Local Musician Joe Abbey Hits a Home Run in the Mississippi Delta, Returns to Help Community

I’ve known for decades that an artist has to make a big enough splash out of town to generate the kind of national publicity to make touring a viable career option. And when I founded the Northeast Blues Society (NEBS) decades ago, I built the organization around an annual contest called “Colossal Contenders” to pick our entries, both acoustic and electric, to send to The Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis.  

Joe Abbey (photo by Amy Modesti)

In fact, we presented a show called “Get Out of Town” to raise money for our first entry into the IBC, George Boone. He’d had a motorcycle accident shortly before his performance on Beale Street at the Old Daisy Theater. Wearing a cast from his ankles up to his hips, he hobbled around that stage and got so carried away he went over his allotted time, effectively eliminating his chances to make it beyond the first round. 

Albert Cummings, arguably the Nippertown area’s biggest roots music success story, never made it beyond the first round of The IBC. Tas Cru, the area’s second most high-profile roots music success story, played the IBC many times before earning a high enough profile to quit his day job as a college professor to become a road warrior. Saratoga’s Mark Tolstrup with his partner Jill Burnham has made it to the second round at the IBC twice, but this year discovered to his dismay that there was no judge present at the venue for one of his competing performances. 

Fast forward to the first week in October. I had invited my friend Joe Abbey of Capitaland’s number one gospel band the Heavenly Echoes, and Joe’s blues-rock band JV and The Cutters, to accompany me and my friend, George Scism, to the King Biscuit Blues Festival, the most prestigious blues fest in the south with the exception of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  

JV and the Cutters
JV and the Cutters (2016) (photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk)

I’ve been involved with The Biscuit for 27 years in various capacities and had been invited to host the main stage this year following the passing of one of its founders, iconic character and dear friend Bubba Sullivan. I had nicknamed Bubba the Godfather of this vaunted event. He was a fixture in Helena, Arkansas since the mid-50s, when he paid 50 cents to see Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis play at an area high school. Bubba knew every roots act on tour, from The Kentucky Headhunters to ZZ Top. He had set the stage for The Biscuit’s inception more than three decades ago with a wang dang doodle he called Sin City. Suffice it to say, Bubba was a larger-than-life personality not easily replaced as a main stage announcer by yours truly, a self-described damn Yankee from New York. 

I suggested to Joe that he bring along his electric guitar and busk on Cherry St. in Helena, behind the main stage that faces the berm at the edge of the Mississippi River. I hosted the first day of the festival with an homage to Bubba by artists including Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters, and Reba Russell who wrote the festival’s unofficial theme song “Heaven Came to Helena” and cowrote “Pink Pussycat Wine” with Bubba last year. Two-time Grammy winner Bobby Rush and his band closed the homage to Bubba with a tour-de-force blues blowout that included his patented hoochie girls gyrating their junk in the trunk. At age 87, Bobby is the festival’s highest profile performer, having played most years since the event’s beginning in 1986.  

Sterling Billingsley, a Helena-based bandleader who also books the main stage of the Biscuit, then hosted his annual Warmup Wednesday jam. A couple of hours in, he invited our Joe Abbey on stage to close out the jam with him and Grace Kuch, a 19-year-old phenom whose been sitting in at the annual jam since she was 13 years old. Joe hit it out of the park with a Howlin’ Wolf-inspired original, “Down in the Gutter” and a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Young Fashioned Ways” as sung by Muddy Waters in 1955. 

Hearing those songs with all those extra musicians was like watching a flower bloom or a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. It was transcendent. 

Joe Abbey (photo by Amy Modesti)

Thomas Jaques, host of the iconic “King Biscuit Time” radio show on KFFA, turned to me at the edge of the stage and asked if Joe could be on his show the next day. This is the Peabody Award-winning program that first presented Sonny Boy Williamson and his band The King Biscuit Boys on the air in 1941. It was the first program in history to feature live blues performances on the air. And our Joe Abbey had just been invited to perform the next day live in the middle of the festival. 

On the air, Joe sang and played guitar on his John Lee Hooker-inspired original, “Stupid Grin.” After the show, I took him a few steps away in the radio studio at the Delta Cultural Center where my friend Scott Lundsford was set up to do interviews for the University of Arkansas Film Archives. Joe and I did about an hour in front of cameras. Suddenly, Joe was in the lineup with my other filmed interviews at The Biscuit with iconic artists including Bobby Rush, Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters, Reba Russell, and Diunna Greenleaf. 

To see past interviews that I’ve done go to: pryorcenter.uark.edu.  

The Heavenly Echoes
The Heavenly Echoes at Fruit of the Spirit Benefit, 2016

You can see Joe with The Heavenly Echoes Gospel Band on Sunday, Oct. 23 at TJ’s Flightline for their ninth annual appearance at my stepdaughter Tanneal Green’s annual Fruit Within Our Spirit benefit beginning at 2 p.m.  

Help welcome Joe Abbey home from his triumphant trip south, as he plays bass for a group whose heritage extends back almost 70 years. The Heavenly Echoes transfer the energy of such secular songs as The Temptations’ “My Girl” to “My God” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” to “Lean on God.” Lead tenor Hayes Coleman is the longest-tenured member of The Heavenly Echoes, singing lead vocals on “Coming Home.”  James Carr, a Memphis-styled soul man with in-your-face dynamics, is an original member of the group who rejoined the group several years ago. 

Mark Emanation who introduced the late Ernie Williams to the Capital Region will also perform with his band Soul Sky

For 16 years, Fruit Within The Spirit has kickstarted our community’s holiday spirit as we raise money to give more than 200 needy area families a merry Christmas they otherwise wouldn’t have. 

Tanneal’s annual benefit has grown from a grassroots effort to help 10 families in Yates Village in 2006, to a total of tens of thousands over a decade and a half. In the first year of the pandemic, she marshaled a force of volunteers who brought joy to 239 families with presents that go well beyond the kind of generic gifts given by most holiday charities.  

This unprecedented annual ritual is the result of the largesse of hundreds of individuals and merchants who donate gifts you can win in the silent auction and table-side raffles. TJ Ruggerio is the proprietor of Flightline, the Route 50 bar that has hosted the celebration for 11 years. His father was Santa Claus for many years. My wife Michele once again has made scores of gift baskets that are literally works of art.

Please join us to celebrate and help the community.

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