The River Valley Blues Festival has grown quickly from its 2015 inception as a local effort in a bar 10 miles outside Asheville to a two-day event featuring world-class talent. This year’s festival boasts a lineup featuring internationally touring headliners Grady Champion and Janiva Magness and takes place Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 19 and 20, at Salvage Station.
Blues has its roots firmly in the traditions and experiences of African-Americans; it’s arguably the “blackest” of all musical forms. But Champion isn’t surprised when he learns that he is the only person of color on the bill for the River Valley Blues Festival. “A lot of festivals that we play are gonna be predominantly white performers,” he says. While he admits that his own fan base is largely white, he says, “if a young African-American has got an option to play blues or to play something else, he sees it’s difficult to make a living playing the blues.”
Champion’s take on the blues begins with familiar, solid influences — in conversation, he mentions John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter — and applies a sensibility that draws from gospel and hip-hop. “A lot of the older blues guys always said that you can’t really sing the blues unless you’ve been to church,” says Champion, who grew up in small-town Mississippi, one of a family of 28 children. “What we did every Sunday was go to church, and we got it in us first.”
His immersion in hip-hop would come much later. In the early 1990s, Champion began his musical career as a rapper, branding himself MC Gold. Looking back on that period, Champion believes it helped create a foundation for the blues he sings and plays today. “Being a rapper really gave me the upper hand as far as writing stories and lyrics,” he says, noting that that background gives his music a “bit of a different feel.”
He continues, “But it all grows from the same place.”
The winner of the 2010 International Blues Challenge and a multiple Blues Music Awards nominee, Champion has released nine albums to date. His newest, One of a Kind, will be out in September. Champion’s original music is based more upon “feel” than preconceived notions about what is or isn’t blues.
“Some people push the nongrowth of blues,” Champion says, adding that the marketplace “force-feeds artists who basically sit down and play; they probably just read off a paper. They think blues is just 12 bars, sitting down, no energy.”
His brand of blues is steeped in a tradition of high energy. “When I get on that stage,” Champion says, “They’re gonna know, ‘Oh, this is the blues.’”
Though Magness is not African-American, she comes by her blues honestly. Both her parents took their own lives when she was young. As a subsequent foster teen, she had a hard life that, at age 17, included giving up a baby for adoption.
Magness would eventually find solace singing the blues, though her recording career didn’t begin until the singer was in her mid-30s. She has released 12 albums — her newest EP, Blue Again, is due later this year — yet, for many years, Magness sang songs written by others. But beginning with her Grammy-winning 2016 album Love Wins Again, she put her efforts into songwriting. Sharing stories from her struggles “makes for the possibility for connection with other human beings,” she says.
With that sharing comes healing. “Sometimes it’s incremental, little millimeters at a time,” Magness says, “and sometimes it’s huge leaps. But it’s still forward motion.”
Looking back, at least at sources of influence, matter, too. Magness describes Blue Again — which she’ll preview at the River Valley Blues Festival — as “a pretty potent collection of some of my favorite covers and artists: Etta [James], Bo [Diddley], Nina [Simone] and more. It’s raw, and right back to the taproot for me.”
Event organizer Zuzu Welsh says that this year’s festival will feature seven local acts in addition to Magness (Saturday’s headliner) and Champion (Sunday’s festival closer). The bill includes Ashley Heath, Paper Crowns, Moses Jones, Dirty Badgers, Roots & Dore and Virginia & the Slims, all hosted by the Zuzu Welsh Band.
WHAT: The third annual River Valley Blues Festival
WHERE: Salvage Station, 466 Riverside Drive, salvagestation.com
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 19, and Sunday, Aug. 20, noon-10 p.m. $25 per day/$40 both days