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Arts & Culture

Jazz Fest Artists Spotlight: Southern Blues

Ruby Wilson’s Tribute to Bessie Smith & Ma Rainey, James Cotton and Eric Lindell are three of the blues acts to see at 2012 Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The blues is a huge part of New Orleans and Southern culture. From Muddy Waters to BB King to modern artists they’ve influenced like Gary Clark, Jr., blues plays an important role in musical style and story telling. There are many wonderful blues musicians, and even a tent devoted to them at Jazz Fest this year. Here are three of those artists, each with their own unique sound but all with the blues in common.

Ruby Wilson’s Tribute to Bessie Smith & Ma Rainey

Blues singer Ruby Wilson and her beloved Beale Street. Photo courtesy of

From a stroke-induced coma in 2009 that threatened to steal her voice, the “Queen of Beale Street” and God daughter of BB King, Ruby Wilson is back. Wilson began singing professionally at the age of 16 and has since recorded 10 albums as well as performed in several motion pictures. Known for her powerful deep and thick voice, Wilson is a veteran festival performer with a repertoire that includes gospel, soul, blues and pop. This year’s performance at Jazz Fest will pay tribute to two legendary and pioneering blues singers: fellow Tennesseean and powerhouse Bessie Smith whose dynamic career was cut short by an auto accident in the 1930s and Ma Rainey, the showy, rap-voiced Georgian now known as the “Mother of the Blues.”

Born in Louisiana, and a long-time resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Bobby Rush has released some two dozen albums over the last forty years since his seriously groovy 1971 hit, “Chicken Heads.” More recently, in 2000, “Hoochie Man,” which Rush considers some of his best work, earned a Grammy nomination. An energetic showman and harmonica player, Rush’s repertoire defies strict definition but feels distinctly tied to the deep and dirty South and often combines blues with elements of funk, soul and lyrics woven with storytelling. After decades of work, Rush has received numerous recognitions from the Blues Music Awards for his performances and songs. See Ruby Wilson’s Tribute to Bessie Smith & Ma Rainey at Jazz Fest on Sunday, May 6 at 5:50 p.m. in the Peoples Health Economy Hall Tent.

Allison Alsup

James Cotton “Superharp” Band

James Cotton

James Cotton is the real deal. The Grammy Award-winning master of the blues harmonica grew up working the cotton fields of Mississippi with his parents and eight brothers and sisters, and his father served as the local Baptist preacher every Sunday. Does this sound like the recipe for a true bluesman, or what?!

And how many other musicians can say they learned their craft and the ways of the road from blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters?

Credited with helping to define modern blues harmonica, James Cotton, a.k.a, “Superharp,” has been showcasing his soul-wrenching moans and train whistle wailing for 68 years. He’s played countless juke joints, as well as major music venues alongside artists such as Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin.

He graces Jazz Fest on Thursday, May 3 at 5:45 p.m. in the Blues Tent.

Liz Genest Smith

Eric Lindell

Eric Lindell (Photo courtesy of

Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Eric Lindell came to New Orleans in 1999. He connected with well-known locals such as Johnny Vidocavich, as well as Stanton Moore and Ivan Neville. Lindell’s first album was released in 2006 on Alligator. He was characterized as “blue-eyed soul,” a term that usually translates to “white boy who can sing the blues.” His tunes are a mix of R&B, funk, swamp pop, and true blues. Lindell has toured worldwide, appeared on late-night television, and one of his songs was used in an episode of the TV-drama, “Boston Legal.” He’ll be performing in the Blues Tent at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 27.

Ed Branley

This is part of a series covering the artists on the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival lineup. Read about all the other awesome Jazz Fest acts we’ve featured.