Billtown Blues Festival returns bigger than ever for 30th year

On June 24, 1990, the first ever Billtown Blues Festival was held on private property along the Susquehanna River. At the time, the event, which was being referred to as a “blues picnic,” was an experiment to see what kind of traction the blues could get in Central PA. In the years since, the festival has become an area staple that draws in fans from all over the region who want to hear the seminal music played at its highest level.

But to get to that point, the festival has seen a lot of change along the way. That’s no different this year, as there are plenty of “firsts” for the event in 2019.

With the 30th annual Billtown Blues Festival coming to the Lycoming County Fairgrounds on June 14-16, many will notice that the biggest change for the festival is its switch from a one-day to a three-day format. As a full-weekend event, the festival will also, for the first time, be offering lodging for RV’s and campers, as well as space for overnight car-tent accommodations.

These big changes, combined with its usual great line-up of blues musicians, are expected to make this year’s festival one of the most memorable ones yet.

“Blues music is happy, feel-good music, so one has to be excited about spending three days in the presence of some of the world’s finest blues artists who will be delivering a terrific variety of blues music,” said Bonnie Tallman, executive director of the Billtown Blues Association. “Plus, as an organization we are all looking forward to something new and different to offer our patrons.”

Though this year’s festival will see a lot of changes, Tallman said that it still has one big thing in common with that blues picnic back in 1990 — “great musicianship.”

“We still include as many area musicians who have chosen to be serious about the blues as possible,” Tallman said. “Coupled with that, we bring in many of the most prominent and marquee-valued artists as our budget permits.”

With five of the musicians that will be performing on the Williamsport Sun-Gazette Main Stage (the stage name is also new) being nominated for a total of 11 combined Blues Music Awards, this year will see the biggest group of BMA-nominated talent in the festival’s history. Of all those acts, there are three that were lucky enough to win their first BMA when the awards were held in Memphis back in May — Vanessa Collier (Instrumentalist: Horn), Nick Moss (Traditional Blues Male Artist) and Dennis Gruenling (Instrumentalist: Harmonica). They are each returning to the Billtown Blues Festival after performing at it in a past year.

“What I love about the Billtown Blues Festival is that the people come out ready for you,” said Collier, who will be performing at the festival for the third time this summer. “They are giving off as much energy as you are putting out, which is weird. Usually, you are having to coax people out, but what I have found at the Billtown Blues Festival is that people are ready to jump in and have a good time.

“If you put a smile on their face, then they love you and support you,” she added. “They are very welcoming and very warm.”

Collier is well-familiar with the Billtown Blues Association, being a member of the group herself. In fact, she credits the organization for helping take her career to new heights, after she was sent to the International Blues Challenge to represent the BBA in 2015.

“I always thank Billtown for getting me in front of a lot of people in Memphis, which gave me a nice kickstart to my career,” Collier said. “They have been supportive of me and I am eternally grateful for that.”

Nick Moss and Dennis Gruenling, who will be performing together at the festival, took a little bit longer to get their first BMA than Collier did — but that just makes them appreciate their awards that much more.

“I am 1-for-26. I have been out there 26 times and only won once,” said Moss, whose career in blues music spans nearly three decades. “For me, it took a lot of weight off my shoulders, because I finally got it. Now I can start back over at zero.

“I am glad I got mine, and Dennis deserved his 10 years ago,” he added.

Gruenling said the experience of winning his first BMA was a bit surreal because, “I was running up against guys that I have looked up to for years.”

“It was humbling and I am very grateful,” he added. “I am still in a little bit of a fog about it.”

Moss and Gruenling said they both have fond memories of playing the Billtown Blues Festival in the past, and that they are excited to return.

“We played that in the daytime one year and I do remember that we had a great time,” said Moss. “I remember that it was a fun festival to play.”

Because the Billtown Blues Festival is meticulously planned to include a broad variety of blues sounds, the acts slated for this year come from a wide range of geographical styles and influences, configurations, and instrumentations. Aside from the aforementioned artists, some other performers that will take the stage include: Mulebone, McKinley James, Ramblin’ Dan Stevens & JT “Blues” Thompson, Miss Freddye Stover, Ray Fuller and the Bluesrockers, Lindsay Beaver, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, and The National Reserve.

Some local acts that will play at the festival include Mini Mojo, the Benjamin Vo Band, and the Gabe Stillman Band. Mini Mojo and the Benjamin Vo Band were given the chance to play at the festival after winning best duo and best band, respectively, at the BBA’s Blues Challenge in March. The Williamsport-based Gabe Stillman Band returns to the festival after making a deep run at the International Blues Challenge last January, which saw the group finish in the Top 8 out of 101 competing bands. Equally impressive, Stillman himself was given the highly esteemed Gibson Guitar Award at the IBC’s — an accolade reserved for the best guitarist in the finals.

Along with these three local groups, the festival will also see the Uptown Music Collective play a tribute to Tom Petty, and will include a Billtown Blues Gospel Showcase featuring area musicians like Stacia Abernatha, Cheryl Miller, Shayne Williams, Doug McMinn, Tate Berkey, Levi Stover, Gabe Stillman, Dave Brumbaugh and Taylor Fleming.

Without the efforts of the BBA, it is likely that many of these local musicians would have never gotten involved with the blues at all. That’s not something that is lost on Tallman and the rest of the organization.

“Many people have told us through the years, that they marvel at what an active blues music scene there is in Williamsport and surrounding communities compared to what they do not see in much larger metropolitan areas,” Tallman said. “When we hear this, we know our effort has paid off.”

Though all of the performers taking part in the 30th annual Billtown Blues Festival are extremely exciting to see live, one of the most anticipated acts scheduled to play is the Craig Thatcher Band with special guest G.E. Smith, who will be closing things out on the third and final day of the event. Thatcher himself is a composer, touring musician, Martin Guitar clinician and host of the popular PBS show “Behind the Guitar.” Smith, on the other hand, did a six-year stint with Hall & Oats, a four-year run performing with Bob Dylan, and led the Saturday Night Live Band for a decade. In his career, Smith has also backed notable artists like Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, Al Green, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, Tom Petty and Neil Young, just to name a few.

“You can see there is significant growth within the Billtown Blues Festival over its 30-year tenure,” Tallman said. “But what has stayed the same is focus on the art form and the musicians who continue to serve that art form in one way or another. Sometimes it is straight on and other times it is more discrete, but it is always there.”

With the festival now geared to accommodate a three-day stay or single-day blues experience, those interested in purchasing tickets are encouraged to visit billtownblues.org or to call 570-584-4480 for more information.