Blues group off to represent Vicksburg at international competition next week

Published 11:23 am Tuesday, January 24, 2017

“I didn’t choose the blues, but the blues chose me.”

The lyrics rolled from Keith Johnson’s soul and out of his mouth filling up the room as he practiced with his band in Vicksburg Monday night in preparation for the gig of a lifetime.

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“It’s an opportunity to launch my career,” Johnson said.

Keith Johnson and the Big Muddy Blues Band will be off to Memphis next week to compete in the International Blues Challenge as the representatives for the Vicksburg Blues Society. The band won the local Vicksburg Blues Challenge back in late summer for the chance to compete on the international scale.

“In order to go to the IBC in Memphis, you have to win in a local IBC competition,” said Brinda Willis, Johnson’s manager and agent. “Blues societies all over the country, and all over the world, are sponsoring them to be able to participate in the Memphis competition.” 

Sam Joyner will represent Vicksburg in the solo/duo division.   

Performers representing Vicksburg have a history of doing well in the competition. The Vicksburg Blues Society supported the 2014 and 2015 IBC winners, and had finalists in the 2013 and 2016 competitions.

“Mississippi has set a winning tradition,” Willis said. “Of course, these guys being from the Delta, that’s a plus.”

Johnson, of Cleveland, said he hadn’t originally planned on participating in the contest held in Vicksburg. He entered at the last minute, and got to work preparing.

“I had written a few songs specifically for that contest. We came in and we won,” Johnson said.

Those are the same songs he is taking to Memphis. The band has planned to do three original songs and one cover song.

He said he also has prepared two other covers and an original that he could still incorporate in the playlist.

Johnson, 23, is also known as the Prince of the Delta Blues and is the grandnephew of Muddy Waters. He recently graduated from Delta State University with a degree in entertainment industry studies with a concentration in audio engineering. He is currently working on his master’s in business administration.

“His career will be in professional music,” Shirley Waring of the Vicksburg Blues Society said. “He started out in church music, and he is pursuing the blues. It is natural for him. He has been playing for a few years with various combinations of people.”

The traditional blues band is made up of Donald Grant, piano and background vocals; Joe Eagle, drums/percussion; and George Mumford, bass guitar and background vocals. The musicians met at Delta State.

“Keith, George and Grant have written together for probably the last six or seven years,” Willis said.

Johnson has been playing different genres with different people and has an ever rotating list of musician friends he works with.

“He plays with different people from time to time, but this band moving forward is who he will be playing with. They’re all very experienced,” Waring said.

The group is preparing through practicing with Eddie Cotton, a past Vicksburg IBC winner, to get everything in order in time to head to Tennessee next week.

“They are practicing to get their timing down because the competition has very strict rules on how much time each band will be able to perform,” Willis said.

Johnson said it has been hard work, but the band members are looking forward to the competition.

“We’ve been working hard. It’s just an opportunity for all of us to come out to get exposure for myself and the band members,” Johnson said.

There are 263 acts, about 900 musicians, from all over the world set to participate in this year’s competition.

“This is the worlds largest blues competition and gathering of blues fans. It’s the most prestigious,” Waring said.

Every act will play at one of 21 venues on Beale Street where they will perform in the quarterfinal competition Wednesday, Feb. 1 and Thursday, Feb. 2.

“They get assigned to a venue when we do orientation on Wednesday,” Waring said.

The semifinals are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 3, and the finals are set for Saturday, Feb. 4.

“Part of the criteria is original music. They do classic covers. It’s based on content, musical skill, their appearance on stage, the way they execute their act,” Waring said.

Producers, promoters and other musicians will be on hand to hear the contestants, and it will be a great opportunity for acts to be heard on a grand scale.

“It’s the largest blues competition in the nation. It is truly international,” Willis said. “It draws such a large crowd it will boost their career. It will give them exposure to the industry people as well as blues fans.”