Nashville Blues/Roots Alliance Sends Winning Artists To Memphis
On October 1 of 2023, the Basement East, the premiere rock and roots venue on the rootsy side of Nashville, felt more like a smoky club than I’d ever experienced it, minus the smoke. A diverse crowd sat at tallboy tables amid the dim lights and loud, loud music. Blues music.
Alex Kilroy, a native of Romania, blended a slinky soul jazz vibe with pure blues and a flashy finale take on “Voodoo Chile.” Jace Nicholas, from Houlka and Tuplelo, MS, guided his band through some shuffles on his Stratocaster but really hit his stride tearing into a hill country stomp. But the most dynamic and colorful band on stage in this showdown event - at least according to a panel of judges - was veteran Al “Piper” Green and his band The Hard Times, who’ve been entertaining crowds at festivals and the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley for years.
About those judges, it was their job to determine which of the night’s bands would represent Nashville at next week’s annual International Blues Challenge, an almost 40-year-old battle of the bands held in Memphis, this year between January 16-20, in clubs along Beal Street. Its sponsor, the Blues Foundation, the same association that orchestrates the Blues Music Awards, calls it a “worldwide search for blues bands and solo/duo blues performers ready for the international stage, yet just needing that extra big break.”
The IBC’s modus operandi is to draw its contestants from regional and local blues societies that are designated as official affiliates. Those groups take a variety of forms and they stretch around the world from some expected US cities to as far away as South Korea, Australia, Belgium and Israel. What they have in common is they hold local competitions and sponsor their winners as delegates to the Memphis contest and festival.
What’s new about this year’s Nashville affiliate is the affiliate itself - the revitalized non-profit Nashville Blues and Roots Alliance, which attracted about 20 competing bands in a city not particularly known for its blues scene. The NBRA is steered by a group of music fans, including its president John Walker, co-founder of Music City Roots and this station’s Roots Radio brand and, in disclosure, my old friend and boss.
“I think it’s huge” to have an official Nashville delegation to IBC for the first time in years,” Walker told me. “Because, what kind of a sin is that we haven't been, you know? I mean, Austin, Chicago, and even little little towns like Evansville, Indiana are sending people. But we’re Music City! It's very important.” He points to Nashville’s history as a blues center, from the Black Bottom district in the 1920s to Jefferson Street in the 1950s and 60s, “where Jimi Hendrix got schooled.” Nothing less than the preservation of America’s foundational music is at stake, in his mind.
Vice President Tommy Norman says when this iteration of NBRA formed and landed its 501c3 status, its first tangible goal was to sponsor IBC contestants, but there’s a lot more ahead. “I'm really hoping this next year, now that we've hit this big milestone, is going to be a lot more about preserving and exposing (the music), you know, through blues in schools so a new generation gets exposed to the art form,” Norman says. “And fostering up and coming artists who are pouring into Nashville every day, giving them a place to start.” The alliance keeps a calendar of blues jams in the area and a Jamming 101 guide for newcomers.
Local winners Piper and the Hard Times have a substantial history in and around Nashville as a good time band that can work a crowd and mingle classic blues, soul and R&B material with original songwriting. Al “Piper” Green grew up in Bolivar, TN surrounded by music at church and family gatherings. His core band for a couple of decades has included guitarist Steve Eagon and drummer Dave Collela. They’ll be no strangers to Beale Street and its crowded clubs next week.
But they’re not the only act heading to Memphis for IBC by way of the NBRA. At previous contests, they’d also selected a winner in the solo/duo category, namely The Deltaz. This hardy and funky guitar/drum duo of brothers John and Ted Siegel got established in their home state of California and toured the country and Europe. After a forest fire destroyed their studio, they moved to Tennessee where they’ve made a mark on their home community in Leiper’s Fork.
Rounding out the delegation is “youth ambassador” Kiersi Joli, a 16-year old from Nashville who’s been a prodigy on the harmonica since the age of seven. She called her selection “a great honor” and told me she’s ready for the moment. “As soon as I had found out that I was being sent to the IBCs by the Nashville Blues and Roots Alliance, I was super excited. And I got to work right away with my co-writers,” she said. “And we made a few new songs to take to the IBCs so that I could express my connection with the blues and what I experience through the blues with the audience and to let everyone kind of know that Nashville/Music City isn't just a town filled with country music. It's so much more than that.”
That sounds like John Walker talking. He and Norman have their eyes on building blues in the schools programs to accelerate the cross-generational and cross-racial conversation that the music and its legacy deserve. “We can't just let this die,” he said. “And we also can't try to stop it from evolving.”