When Jim Barr was growing up in Abilene his taste in music was different than his peers. While everyone around him tuned in to country music, he actually sought out the blues. His early influences were Ray Charles, James Brown and the Supremes.
“About 1977 I discovered a blues artist named Freddie King and I really fell in love with it,” Barr said. “I would go listen to it whenever I could but it was kind of hard to find.”
Later Barr and his wife began traveling around the country to see live performances by their favorite blues artists. And then he decided it was time to bring the music to West Texans. He dreamed up the Key City Rhythm & Blues Festival, a weekend-long festival in Abilene that features national and local blues artists. The festival returns this weekend to the Nelson Park Gardens, proceeds go to the United Way of Abilene.
“One of the problems is that most people don’t know what a blues festival is in Abilene because they haven’t seen it or heard it,” Barr said. “There’s a little bit of an educational process going.”
So what can someone learn about the blues?
The music stems from African-American communities in the American south. It started as soul music about spirituality and hardships but later when rock and roll became popular, blues artists began to blend the lyrics with new melodies. Barr tells people there are about 20 different types of blues music. The sound can change depending on the era or region and artists often start out in the genre before crafting their own signature sound.
Barr said some American legends like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones actually cut their teeth on American blues music before they developed their own style. He wants people in Abilene to hear the upbeat kind of blues, the songs that make people want to get up and dance.
Local musician Kevin Taylor specializes in the up-tempo style. He’s the guitarist in the band, KT And The Blues Scientist. Taylor and the band will be returning to perform again in this year’s Key City Rhythm and Blues Festival. He said the blues are a fresh alternative to the other music you might hear in Abilene. And after years of touring the world to perform blues music, he’s learned the art of audience engagement.
“You just learn to gauge the happiness of that audience,” Taylor said. “Where you thought you might do a low down dirty blues, you might actually do a boogie-woogie blues or you might do something that’s kind of funky, it just depends on the mood of the audience.”
For him, performing is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life. He says nothing can even come close to the feeling of performing the blues in front of a live audience, especially when people have a positive reaction to the music.
“That’s the drug, you would do it for free and so when it pays something, it’s even sweeter,” Taylor said.
Taylor will join national acts for the festival, Tommy Castro and The Painkillers, Samantha Fish, Lisa Mann and more. And there will be several other local performers including the Dave Hobbs band, Kirk House and Happy Fat.
Last year the event raised 26,000 with proceeds benefitting the 25 local non-profits that partner with the United Way of Abilene.