Two musical duos are down in Memphis, Tenn. this week, representing the White Rock Blues Society at the Memphis International Blues Challenge.
But Mud Dog (guitarist-vocalist Steve Sainas and harmonica player Christopher Allen, competing in the duo category) and hometown favourites Sam and Luke (competing in the Youth Showcase) aren’t the only ones carrying the standard for the community.
Peninsula resident Suzanne Swanson, a longtime supporter of the society, is down there, too – in an official capacity as one of the judges.
But – as she hastens to add – as one of three judges of the band competition, not the duo or youth categories.
“There can’t be a conflict of interest,” she said, reached at her hotel room in Memphis. “That’s why I purposefully picked the band category. I just have to keep my fingers crossed that no one else I know comes up for judging, otherwise I’d have to disqualify myself.”
It’s not as unlikely as it might seem. Swanson, a concert photographer, writer, documentary maker and blues historian, has many contacts in the industry dating back to her days as an accredited photographer for MCA Records in the 1970s, and her time as artists and repertoire professional, manager and producer.
Her lifelong passion and expertise in blues music is the reason she was chosen as a judge in the current event, said Swanson, who came to the White Rock area some 10 years ago.
Born in Toronto, she was raised in the U.S. and spent 13 years as a resident of Dallas, Texas, she said.
When she’s not judging this week, she’s photographing Mud Dog and Sam and Luke’s visit to Memphis and also gathering additional material for two of her historical book/documentary projects: It’s The Music: History of the Yale Hotel, and The Blues And Nothing But The Blues.
After arriving in Memphis Monday night, she barely had time to unpack her bags before heading to the historic Sun Studios – birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll recording in the 1950s – to photograph Mud Dog’s recording session there.
“They did really well. It was a very successful session – they put down around 10 tracks,” she said.
“It’s a very interesting room. I did a lot of pictures of the photographs lining the walls, people like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash who all recorded there. It’s a funky room. I was looking at the ceiling – there are all these old ratty-looking green acoustic tiles. There are two pianos lined up against one wall and a row of guitars and a beautiful big standup bass, all this old recording equipment like reel-to-reel tape machines.”
Swanson, who has visited Memphis several times before, said the performers in the Blues Challenge don’t know until the day of their category which venue they will be playing at.
“It’s concentrated around Beale Street – it’s a long street – but all the venues are clustered around a three-block area,” she said.
Swanson, also a member of the Washington Blues Society, said she is “very honoured” to be selected as a judge at this year’s event. She has no doubt, she added, that Mud Dog and Sam and Luke will do White Rock proud.
“Steve and Christopher are so amazingly talented, and Sam and Luke have done so well – somebody should mentor these two kids.”
She said her work is not only to ensure that great musicians of the past are not forgotten, but to make sure there is a connection between their experience and the performers of the future.
“The onus is we have to pass that on and share that knowledge,” she said.