Innerviews: Blues fest chief puts Charleston on map
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Blues music courses through his blood. It nurtures his heart and soul, keeps him energized and alive, as crucial to his existence as the oxygen he breathes.
A drummer who toured and played club dates for years on the east coast, New Martinsville native Jack Rice nourished his affinity for the blues on Beale Street in Memphis and the Louisiana bayou.
He developed a passion for blues history that provides him with encyclopedic recall on the lives of American blues legends. Eventually, he found his destined niche as a promoter, producer and music writer.
He settled in Charleston in 2001, founded the West Virginia Blues Society and started the Charlie West Blues Fest, an ever-growing event now recognized as one of the top festivals in the country.
As he approaches his 61st birthday in August, he's thankful to make a living with the music he loves.
"I was born in New Martinsville and grew up in a large Catholic family, three boys and three girls. My dad was an engineer on the B&O, so we traveled a lot on the railroad.
"You had a choice of taking dance lessons or music lessons. Naturally, I opted for music. Music was in my family on my mother's side.
"I'm all about music. I've been in and out of music my whole life. I've been in all facets of the music industry, from booking to writing music to playing music to promoting and producing.
"I took drum lessons for 11 years. I started in the fourth grade. I played a little guitar and piano and I can read music, but drums are my forte.
"In junior high, we started our first band and got our first gig at a swim party, and that's when the bug bit me. It was in my blood, and I knew what I wanted to do. Gene Krupa was my idol, and Buddy Rich. That's what I cut my chops on.
"I was naïve, but I thought I could make a living at it. I was out on tour in the mid '70s going up and down the East Coast and out through Texas. I played with Emmylou Harris and Jackson Brown and opened up for a lot of other bands.
"The money was good, but it's expensive on the road, so the money just went back out the door. But it's a passion. You can't be in it for the money.
"I went straight into the Navy out of high school. I'm a Vietnam vet. I was in for three years. I was in a construction battalion. We traveled all over building air bases, hospitals barracks, airstrips.
"My last duty station was Pensacola, Fla., so I stayed down South a couple of years and went to school on the GI Bill over at LSU in Baton Rouge. That's when I really got into the music.
"I majored in partying, but I got my degree in business administration. I figured I would tie business in with the music if I was going to make any money.
"I was a regular on the oil rigs for Exxon. I was in the bayous out back of Baton Rouge. I did that in the day and played in clubs at night all through the delta, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama.
"I was deep into the history of blues because I was into genealogy. I picked up research skills by doing work on my family tree and started going back in time on the old blues greats.
"The blues bug bit me hard, but I've played jazz, swing, bluegrass, country, country rock. I like all kinds of music if it is done well, except for hip-hop and rap.
"I came back up north to Wheeling and was in banking and insurance for 26 years with Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Wheeling National Bank. I was still playing music on the weekends.
"I came to Charleston 11 years ago. The companies I worked for went through all kinds of bankruptcies, reorganizations and mergers. I finally got caught up in corporate downsizing and decided to relocate. I threw a dart at the map, and it landed on Charleston.
"When I first got here, I checked out the music scene. That was 2001. The community was very vibrant in music, arts and culture. I really felt at home here, like it's where I should have been all along.
"I saw that there was really a lack of blues music, so my girlfriend, Donna Price, and I decided to start a blues society. We've traveled across the country to all these blues society events. We were young and naïve and thought, well, why can't we do that?
"So we formed the West Virginia Blues Society and started putting on events throughout the state. We called it Blues Night Out. We would travel to towns that didn't have blues music. That was part of our mission. Everywhere we went, people wanted us to come back. Before long, our calendar was full.
"Our first Charlie West Blues Fest was in 2008. We were traveling to blues festivals and saw a need for one in Charleston. Our board had a meeting and I proposed it. They told me, 'You can't do a blues festival.' I said, 'Watch me.'
"Our first one was at Coonskin Park, a one-day event. We had five bands. A storm came in and the sky turned green and we had 60-mile-an-hour winds that took out the tents. Two headliners didn't play. We still had to cut the checks. But we kept the event in the black.
"The second year, we moved to Oakes Field in South Charleston. Another deluge, and mud. We figured through the law of averages, we had to get good weather sooner or later. The third year, we moved to Appalachian Power Park, and it was great. I knew we were onto something.
"We moved to Haddad Riverfront Park. When the regatta got put on the back burner, I pitched it to the mayor. He offered me a slot for one blues band during Doo Wop. I told him, 'You don't get it. This is a blues festival like they do in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. People will come and support it.' We proved that.
"Last year, we had people from 39 states and four countries, over 30,000 people. Our lineup every year is loaded with Grammy winners. Blues fans recognize those names. They will travel 500 miles for a good blues festival.
"We're in Memphis every year as an affiliate of the Blues Foundation. I'm right on Beale Street and hear bands first-hand. Same thing in Chicago. I get all these new CDs and meet the artists first-hand. I know who's hot and who's not and who is up and coming.
"We wanted to get involved with a nonprofit. Me being a veteran, it was a natural for us to hook up with the Wounded Warriors program, the veterans and mental health.
"The name Charlie West has instant recognition throughout the country because it is a military call sign for the 130th Air Wing and also the call sign for commercial aviation out of Yeager Airport. So that gave us instant recognition on a national level.
"We have put Charleston on the map as a blues scene. We're ranked among the top 10 in the country in festivals now. You can go just about anywhere in the country and say Charlie West and people say, 'Oh, yes, that's where they hold the blues festival.'
"Our first year, our budget was $13,000. This past year, our budget was over $100,000. We have grown in leaps and bounds. We are able to keep it free through sponsorships and grants. I write grants, too.
"I hope the city of Charleston realizes how big this event is. We really need their support. Last year, we sold 600 hotel rooms. I'm starting to think Charleston doesn't have enough hotel rooms. We might have to look at relocating it.
"On a national level, I do consulting work for blues festivals throughout the country. I produce and co-produce. We travel to Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, all over.
"I work on this festival 12 months a year. About two months before the current festival is over, I start on the next one. It takes about 14 months to produce the event.
"We also do an annual competition through the Appalachian Blues Foundation. We sponsor the winning band in Memphis every year for the international competition. They have over 260 acts worldwide, and four of the last five years, our act has made it clear to the finals. Only 10 acts worldwide make it that far.
"I write for a couple of national blues magazines. And I do reviews on CDs for up and coming blues acts, some from as far away as Australia.
"I love the blues because it's original. It's Americana. This is our music, just like jazz. It was created here in this country. Blues music goes right to the roots. It tells a story about life, not only the bad times, but the good times. A lot of people think it's just something to just cry about. It's really a celebration. Go to a blues club or festival and watch the people dancing. They certainly are not crying.
"Through our festival and fundraising events, we want to start scholarships for inner-city youth. One of the first programs to get cut from education budgets is music, but it's a proven fact that music raises test scores. Truancy and delinquency go down. And it helps students with low self-esteem.
"I feel blessed to be where I am in my life. I'm doing what my true passion is. I get to do that for a living. Through the music, I have met so many extraordinary people, and the music has taken me all over the world. That beats a 9 to 5 job any day." Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.