HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — When blues-loving tourists pay homage to the place their favorite music was born, the Mississippi Delta is the usual destination. But just across the state line in eastern Arkansas, a small city is cultivating its blues heritage with an annual festival that draws tens of thousands of visitors and is named for a locally produced radio show that's a tourist attraction in its own right.
Scores of fans — from places ranging from Madrid, Spain, to Zanesville, Ohio — make pilgrimages here to see the birthplace of "King Biscuit Time," a live radio program that caught the ears of young bluesmen who turned into blues greats after it started broadcasting in 1941.
Locals piggybacked on the success of the radio show and, in the '80s, organized the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival with some of the famous artists who played live on the radio program. The festival, held each October on the banks of the Mississippi, offers a mix of big-name acts and lesser-known bluesmen. This year's event starts Thursday with Buddy Guy, followed by Delbert McClinton on Friday and Keb' Mo' on Saturday night.
"Kids come from overseas and wash their hands in the Mississippi River, just like the Jordan River," says Bubba Sullivan, who introduces performers at the festival and sells records at his shop across the street.
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Last year's festival lineup included the legendary B.B. King. Locals like to point out that while he was born on the Mississippi side of the river, his famous guitar, Lucille, was named after the woman behind a dance-hall brawl in Twist, Ark., about 80 miles north of here.
There's no easy way to get to Helena-West Helena, population 12,282, located in a poor, rural part of Arkansas about 70 miles southwest of Memphis and 120 miles southeast of Little Rock. (The hyphenated name came about when two places merged.) But what blues pilgrimage would be complete without a bit of a challenge? Since you can't get there from here on the interstate, you've got to give up higher speed limits in exchange for scenic highways and roadside signs that only exist in rural America.
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Once inside the city limits, decades seem to run together. Advertisements on more than one building boast the best Coke in town and a local accountant peddles his services as a bean counter. But past a valley bathed in kudzu — an invasive green vine that covers everything in its path — some of the festival organizers fiddle with smartphones as they string lanyards together for volunteers.
Banners along the downtown drag promote the area as historic — it is home to more than 30 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most of them dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A few boutiques and renovated storefronts have crept in blocks away from the boarded-up buildings where bluesmen of old used to sing about love lost and love found. Around the time of the festival, souvenir stands and food carts pop up next to the levee that protects the town from the river.
An old train depot now serves as a cultural center and studio for "King Biscuit Time." There, host "Sunshine" Sonny Payne welcomes guests from around the world and sometimes interviews them on the show, the longest-running daily radio program with more than 16,000 episodes to boot.
Payne, who turns 86 next month, still starts every show the same way: "Pass the biscuits 'cause it's 'King Biscuit Time.'"
But some things have changed over the years. No more commercials for King Biscuit Flour, which once sponsored the show. Gone, too, are the days of live music with Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson. Few of today's performers have lived through the trials and tribulations that make the blues what they are.
"You hear Keb' Mo' singing and you know that he hasn't gone in juke joints on Highway 61 or over in Arkansas..." Sullivan said. "But they still do a great job of doing the music."
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