For the past 18 years, people have been singing the Blues in Arnold. This week many folks are experiencing a case of “the blues” as the announcement was made that the annual South Loup River Blues & BBQ, more commonly known as Blues Fest, is calling it quits.
Blues Fest is the “baby” of KCNI/KBBN owner and general manager David J. Birnie, who organized the first event in 1993 as a station promotion. Through the station, Birnie had been involved with some fair shows and had experienced some successes with those, so he decided to take his love of Blues and see if he could make an event fly.
“I just wanted to try something like this just for the heck of it,” Birnie laughs.
He says he didn’t know what to expect that first year - would people come? Would they lose their shirts? Birnie found support in some area Blues bands, who agreed to come and play with the understanding that they might not get paid. He booked a headline act from Chicago, which of course he did have to pay.
From the outset, Birnie knew just the venue he wanted for his event - Old Mill Park in Arnold. He says some community members, and even a couple of village board members were a little apprehensive that first year, but he got the go-ahead nonetheless and went to work.
That first year, the show was billed as Rock, Blues & BBQ. “We always wanted to be strictly a Blues show, but just didn’t have the confidence to start out that way,” Birnie explains.
As luck would have it, the weather was anything but cooperative for that first event. The rains came, the wind blew, the stage collapsed, and it looked as if there was no way a show could happen. Birnie tried to contact the Chicago group to stop them from making the trip, but being it was before the age of cell phones he was not able to get ahold of them. Good thing.
Much to his amazement, when the rain stopped the people came. Volunteers by the dozens - piling sand bags, putting the stage back up, and doing whatever they could do to help the show go on. A crowd of 400 - 500 people gathered in the park that weekend, and Birnie says he knew then he had made the right choice.
That kind of community support and volunteerism is one of the major factors, he says, in the long success of Blues Fest. In the third year of the event, he finally felt confident enough to drop the rock music and concentrate the event solely on Blues.
“A lot of us were already listening to Blues music, we just didn’t know it,” he laughs. “Nearly all of the British bands, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, even the early Fleetwood Mac, all were Blues bands. We just didn’t call it that.”
He says once people made that connection, the audience continued to grow. And when artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn burst onto the scene in the late 90s, Blues music gained a whole new legion of fans.And so did Blues Fest.
“I had always thought in the back of my mind that maybe we could shoot for 1,000 people. But by the fourth or fifth year, we had over 2,500!”
As the crowds grew, so did some of the challenges. While the station sponsored the event in the beginning years, Birnie says he was advised it would be best for the protection of the station to form a separate entity for the music festival. He and wife Joan, Rick and Kim Beshaler, Tad Geiser, Gene and Kris Andre, Garry Coleman and Dennis Connor, joined together and formed a corporation for the event.
How to handle alcohol sales was also a challenge in the beginning. For the first few years, Jim’s Bar in Arnold handled all the beer sales. The Arnold Golf Association then took over the beer sales and used the profits for improvements of the golf course.
Birnie says he made it a point after those first few years to encourage people to come for the music, not just to party. And though the attendance numbers declined slightly after those peak fourth and fifth years, those who continued to come were devoted fans who made Blues Fest an annual event. It is their stories that Birnie says he most treasures, and those people he will most miss.
There has been a wedding at Blues Fest, cancer patients who fought just to make it to one more event, musicians and annual fans who became parents, and the list goes on. The event, he says, became a reunion of sorts - with many fans coming back every year, and repeat artists like Baby Jason making Blues Fest part of their yearly schedule.
“We never had one headliner who didn’t ask to come back,” Birnie says proudly.
But the thing he says he is most proud of, is the fact that there have been no serious injuries or loss of life in the 18 years of the event. “Had that ever happened, I’m not sure I could have continued doing it.”
Birnie says he has learned a lot along the way - in fact, the entire 18 years was a learning experience. But he has no regrets. The decision to walk away now was not an easy one, but he felt the time was right.
“We have always had pride in the fact that this was a self-sustaining thing, and we didn’t have to go after big corporate sponsors to make it happen,” Birnie explains. He says he always feared losing some of the control if that type of sponsorship would have become necessary.
“We wanted to end it while it was still what we wanted it to be.”
R.I.P. Blues Fest -
Gone but not forgotten