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The King Bees: Bringing the Blues to the Blue Ridge

By Jan Todd

From Deep South juke joints to international venues to outdoor stages here in the High Country, the King Bees have been belting the blues for 36 — or maybe 37 — years.

“I’m no good with dates,” said Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni, lead singer of the renowned band she began with her husband, Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville in the mid-1980s. The two have traveled the world sharing their American roots music, recording and touring in European capitals and across the United States, playing with blues icons, and appearing at New York’s famed Lincoln Center — but they always come back to Ashe County and the mountains they call home.

“I think we started in 1986, but we weren’t all that good the first year,” Rob chimed in. “So let’s just call it 36 years of good music.”

The King Bees have a loyal fan base, drawn in by Penny’s signature soulful sound and Rob’s showmanship and sheer talent on the guitar and keyboards. Yet neither Penny nor Rob intended a career in music when they were young.

Penny grew up in Connecticut and came to the Carolinas to pursue her master’s degree in clinical psychology at East Carolina University. In the late 1970s, she scored an internship at New River Mental Health in Ashe County and was hired there full time just two weeks after arriving.

“It was interesting, being a young single person in such a rural setting, but I loved my clients and my work,” Penny said.

After eight years as a therapist, Penny was ready for a change and decided to enroll at Appalachian State University to earn a teaching certificate. She planned to teach high school English and have her summers free to travel. 

She mastered that in about five minutes. Then we decided she should sing — even though bass players rarely sing — and that took her another five minutes to learn, so we were rolling. We had a band and started playing around Boone.

– Rob Baskerville

Meeting Rob changed everything. “I was wandering around campus and encountered Rob, playing the bass guitar in a band,” she recalled. 

The two struck up a conversation after the set, and Penny mentioned how much she loved the Hammond organ — a keyboard instrument used in jazz, blues, and rock music.

“I was hooked,” Rob said. “Penny was someone I could talk music with.”

Penny came from a musical family. Her brothers were in garage bands, and Penny had trained vocally, had sung opera, and played the guitar and drums. “I grew up in the time of the Beatles, and Ringo Starr was my hero,” Penny laughed. 

Rob graduated from App State in 1985 with a degree in anthropology. He started playing in rock and blues-based bands while attending his Greensboro high school and continued while in college. 

Not long after they met, Penny and Rob decided to form their own band. Rob, who wanted to switch over to lead guitar, showed Penny the basics on the bass guitar.

“She mastered that in about five minutes. Then we decided she should sing — even though bass players rarely sing — and that took her another five minutes to learn, so we were rolling,” Rob quipped. “We had a band and started playing around Boone.”

Digging to the Roots of the Rhythms

Rob said when he plays the music of other artists, he likes to reinterpret it to make it personal to him, rather than just trying to duplicate how the original artist plays. “Better yet, I like to find out who wrote the song, learn about the real roots of the music and how it evolved. I guess it’s the anthropology archaeologist in me,” he said.

Crowds enjoy the music at the New River Blues Festival. 

Rob proposed the two take to the road and try to meet and learn from some of their blues heroes. They headed down into Alabama and Mississippi and knocked on the doors of some of their favorite musicians.

“Some were initially suspicious — thinking we were there to steal their music,” Rob shared. “But once we’d meet these people, we’d start to share stories.”

“We showed them we were there with respect, just wanting to learn to honor the heritage of their music,” Penny added. “Once they understood, they were thrilled.”

“I think it meant something we had come to them,” Rob said. “They wanted their stories told — and wanted to keep the traditions alive. So when we do a gig, we pay homage to these musicians. We’ll talk about how we learned techniques from ‘so-and-so’, tell the audience a little about the artist and then play their song.”

Most people think about the music industry as a fun, good time. And it is. It is a celebration. But behind it is something very important to us. We want to entertain and have a good time, but we also want to share what was shared with us.

– Rob Baskerville

Rob said some of the stories shared by the musicians were hard — experiences he couldn’t even imagine. Blues were born during an unpleasant era in our nation’s history, Rob said, during times of racial discrimination, segregation, and poverty. 

“Through their stories, it all became very real to us,” Rob said. “Blues is real music made by real people who went through strife — and came out on the other side with joy. It is full of life lessons.”

“Most people think about the music industry as a fun, good time,” he continued. “And it is. It is a celebration. But behind it is something very important to us. We want to entertain and have a good time, but we also want to share what was shared with us. We love to open the doors of people’s minds through music — crossing over cultural lines, political lines, racial lines. Music is magical that way. It unites people.”

Down by the River

The uniting power of music was the idea that launched the annual New River Blues Festival, now in its 21st year. The festival is held in a meadow by the river across from the River House Inn in Ashe County each year on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, showcasing world class blues musicians.

This year the festival, scheduled 1pm – 6pm on September 3, will feature the “Blues Emperor” Donald Ceasar from the Creole and Cajun country of Louisiana. He is known for his high spirited dance steps and versatile talent playing the rub board, harmonica, keyboard, and drums. Bobby BlackHat, Virginia’s “Blues Ambassador” will also take the stage with his blend of Chicago, Memphis, Piedmont, and Delta style blues.

“When he walks in, you know,” Rob said. “He wears a red suit, a black hat, and really puts on a great show.”

DieDra Ruff, known as the “Alabama Blues Queen” is scheduled to perform with her silky smooth vocals. Jeffrey Scott will bring his Piedmont acoustic style blues from his home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As the nephew of famed bluesman John Jackson, Jeffrey carries on his family’s traditions, playing the music that is “in his blood.”

21st Annual 
New River Blues Festival

Sunday, September 3, 2023, 1-6pm
Across from River House Inn, 1896 Old Field Creek Rd., Grassy Creek, NC

A mountain meadow, a sparkling river, and world-class music! Enjoy the North Carolina mountains’ only celebration of authentic blues music, hosted by The King Bees, Ashe County’s own internationally acclaimed blues band. Featuring legendary artists including Alabama Blues Queen DieDra Ruff, the Blues Emperor Donald Ceasar, Bobby BlackHat, Jeffrey Scott, and more. For tickets and more information visit newriverbluesfestival.info. 
Jimmy “The Groove” Gillon has played drums with The King Bees for several years. He is pictured here at a recent gig at Grandfather Vineyards in Banner Elk. Photo by Jan Todd

“We may have another surprise guest or two,” Rob promised.

Penny described the vibe of the festival that brings together people of many different backgrounds, finding common ground through the music. “Everyone gathers by the river and listens to the music, dancing with joy. Many people have made friends over the years and only see each other at the festival. It is like a big reunion,” she said.

At this year’s festival, The King Bees will debut their latest project — Blue Ridge Blues. “It is like nothing anyone has ever done,” Penny said.

“Here in the mountains, we’re surrounded by people who play bluegrass. When we meet new people and they ask what kind of music we play, I’ll answer ‘Blues’ and they act like they’re waiting for the second syllable,” laughed Penny. 

The King Bees are incorporating some of the bluegrass musicians into their new release. “Blues is universal,” Rob explained. “Rockabilly, bluegrass, and Hank Williams-style country music all have roots with Black musicians. So we are bringing these different styles into the blues realm and incorporating different musicians to play with us and add the spice and icing on the cake to produce a certain sound.”

“It’ll have the mandolin and banjo and a very interesting mix of people — including some ‘Affrilachian’ musicians like Big Ron Hunter and the late Howie Colbert,” Penny added.

Sandra Hall (center), known as “The Empress of the Blues,” is accompanied by The King Bees during the 2014 New River Blues Festival. Photo submitted

Career Highlights

Reflecting on their career — producing award-winning albums, performing on large festival stages across Europe and the U.S., opening for and playing alongside many legendary blues greats including Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Carey Bell, Dr. John, Buddy Guy, James Brown, and Leon Russell — Rob and Penny shared some of the highlights of their almost four decades together.

“Playing on B.B. King’s 80th Birthday Tour (in 2006) was definitely one of those moments I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming,” said Penny. “And playing with Bo Diddley in the mid 1990s.” 

As a young girl, Penny got to meet the late Bo Diddley backstage after seeing him in concert. Sharing the spotlight with her favorite blues musician since childhood was an “amazing” experience, she said.

I’ll never forget waking up in Rome the first time we played in Europe, realizing it was my guitar that brought me there.

– Rob Baskerville

Rob credits Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bo Diddley for showing him some signature licks on the guitar, and Rob showcases his masterful talent during King Bees performances by playing his guitar behind his back, twirling the instrument around, and strumming with whatever objects he may find out in the audience — from beer bottles to walking canes.

“I’ll never forget waking up in Rome the first time we played in Europe, realizing it was my guitar that brought me there,” Rob reminisced. 

Humbling moments stick with Rob as well. “There were times when we played juke joints in Arkansas and Mississippi, right where blues were born,” he said. “Sometimes we were the only white people in the place. Those were epiphany moments — being at ground zero and being accepted as musicians.”