Photo: Courtesy of The Blues Foundation
Blues Music Awards Celebrate The Late Michael Ledbetter & Much More In Memphis
The blues music community gathered at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn., on May 9 to recognize excellence in the genre. It was at the 40th anniversary of the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards, a milestone the marking of which ordinarily would have dominated the evening. But this year’s ceremony took on an appropriately bittersweet — if no less joyous — tone, with the big winner on the night being a rising young blues vocalist whose career was tragically cut short.
Michael Ledbetter, a distant relative of the early 20th century folk blues great Lead Belly, died in January at age 33 from complications from epilepsy. On this night the blues community honored the opera-trained vocalist and guitarist with his first individual BMA wins, including the coveted B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award.
“There’s a lot of people who knew Mike as a great entertainer but his family knew him as a great person and lot of people here tonight have come and said the same thing,” said Ledbetter’s sister Ginger Burroughs, who accepted the award along with their parents and Ledbetter’s partner Kathy Cahoon.
Ledbetter also won best vocalist. His group with guitarist Monster Mike Welch, the Welch-Ledbetter Connection, took home best band.
Ledbetter was on the minds of other winners, many of whom who paid tribute to the Illinois native from the stage, most notably his band mate Welch, who won best guitarist, and traditional male artist winner Nick Moss, with whom Ledbetter started his blues career nearly a decade ago.
Soul Blues Artist of the Year, @SugarayRayford, and Guitar Player of the Year, @MonsterMikeW, lit up the stage at the 40th Blues Music Awards!@AmeriBluesScene @RockBluesMuse pic.twitter.com/cB6LeQSUTE
— Blues Foundation / Blues Hall of Fame (@BluesFoundation) May 13, 2019
“We all miss Mike every day, but I feel like I got a little angel looking over me,” Moss said backstage. “When Mike won that first award, I looked up and said, hey man, got a little bit more in the tank for me.”
Moss almost missed accepting his award; he had been in the lobby looking for his wife’s cell phone and had stopped at the bar when someone came up and told him his name had been called. It was the kind of spontaneous moment that has come to typify this award show over four decades.
“This is one of my favorite events,” said actor, radio host, and member of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the E Street Band Steven Van Zandt, who returned for the second year to host this year’s awards. “The fact that it’s so crazy. It’s very loose, it’s very spontaneous, and there’s nothing quite like it. But I enjoy that. I enjoy the fact that things are changing constantly and improvising. It’s like the blues.”
Among the night’s other winners were such well-known no shows as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who won best blues-rock album for his solo effort Big Bad Blues, as well as Grammy winners Buddy Guy and Ben Harper. Joining them were such blues circuit stars as Shemekia Copeland, who took home two awards, Kenny Neal and Eric Gales, all of whom were present to accept their awards.
Presenters at the show included Grammy nominees Maria Muldaur, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement recipient Steve Cropper, whose Memphis soul band Booker T. & the MGs was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame the night before in a ceremony co-hosted by GRAMMY winner Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
A nearly five-hour long affair, the BMAs were studded with dazzling performances, including an all-star set featuring Copeland, Tony Braunagel, Scot Sunderland, and Kid Anderson, a powerful song featuring best blues/rock artist Gales playing dazzling acoustic guitar and a barn-burning finale with the Reverend Peyton’s Big Band backing saxophonist Mindi Abair, Flemons, Cropper, and Van Zandt in a rendition of “Shake Your Moneymaker,” an Elmore James classic that was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame this year.
COMPLETE LIST OF 2019 BLUES MUSIC AWARDS WINNERS:
Journeys to the Heart of the Blues, Joe Louis Walker/Bruce Katz/Giles Robson
Album of the Year
America's Child, Shemekia Copeland
B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year
Band of the Year
Best Emerging Artist Album
Free, Amanda Fish
— Blues Foundation / Blues Hall of Fame (@BluesFoundation) May 10, 2019
Blues Rock Album
The Big Bad Blues, Billy F. Gibbons
Blues Rock Artist
Contemporary Blues Album
America's Child, Shemekia Copeland
Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Monster Mike Welch
Instrumentalist-Pinetop Perkins Piano Player
Song of the Year
"No Mercy In This Land," written By Ben Harper and performed by Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
Soul Blues Album
I'm Still Around, Johnny Rawls
Soul Blues Female Artist
Soul Blues Male Artist
Traditional Blues Album
The Blues is Alive and Well, Buddy Guy
Traditional Blues Female Artist
Traditional Blues Male Artist