Rising stars from all genres of Southern music are headed to central Mississippi for the 70th annual Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival, taking place May 7-14 at a variety of intriguing indoor and outdoor venues.
East Texas singer-songwriter Paul “Big Velvet” Cauthen, blazing young blues guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Joyful and the Spirit of New Orleans Gospel Choir are among the headliners.
Fittingly, America’s oldest music festival brings together greats across multiple genres, including country, folk, Americana, blues, gospel, and Southern rock. Rodgers, the Meridian native known as the Father of Country Music, is the only artist inducted into the country music, songwriters, rock ’n’ roll, and blues halls of fame. As Bob Dylan put it, he’s “the man who started it all.”
The festival began in 1953 as Jimmie Rodgers’ Day, a concert featuring country music stars and members of Rodgers’ family. Snow and fellow legend Ernest Tubb organized it. An estimated 50,000 people witnessed it. A high school student named Elvis Presley finished either second or third (recollections vary) in the singing competition that opened it.
Cauthen, this year’s top headliner, epitomizes the festival’s long history of highlighting up-and-coming country music stars. He’s known for his enormous stage presence and at times irreverent lyrics that mix funk with country. The “Big Velvet” nickname comes from what Rolling Stone magazine described as “a booming voice halfway between Johnny Cash and Nick Cave.”
Rolling Stone said he’s just what country music needs right now: “To witness the imposing Cauthen perform live is to see a man undergo a transformation.”
Cauthen heads the bill on Saturday, May 13, at the festival’s primary venue, the fountain-adorned outdoor courtyard at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian. The MAX, as the immersive, interactive museum is usually called, is just a block from historic Union Station, which Rodgers frequented during his career as a railroad brakeman.
Also on the May 13 bill are other hot acts with country roots: The Reeves Brothers, known for their honky-tonk sound, and Sweet Tea Trio, three exquisitely harmonizing female singers who have been described as a mix between The Chicks and Pistol Annies. Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s Tyler Tisdale and Meridian’s Daniel Houze will also perform.
On Friday, May 12, the festival focuses on the blues. Ingram, known by fans as Kingfish and just 24 years old, honed his guitar and vocal styles growing up in Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues. He picked up his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album just last year.
Also performing is another young blues master with a Grammy nomination. Multi-instrumentalist Jontavious Willis is an old soul who grew up singing gospel music at church with this grandfather in rural Georgia. Americana duo Sugarcane Jane will open the May 12 show.
The festival week concludes with the soulful vocals of Joyful and the Spirit of New Orleans Gospel Choir, along with a New Orleans-style brunch, on Sunday, May 14.
Here’s the rest of the festival offerings, all at The MAX unless otherwise specified:
· Sunday, May 7: The Sucarnochee Revue, a live performance of an old-time radio show, takes place in the Temple Theatre for the Performing Arts in downtown Meridian. The ornate Moorish Revival theater opened as a movie palace in 1928.
· Monday, May 8: Everyone’s invited to a free history symposium covering Rodgers’ life and legacy.
· Tuesday, May 9: Adam Box, a Mississippi-born drummer known for his work with the country duo Brothers Osborne, leads Jimmie’s Jam, a free jam session open to all local and regional musicians.
· Wednesday, May 10: Discover new talent at the Jimmie Rodgers Singer/Songwriter Competition. Lach Thornton, a Meridian native and last year’s winner, will perform after the competition with Crocodile Wine, a new formed band out of Nashville.
· Thursday, May 11: Paul Thorn and Delnora perform at the Ellis Theater in downtown Philadelphia, Mississippi, 40 miles northwest of Meridian. Thorn, a singer-songwriter from Tupelo, Mississippi, expertly blends Southern rock, country, Americana and blues. Delnora, another singer-songwriter based in Nashville, draws from roots, country and folk music.
The Ellis Theater opened as a silent movie theater in 1926. After an elegant restoration, it reopened last year as the opening phase of Marty Stuart’s Congress of Country Music, a country museum and performing arts center that Stuart is creating in his hometown.
“Mississippi’s contribution to country and all forms of American music is as strong today as it ever was,” said Dede Mogollon, executive director of the Visit Meridian tourism agency, “Attending America’s oldest music festival provides the opportunity to experience the best of roots music right here, where it all began.”
Festival goers can explore both the Jimmie Rodgers Museum and The MAX to better understand the origins of Mississippi’s immense musical contributions to the world. The MAX stands alongside the same tracks that Rodgers rode when he was known as the Singing Brakeman. Train whistles sometimes harmonize with musical performances in the courtyard.
Downtown Meridian has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Historic buildings from the city’s 1880-1950 Golden Age house restaurants, shops, clubs, a boutique hotel in a landmark Art Deco skyscraper and Mississippi’s first microbrewery.
“Our legacy as Mississippi’s oldest live music scene has never been more vibrant,” Mogollon said, “and there’s nothing quite like enjoying live music in a thriving downtown with the sound of the train in the background. We believe Jimmie Rodgers would be proud.”