OXFORD, Miss. – The Oxford Blues Festival's tagline, "Just a Reason to Celebrate," holds truer than ever as the festival returns to the Oxford Square this month. The annual festival was sidelined by COVID-19 in 2020, and the 2021 lineup promises to make up for lost time.
"Our festival is about celebrating our community, our music scene, our food scene and our cultural history," said Darryl Parker, festival founder and organizer. "What's important is providing a safe space for young and old, black and white, and everyone else to come together and listen to music and eat good food. That's a win for me."
The festival, which began in 2010, has been an annual collaboration between Oxford artists, restauranteurs and business owners, as well as University of Mississippi alumni and student volunteers.
This year's festival begins Thursday evening (Sept. 23) with a kickoff party at Lamar Yard, featuring performances by Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and R.L. Boyce, Dave Sherman and Anthony "Big-A" Sherrod.
Main Stage performances begin Friday (Sept. 24) at Harrison's on the Square, beginning at 3 p.m. with a performance by Ole Miss alumnus Matt Gaylord alongside Trenton Ayers and Cameron Kimbrough.
Gaylord completed his biology master's thesis at UM in 2012, but it's the area's music that keeps him coming back.
"Oxford is its own crossroads," Gaylord said. "Oxford is situated just south of where most of the Hill Country players are from, but you also get a lot of music and traffic coming off Highway 6 from the Delta and the Western part of the state, as well as the musicians coming over from Tupelo.
"If you were trying to put together a blues festival somewhere that could draw from all the important blues regions in Mississippi, this is a good spot."
That mixture of influences is what attracted Gaylord to the area as a graduate student. After completing his undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he visited a friend in Oxford and, while in the area, explored Clarksdale and the surrounding north Mississippi music scene. He met blues legends T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour.
"From then, I was hooked," Gaylord said. "And I was definitely going to go to Ole Miss for graduate school. The next five years were just stories like that, getting to meet and play with Garry and Dwayne Burnside and guys like Trenton and Cam."
Not only is the Oxford a melting pot for musical influences, but the Hill Country blues the area is known for serves as a kind of roux for musical collaboration.
"Hill Country is real primal and elemental," said Lightnin Malcolm, who will deliver Friday's penultimate performance. "It's like the foundation, but because it's so universal and minimalistic, it's able to fuse with other styles.
"It can cross-pollinate because it is designed to set up a groove that you can dance to and bring people together, as opposed to showing off how great a player someone is."
Parker placed a great deal of emphasis on blurring genres when he booked this year's lineup, saying, "Good music is good music – no matter what festival we're playing in."
Entertainment and Opportunity
While most in attendance will listen, dance and eat, some Ole Miss students will be gaining class credit and real-world event management experience.
Dave Waddell, a lecturer in sport and recreation administration, has partnered with Parker for many years to provide the festival with volunteers while teaching his students important lessons about leadership, planning and service.
"As a part of our experience learning we want to give students, we try to put them in situations where they're learning and participating in leadership," Waddell said. "I joke that they can learn more in one event like this than in seven or eight lectures."
More than Music
The festival also will feature a walking tour that offers tastings from a variety of Oxford restaurants along with an opportunity to learn about the important of food to the blues. Along the way, participants will learn the history of each dish as well as the history of the culinary scene on the Oxford Square.
Tickets for the walking tour are $99. Single-day festival passes are $35 and multi-day passes are $55.
Thursday's kickoff party is not ticketed, but attendees who make a suggested $15 donation will get a festival poster.
To see a full lineup and purchase tickets, visit https://oxfordbluesfest.com/.
By JB Clark