Testifyin' 

Annual musicians' reunion bears witness to unsung or largely forgotten Nashville blues and R&B greats

Annual musicians' reunion bears witness to unsung or largely forgotten Nashville blues and R&B greats

22nd Annual Musicians' Reunion

feat. Marion James, Jimmy Church, James Nixon, Mississippi Millie & more

5:30 p.m. Sept. 5

Pride of Tennessee Elks Lodge, 2614 Jefferson St.

For tickets, call 327-0165

Several years ago, while blues piano master Sunnyland Slim was playing a brief set at a Chicago club, I overheard two young musicians making wisecracks at the bar. "Lessee if ol' Sunny gonna make it through tonight!" one of the hotshots said. "Mebbe they prop him up on that bench!" gibed the other.

Despite appearances, these were not snide remarks, disrespectful of their elder, whose performing career dated back to the Depression and the first wave of northern migration from the Delta. This dialogue was simply an extension of the sometimes grim humor that defines the blues. Every night, young and old musicians have to assert the power of the blues impulse, that tragicomic response to life's trials, not the least of which is mortality. If they can laugh in the face of death and turn fear into joy, so much the better, but not even the most commanding of belters can stave off death and his army of sidemen.

Blues performances by nature are reassuring: no matter how lowdown the matter, we know that the familiar chords, the wellspring of expression and the devilish humor of the music will lift us above our momentary sorrows. Blues artists share this sense of resiliency with the audience, and so the blues impulse lives on in the face of hardships. Few other types of musicians age as gracefully as blues players, as if their testimony can only gain authority with each passing year. But for every Sunnyland Slim, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, there are scores of others who are forgotten. Some have tired of life on the road, many have found other careers and still others, for various reasons, can no longer declare the triumph of the blues.

Now in its 22nd year, the Annual Musicians' Reunion unites the past and present communities of hometown blues and R&B artists to raise funds for musicians in need of medical care and for cancer research. Convened by Marion James, the city's Queen of the Blues, the event will bring together an extensive roster of artists stretching back to the Jefferson Street heyday of the '50s and '60s while also including the best of every generation since then. Thanks partly to the renewed interest in the city's early R&B history that the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum's "Night Train to Nashville" exhibit has spurred, many of these performers have been booked in local clubs of late, and their recordings, both historical and current, have gained wider attention.

The site of the reunion, the Elks Lodge on Jefferson Street, was a club called the Baron in the days before I-40 fractured the North Nashville community, and many of the evening's guests played there or at nearby venues at the height of that era. Besides James, there's Frank Howard & The Commanders, Johnny Jones, Jimmy Church, Charles "Wigg" Walker, Larry LaDon, James "Nick" Nixon and Bobby Hebb of "Sunny" fame. The music these artists play spans country blues, polished soul and James Brown-style revues, with their vocal finesse earned by playing alongside the greats. More than a few share a connection to Jimi Hendrix, who sat in for Jones when he couldn't make gigs with The Commanders.

By keeping the music's history alive and enabling this large cast of players to affirm their community bonds in the blues, the Marion James Musicians' Aid Society ensures that no one will be forgotten by time. One recent beneficiary of this fund, Phil Earhart of The Jefferson Street Bluesmen, is now recovering from lung cancer surgery, and it shouldn't be long before his voice will once again be heard along with the others'. In addition to raising funds for musicians in need, James has a long-term goal that would further dignify those who contributed to this underrepresented part of Nashville's rich musical heritage: a Blues Hall of Fame, clearly a more substantial symbol of historical vitality than the plaque now commemorating this era on a block that was demolished by the interstate.

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