annually with a format imitating the blues—a predictable structure filled with a liberal dose of spontaneity and emotion.
And, somewhere along the way, Tallman and one of the other original six visionaries—Charlie Lockard—composed their own love story.
Tallman grew up in Covington, the daughter of a country musician—the now-late Clement Mitchell. From an early age, she recalls her father dressing up in a suit every Friday and Saturday night to go off to work at square and round dances. Adept at many instruments, Mitchell mainly coaxed tunes from the accordion. At the age of eight, Tallman began taking piano lessons from the organ player in her dad’s band.
Lockard, a Luzerne County kid, played trombone in his school band and was often glued to a white transistor radio, listening to an AM radio station out of Nashville, playing what was then called “race music.” Although the signal was fuzzy, the Shavertown boy was clearly inspired by the blues DJs he heard; he began dreaming of being on the radio, spinning the blues.
Lockard’s and Tallman’s paths crossed in Williamsport in the early ’80s. By then, he was an insurance salesman and she was working in pharmaceutical marketing.
“We were just really good friends for a long time,” Tallman said. “It was always the music that was pulling us together.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, they performed in Tallman’s father’s band, The San Antones, with Tallman on piano and Lockard on the upright bass.
When she learned of Lockard’s DJ dreams, the marketer in Tallman figured out a way to make it happen. Lockard’s “Goodtime Charlie” first hit the airwaves in January 1990 and has been heard on a total of six area radio stations in the past twenty-five years. Sometimes, he was joined by Tallman as “Mojo Mary.” Goodtime Charlie’s blues still float across the Susquehanna Valley every Sunday on Williamsport’s WZXR and Susquehanna University’s WQSU.
In the mid-’90s, Tallman also began pursuing her own musical dream and shifted from her medical career to creating an artist management company. The duo formed BC Productions to embrace both of their entrepreneurial entertainment efforts. Tallman represented well-known artists like Greg Piccolo, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women, and Saffire singer Ann Rabson’s solo career, before retiring from managing artists three years ago.
Fittingly, the couple tied the knot between sets of an EG Kight concert in Northumberland in 2007, after planning their wedding for one week.
“It was like the beginning of the Blues Festival—totally spontaneous,” Tallman laughed.
Kight, a blues songstress from Georgia, is among the performers at this year’s Billtown Blues Festival, set to play Sunday, June 8, from noon to 10 p.m. Other artists scheduled are Brandon Santini from Memphis, The Kelly Richey Band from Cincinnati, Mississippi’s Shawn Holt (son of the blues legend Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim) and the Teardrops, and Chicago-based Lil’Ed and the Blues Imperials.
Local performers rounding out the bill will be The Nate Myers Band, K.G.+3, John “JT Blues” Thompson, Sean Farley, Adam Tarin, and Steve Mitchell with his popular “Circle of Drums.”
Of the original six festival planners, Tallman and Lockard are the only two left dedicated to serving on the ten- member committee running the Billtown Blues Association Inc., the non-profit organization formed after the success of the first festival.
The association received Best Blues Organization honors at the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive Awards, conducted by the Blues Foundation in Memphis.
“We aren’t an organization looking to have a big festival,” Tallman said, when asked about the association’s goals and vision. “We want to keep it manageable. We really put quality at the top of the list. We want our patrons to feel they’re coming to a quality event with quality music.”
She says the association approaches the blues “from an artistic perspective,” along with an immense amount of respect for the origins of the art form.
“It goes way back to African and European influences, but in the U.S., it happened because of slavery. African American people who were working as slaves would try to find ways to get through the day, ways to uplift their spirits,” Tallman offered.
“I’m so intrigued by the birth of blues—how it came to be and the influence it’s had on music worldwide.”
The music continues to uplift and unite.
The Billtown Blues Festival has developed into a reunion destination for fans and families from around the country.
“People reunion there,” Tallman said. “They come, meet, share, forget the political and economic cares, and let music do what music is intended to do—unite people through its power. The biggest thrill for us is to watch other people get moved by the music.
“It is remarkable to say ‘the 25th annual Billtown Blues Festival!’ Twenty-five years isn’t a long time in the big picture, but for a small, grassroots organization, it is a huge timeframe,” she continued. “We feel the festival has done a tremendous service to the blues as an art form and to the community in general.”
The festival has endured for twenty-five consecutive years due to a combination of a well-organized, business- minded focus, and a fervent devotion to the art form. Tallman’s skills in pharmaceutical marketing and artist management have played well in all of the behind-the-scenes nuances. The event has even weathered eleven straight years of rain, along with numerous other unexpected challenges and surprises—all of which the organizers and festival-goers seem to take with ease and humor.
Among the more memorable challenges was the year when the now late, legendary Koko Taylor was scheduled to headline the festival, but was hospitalized two days before the event. Tallman scrambled for a replacement and, thanks to her artist management connections, was able to land Johnny “Clyde” Copeland who was playing in New York the night before the festival.
“He was a prominent blues artist, so even though it was quite an undertaking to get him here at the last minute, it was so worthwhile because it turned out to be his last show. He passed away two months later,” she said.
Another highlight that comes to Tallman’s mind is the time when musician David Johansen, best known for being a band member of the New York Dolls, stopped performing mid-song to comment on the beauty of the natural surroundings.
“He was standing on stage, looking out at the scenery and he said, ‘I’ve got to stop. I’m so overwhelmed by what I’m seeing, looking at these mountains, barns, and blue sky. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I’d want to be at this time.’ That was a really special moment,” she recalled.
Attempting to distill the spirit and longevity of the festival, Tallman said, simply, “It’s magical.”
With an adoration that continues to flow, she added, “Blues is like water. There’s water in a tomato, but when you’re eating a tomato, you think it’s a tomato, but water is in everything that’s living and the blues is in all other music.”
Billtown Blues Festival tickets are $30 at the gate, with children under sixteen admitted free with a parent. The festival strives to be a family-friendly event, with various rules established to ensure safety. More festival information is available at www.billtownblues.org.