By Jesse Wood
When the New Rivers Blues Festival takes place on Sunday, Sept. 3, Penny Zamagni and Rob Baskerville will celebrate two anniversaries. Their band, the King Bees, has been touring the world for 30 years, while Ashe County will host the 15th annual New River Blues Festival, which the couple founded.
“For a festival dedicated to real blues in the heart of bluegrass country to not only last for 15 years but thrive and grow is pretty amazing, and the fact that the band has been together for 30 years is even more amazing to me,” Baskerville said.
When Zamagni and Baskerville first started playing together, Baskerville said they were “naïve enough” to reach out directly to their idols in the blues music scene. If they couldn’t reach them by phone, they would just drive down south.
“It was nothing for us to jump in the van and drive to Mississippi and chase people down and go places we probably had no business going,” Baskerville said. “But it didn’t matter because we had the dedication and fascination, so that’s how we started forming those relationships and pretty soon we were getting calls to work with these musicians. They recognized we were serious about it and hungry for it.”
Over the years, they’ve toured and/or sat in with some of the blues greats: Bo Diddley, Tinsley Ellis, Billy Branch, Carey Bell, Nappy Brown, Mojo Buford, Big Jack Johnson, Sam Carr, Frank Frost, Lazy Lester, Ronnie Earl, Jerry McCain and Chicago Bob Nelson.
“I was listening to Bo Diddley records as a teenager. Carey Belle was playing with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. You see names on records over the years, and we – the King Bees, Penny and I, got to work with these guys,” Baskerville said. “It was one of those things where you’re going from being a fan to being able to work with your mentors. It was a lot of luck and lot harder work and dedication to what you do.”
Whenever Zamagni and Baskerville founded the festival 15 years ago in Grassy Creek, along the New River in Ashe Country, they wanted to pay homage to the blues musicians that came before them. Etta Baker, for example, played the very first New River Blues Festival.
“The festival started as our way to pay respects for that and bring them to where we live and introduce them to people who might not be that familiar with dedicated African-American blues – and they’ve loved it and wanted more,” Baskerville said.
“It’s been a blessing that these elders, many of whom have passed, have taken us under their wing and recognized our respect and dedication to the music. It’s been an education for us to have these legendary people share their talents and insights with us and the opportunity to tour with them and get to know them has been a real blessing.”
Heading into the New River Blues Festival on Sunday, Sept. 3, the King Bees have been all over the map. They just got back from touring in Sweden and before that they played at the Oxford Blues Festival in Mississippi and the Library Bar in Macon, Ga., which happened to be the first place that the Allman Brothers ever gigged.
They’ve been playing world-class blues for decades and that’s exactly what festivalgoers can expect to see in a couple weeks. Our State Magazine has labeled this blues celebration as one of the top 10 ways to spend Labor Day.
This year’s festival features Lakota John, Johnny Rawls, Ike and Val Woods, The King Bees and more.
Gates open at noon. Music starts at 1 p.m. Food, mixed and soft drinks, beer and wine are available for purchase. Bring a lawn chair, blankets, the kids, umbrellas (rain or shine). No coolers or pets on lawn.
Mo’s BBQ, a High Country favorite, will be serving pork BBQ, brisket, ribs and chicken with sides such as baked beans, peaches, home made coleslaw and potato salad. A vegetarian option will also be available.
Tickets cost $17.50 in advance or $20 at the gate. Kids under 12 are free. Purchase tickets in advance here.
The festival is held at the River House Inn in Ashe County. For more information, click to https://www.newriverbluesfestival.info/ or https://www.facebook.com/NEWRIVERBLUESFESTIVAL/?ref=bookmarks
Below are photos from last year’s New River Blues Festival: