MEMPHIS, TENN.— In spite of a cold spell, things got pretty hot on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee in late January. That's when the 30th annual International Blues Challenge brought together musicians and singers from all over North America as well as Europe, Latin America and Asia to compete for prizes. Win or lose, just being there was a prize for many participants.
Brad Absher and Swamp Royale from Houston, Texas performed a song that celebrates Memphis, the self-styled "home of the blues."
Absher, who also competed last year, said meeting other blues players is a big part of the experience.
"I have met some great players, obviously great musicians, and great record producers and 'uber' fans (big fans). If you come here and you are not a musician, you are a huge music fan," said Absher.
Artists from 40 U.S. states and 16 foreign countries came to the contest on Beale Street, where the Blues has been played for more than a century.
Deputy director of the Blues Foundation, Joe Whitmer, said many musicians feel just performing here is a rewarding experience.
"Sure, they come and compete; sure, they could walk away with prizes, but having the opportunity to play at least two nights on world famous, historic Beale Street means the world to them," explained Whitmer.
One group that travelled a long distance for the event was the Brat Pack, from the Philippines.
Vocalist Cristina Mercado was anxious to meet other blues artists.
"I hope to get to mingle around with the hardcore blues bands here and I think, really – ‘Wow, what an experience,’" said Mercado.
Victor Puertas is part of the Suitcase Brothers duo, from Spain.
“You are here right in the place where truly the Blues was born; it is spectacular,” said Puertas.
The Blues was first played by African-Americans in places like the Mississippi River Delta south of Memphis. That heritage inspired this year's winner in the band division: Vicksburg, Mississippi's Mr. Sipp and vocalist Castro Coleman.
"We are trying to preserve this traditional blues music, our heritage music, and the more countries and states that it spreads in reassures me, as a Mississippi kid, that the Blues will stay alive," said Coleman.
Keeping the blues alive is also the goal of the annual Youth Showcase, featuring teenage players from around the country.
Eric Hoovestol, who sings with The White Lightnins from Houston, is a fan of his city's most famous bluesman, the late Lightnin' Hopkins.
“Houston blues has a lot of history and Lightnin' Hopkins was definitely one of the forerunners and I wanted to respect that so we named the band The White Lightnins to honor Lightnin' Hopkins,” said Hoovestol.
As a fitting end to an event celebrating a musical genre based largely on improvisation, the International Blues Challenge came to a close with a large jam session.