Mississippi is well known as a very musical state, but did you know that they can lay claim to three “Kings” of different musical genres? Although Memphis claims him, the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, was born in in Tupelo, MS in a tiny cabin that is still open for tourists to visit. Jimmie Rodgers, known as “The Singing Brakeman” since his early career working on the railroad, is alternately known as both the father and the king of country music. And of course, the king of the blues was the inimitable B.B. King, a native of Itta Bena, MS where he was born on a cotton plantation in 1925.
The state is proud of their musical heroes and recognizes each of them with their own festivals during the spring. No matter what sort of music moves you, there’s an opportunity to discover the history and heritage of the Mississippi’s musical culture at any or all of these events. Make your hotel reservations, gas up the car and head on down to the Magnolia State!
As the elder statesman of the three honored musicians, it’s appropriate that Jimmie Rodgers is the first of the year to be recognized. The Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival will take place Thursday, May 2 through Saturday, May 4 in Meridian, the town where Rodgers was born in 1897. As a young boy, he learned how to sing and play from rail workers, and his signature yodeling style made him an icon of early country music when he was featured on the famous “Bristol Sessions” recorded in 1927 that exposed the rest of the country to the music of the American South. Rodgers was one of the first inductees when the Country Music Hall of Fame opened in 1961, and he was subsequently elected to both the Songwriters and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame.
Although Jimmie Rodgers passed away at the young age of 35, he left behind a huge legacy in the world of country music, and every year fans flock to Meridian to remember him at the big festival. Hosted at various venues around town, the festival has been held since 1953 when the first Jimmie Rodgers’ Day drew an astounding 50,000 attendees, more than doubling the population of the town.
The headliner for this year’s festival will be the soulful St. Paul & the Broken Bones, appearing Thursday night at The MAX, Mississippi’s Art + Entertainment Experience. Other acts appearing during the run of the festival include Steve Forbert and Nashville musician Paul Burch. The festival will also celebrate the opening of the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in its new location at Singing Brakeman Park on Front Street in the historic REA Depot Building. You can find out more details at the festival website.
B.B. King threw his own party every year at an event he called Homecoming in Indianola. MS. King actually played at the event well into his 80’s before passing away at the age of 89 in 2015. Riley King started his career in music as a disc jockey in Memphis where he earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy”, later shortened to “Blues Boy”, and finally to B.B. Once he started playing on records instead of just spinning them on the radio, King developed his signature vibrato playing style on his Gibson hollow body guitar he named “Lucille.” His soulful voice propelled him to a career that lasted for more than a half century.
B.B. King Homecoming is organized by the musician’s museum and features a full day of music and fun in Fletcher Park on Saturday, June 1. Food and art vendors begin sales at noon, and musical acts kick off at 2:00. The party rolls on until 9:00 before shifting to King’s famous Club Ebony, an institution in Indianola. A separate ticket grants admission to the club for even more music from Grady Champion and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram until the wee hours of the morning. Visit the Homecoming website for tickets to both events.
Last, but certainly not least, Tupelo will commemorate another homecoming concert June 5-9. After striking it big in Memphis, Elvis returned to Tupelo for two shows in September of 1956 as part of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, the same fair he played as a ten-year-old youngster. A famous statue recreates the pose of Presley reaching out to serenade a fan and stands on the site of the same fairgrounds where the concert took place.
The Tupelo Elvis Festival celebrates the city’s most famous son with four days of music and memories. While many of the performances are of Elvis songs, the festival also pays tribute to other types of music that influenced the King: country, blues and gospel. The family-friendly fest includes free concerts in the Fairpark neighborhood plus other special shows that require purchasing a ticket. The highlight for many fans is the annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition where tribute artists (don’t call them “impersonators!”) face off to offer their most sincere versions of Elvis performances at different points of his career. The UETA Competition plays out over three rounds, so you might consider buying a ticket package if you want to make sure to catch it all.
At least one of these fun festivals should tickle every music lover’s fancy, and you might consider trying to do the triple crown of all three. Pay your respects to the Three Kings!