HUGHESVILLE - Billtown's got the blues again. The 25th annual Billtown Blues Festival is set for June 8 at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds, 1 E. Park St. The festivities begin at 11 a.m. and continue until 10 p.m., with 10 local and national blues-infused acts taking the stage.
Bill Van Campen, Billtown Blues Association president, said the festival's biggest change over the past 25 years has been in size: "The first festival was June of 1990, and it was just a small group of people who put together $300," Van Campen said, adding that the first event was surrounded by cornfields. "They had to make a makeshift stage We were there for four years."
Van Campen joined shortly before the festival moved to its current location at the Lycoming County Fairgrounds.
Bonnie Tallman, Billtown Blues Association secretary, has been with the event since its humble beginnings and has enjoyed watching it grow and change.
"Of course we have gotten bigger in terms of attendance, and that has translated into moving to a bigger space, providing more services, more security, and logistical adjustments But at the same time, the festival remains very much the same," Tallman said. "Artistically, it remains all about celebrating blues music as an iconic and indigenous American art form, finding the best talent within our budget, striving to produce a well-managed, safe, affordable and relaxing day of music for our patrons just as we did in 1990."
Van Campen added, "It's become a reunion of sorts. People who don't see one another throughout the year get together at our festival ... "Because of the camaraderie of the people that come, it's almost like having a big party for all your friends. We see a lot of (the same audience members) every year. It's really great to see returning people."
Each year BBA volunteers get together after the festival to beginning planning for the next year. Tallman said selection process for bands includes several components.
"When I book the festival I try hard to make the entire day of music interesting and diverse but staying well grounded within the blues genre," she said.
Tallman uses a formula in which she tries to find a mixture of up-and-comers with legendary artists, and includes a variety of musicians with regards to race, gender and musical and instrumental style.
"Instrumentally for example, I try to educate those in attendance with how the mandolin, piano, fiddle and horns are relevant to blues music - in additional to the well-respected blues guitar," Tallman said, adding, "Finding talent is never a problem ... Breaking hearts when I have to pass on an artist is always difficult. We are well stocked with incredible local and regional talent... It is very important to the BBA to have local players represented on the bill each year."
This year's lineup is no different, with local artists such as The Nate Myers Band and acoustic duo Sean and Adam mixed in with a Memphis vocalist and harmonica player; a Chicago "boogie-blues" band; and a female-fronted blues-based "power trio," among others (see sidebar for full list). As in the past, the local artists were selected by BBA members during a spring audition held at the Community Arts Center in which they competed for a slot as a band on the main stage or a solo/duo act in the acoustic tent.
The BBA's mission is to provide opportunities for Williamsport area locals to experience blues music, and the festival is a great chance to be exposed to the power of blues.
"Blues is not one of the major music (genres) across the country. I would say that it's still a struggling form of music, but it has really grown and gotten some followers over the years," Van Campen said.
"Blues is such a small niche in the big map of popular music. It can be easily forgotten and lost," Tallman added. "The BBA's mission is to not let than happen."
In celebration of the festival's 25th reunion, Van Campen said attendees will be able to look back over celebrations of years past.
"We're going to have a photo tent that we're going to set up. We're going to try to put a lot of memorabilia in there, probably photographs mostly, of all the past events ... and showcase that in an area where people can walk through and see all the history of the festival," he said.
But for the most part, the BBA has found a formula that works, and they aren't looking to make any major changes.
"The old saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it!' applies," Tallman said, adding that the BBA doesn't want to see the festival grow to an unrecognizeable event. "We want to keep it intimate, manageable, relaxing, friendly, family-oriented, while at the same time able to generate the needed income to maintain our high-quality standards and keep the best talent interested in coming in. Although we have craft alley and some other diversions for people's time during set changeovers, we strive to keep most of the focus totally on the music and the artists on stage. I have seen when festivals get too big, that element is lost. In the future we just hope for the status quo with no depreciation in quality ... and at the same time, the ability to pay our bills."
Just as important as attendance at the festival is the interest of the community in helping to plan and organize future festivals. Tallman and Van Campen emphasized the importance of their "core group" of members in planning each year's event.
"We have a wonderful group of core members who click and make things happen. We are a very lucky organization," Tallman said. "Our only concern is we are all aging (with) most (members) at or near retirement age, and we hope younger folks will eventually want to get involved while we are still able to pass the torch."
"We need people to get involved," Van Campen said. "We would love to have more participation from volunteers."
Equally important is the support from local businesses and organiations that contribute to the event as sponsors, Tallman said: "The BBA could produce the best festival in the world, but if the area's many sponsors did not support our effort we could not afford to put the event on. We try to keep our ticket sales low and family affordable - only having raised them a small amount, three times, in 25 years. We also know that everyone today has many choices where to spend their time... We are thankful to each and every person who chooses the Billtown Blues Festival the place to spend their day."
Those interested in learning more about the BBA or becoming a member or volunteer can contact Tallman at 570-584-4480 or visit billtownblues.org.