The history of the Bull Durham Blues Festival lives not in Durham, but in Cary, in the very crowded house of graphic artist Bruce Couch.
If you've been to the event during its three decades in Durham, you've already seen Couch's work, his larger-than-life portraits of bluesmen and blueswomen draping the stage and gracing the festival's banners. Today, those portraits and posters clutter the workbench of his home studio, shaping a time machine that burrows through three decades of blues and soul paraphernalia, back to the festival's 1988 origins.
"I just got called in as a sign maker. That was my thing," Couch remembers of his initial assignment. "But I always went and enjoyed it."
Couch enjoyed it so much that he's created and collected a kind of personal museum for the festival, a hallmark blues event for a city whose current blues activity is much weaker than its fabled legacy. He even has a T-shirt from the debut event in 1988, with the names of the headliners printed on the back. It was an auspicious beginning, with Dr. John and Otis Rush, Roy Buchanan and Etta Baker among those anchoring the first year.
"I thought about framing them at one time, but my wall space was just so jammed with other stuff," Couch explains, motioning to already-hung portraits of blues players and professional wrestlers alike. "It was completely impossible."
The collective lineups of the Bull Durham Blues Festivals shape a who's-who of blues royalty, mixed with the occasional R&B and soul legend. Koko Taylor and Jerry Butler headlined in 2003, Buddy Guy in 1994 and 2007. The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Bobby "Blue" Bland played in 1995, while Bo Diddley arrived in 2006. Soul greats Solomon Burke, Isaac Hayes and Wilson Pickett all are Bull Durham alumni.
In recent years, though, the festival has slumped as it has struggled to maintain—let alone, boost—attendance. In 2007, with Buddy Guy and Percy Sledge atop the bill, Bull Durham broke attendance records. But competition has increased. Durham now has The Art of Cool Festival for a mix of soul and jazz, and Hopscotch claims the same after-Labor Day weekend. And after being located in the Durham Athletic Park for decades, the festival has shifted nervously throughout Durham during the past half-decade, moving between the Hayti Heritage Center and the Durham Performing Arts Center. In 2013, the event retreated to two modest nights at the Hayti Heritage Center.
"When it had to move, not only to one new temporary location but to two or three, that was unsettling for folks who were accustomed to it being one place, being done one way," explains Angela Lee.
Early in 2013, Lee replaced V. Dianne Pledger as the executive director of the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, the nonprofit that produces the festival. Lee aims to rebuild the Bull Durham brand after a string of difficult years and downsizing. She wants to do that four ways. The first has been to reenergize the talent by recruiting artists who had not performed in Durham, at least in the last five years.
"One thing I did notice was there are a lot of returning artists," says Lee. "If somebody's good, you don't mind seeing them over and over. But there are so many fantastic blues artists or artists whose roots are in the blues that it's important to make sure some of them were brought here."
There are two returning artists this year—Shemekia Copeland, who earned a female-artist-of-the-year nomination last year from the Blues Music Awards, and John Dee Holeman, a perennial favorite.
"Other than that, the artists have not performed at Bull Durham or not performed in Durham and some not in North Carolina," Lee says.
This year's festival includes one night in church and another in the ballpark, together catering to one of the most eclectic and international bills in Bull Durham Blues history. It's a deliberate attempt to stretch the scope of the talent and the audience.
"Another objective was to continue to have a diverse lineup. Third is to expand the blues for our audience here by including international artists. We did it last year, and I'm intent on continuing it," Lee says. "And the fourth prong: Make sure we include North Carolina or Durham artists."
Indeed, Holeman's inclusion this year signals a return to the festival's early days, when older and more traditional local and regional performers shared stages with big-time headliners. Lightnin' Wells remembers that model well, having played more than a half-dozen Bull Durham festivals before 2000. Wells even played the event before it was the Bull Durham Blues Festival. In 1987, before St. Joseph's came onboard as a producer, the upstart event was called the Bull City Blues Festival.
"They did it at the athletic park, but they wouldn't let anybody on the grass because they were gonna have a ball game," Wells remembers. "They made 'em sit in the stands, and they had the stage out on second base, which made it weird."
Wells produced the first commercial recordings of Big Boy Henry, Algia Mae Hinton and George Higgs; he traveled and performed with them, too, working as a shepherd of the Piedmont blues' past toward the future. At Bull Durham, he's often accompanied such aged performers.
"I was with older people," he says, "kinda lookin' out for them and hangin' with them."
But Wells has learned not to underestimate such veterans. In 1993, a sound engineer working for the festival told him that they were scrambling to find a piano bench to hold Etta James, then in her mid-50s. The piano bench, he heard, needed to support 300 pounds.
"I thought, 'Oh, that's pretty sad. She can't get around well,'" he says. "'She's gonna have to sit down and sing.'"
When James arrived behind the stage by car, several helpers accompanied her. Her gait was labored, and Wells worried that the crowd would be greeted by a shadow of what James had once been. But then the stage lights came up.
"All you saw was this big butt facing the audience, shakin'," he says. "She's holding the piano stool, shakin'. She turns around and goes, 'Wah!,' just tearin' it up, man. She didn't need any help."
James and her piano bench provide an apt, hopeful metaphor for the Bull Durham Blues Festival, now at a peculiar crossroads in an increasingly crowded market. Lee hopes to reconnect the festival to its past success while building new traditions. She wants to be reliable without being predictable. The festival, for instance, plans to stay put geographically, though Lee is searching for corporate sponsors in order to push ticket prices down—both ways, she says, more people can get the blues.
"That will help us maintain consistency," Lee says. "We can reassure people, hey, go ahead, mark your calendar."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bull Durham Blues Festival"