Phoenix’s mix of desert isolation and Southwestern stubbornness has given rise over the years to a diverse musical landscape: Punk, metal, cumbia, alt-rock, jazz, and soul all thrive here.
But the blues? That’s a different story.
Jim Crawford, president of the Phoenix Blues Society for the last nine years and a member for 15, arrived here from Texas.
“It was a huge culture shock coming here from the Panhandle,” Crawford says of that region’s prosperous blues scene. “Before I got here, things [in the blues community] had kind of fizzled out, and we’ve been struggling and scrounging along ever since. This is not a blues city.”
The ebb and flow of blues in Phoenix is a story of underdog survival, helped along by the solemn dedication of misfits like Crawford. You can’t tell that story without the Phoenix Blues Society, one of the scene’s biggest champions. In existence since 1989, PBS has promoted awareness through a series of events and concerts, chief among them the Blues, Brews, and BBQ Festival (formerly the Phoenix Blues Blast). This year, the family-friendly party would have celebrated its 30th anniversary; concerns over the coronavirus forced the event to cancel.
Blues has undergone a journey, both globally and locally, since the society was first formed. A Valley resident since the ’70s, guitarist Hans Olson has performed worldwide and jammed with the likes of B.B King, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters.
“During the mid- to late ’80s, it was at its true height,” he says of the Phoenix blues scene.
Olson cites acts from that era like Texas Red and the Heartbreakers, who “made other bands want to bring their A-game” while “packing nightclubs and making other [promoters] say, ‘Hey, maybe we wanted a blues band.’” Musicians could “play every night of the week,” according to Crawford.
By the late ’90s, though, things were beginning to trend downward. As the owner of the roots-and-blues venue The Rhythm Room, Bob Corritore felt the shift. He says it’s a distinctly generational thing.
“Baby boomers really embraced blues in their young adulthood,” Corritore says. “But it’s not translated well into the next generations. The people of younger generations just have so many options.”
For a time in the early 2000s, Olson says he played almost exclusively in Europe because domestic audiences had soured on the blues. He cites phenomena like MTV for the downfall, saying they “put blues on the backburner.” Crawford thinks there was a post-9/11 shift, with “people going out less and less” and cops “cracking down on people for drinking.”
Phoenix’s socio-cultural demographics have also changed considerably since the ’80s blues renaissance. Audiences now enjoy a wealth of cross-genre arts and music options to explore.
A group of performers at the 2018 edition of Phoenix Blues Blast.
Phoenix Blues Society
This tenuous landscape has affected PBS’ annual festival as well. Crawford says that the festival was rained out of Mesa one year, with PBS “nearly taking a bath” and the festival almost folding. Even the move to its current home at Margaret T. Hance Park was affected when the higher-profile McDowell Mountain Music Festival “wanted our spot,” Crawford says. PBS ended up moving to the third week in March.
Crawford also suggests that other events like the Glendale Jazz and Blues Festival, which shut down in 2013 after 29 years, fostered uncertainty for PBS and Valley blues in general. The end of the west Valley event proved that legitimacy and credibility weren’t always saving graces.
How does PBS continue with its festival despite such dire circumstances? If you ask Crawford, it’s all because of Corritore.
“There wouldn’t be a blues festival without Bob,” Crawford says, adding that The Rhythm Room is a “local hub” and source of financial and operational support. While honored, Corritore returns the admiration, saying PBS acts as “soldiers” for blues and provide an “accessible space for people to gather for family-friendly fun.”
But Olson says you can’t discount the continued influence of Boomers. After their initial phase, Olson said Boomers are “retiring, and they have the money to give [the blues] more life.” Crawford also praises his board of diverse professionals who have been “a huge asset in helping us get city money.” And don’t discount the growing number of millennials (and younger generations) who’ve discovered the blues and latched on to the genre.
“I go to the IBC [International Blues Challenge], and I see young people carrying forward the music,” Corritore says, citing JJ Grey as a performer that’s innovating on modern blues and opening it up to younger, more diverse audiences.
Whether the acts are old or new, the fest itself has tried to offer something perpetually appealing, Crawford says. “It’s not much money, it’s user-friendly, and the beer’s cold and the food’s always good.”
“I think I may be getting too old for this,” Crawford adds, of his work organizing the fest. “But then you have one of those good days, and you make it. I like this too much to just turn over to anyone.”
The Blues, Brews, and BBQ Festival was scheduled for Saturday, March 21, at Margaret T. Hance Park. Visit phoenixblues.org for more information.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.