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Well, alongside my many accomplishments, among the many hats I wear in my busy life, I can now add one with great tears of pride: Founder of the Kansas City Cigar Box Guitar Festival. It took three years of pitching and talking and finally joining the Kansas City Blues Society itself, but our first festival occurred on July 31st.
I felt like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams....”If you build it they will come.” And I’d never done anything like this before!
Putting the festival itself together was a three-month effort that was largely without difficulty—until four days before the actual date of the festival. And then everything seemed to unravel. My friend Wichita Sam Wood, who was to emcee the event, emailed me to tell me that he couldn’t do it, due to a family emergency that made him unavailable. Not only was I saddened that I would not get to see Sam (as it had been a year or so since his last visit), but it meant I would need to find another emcee—and quick. Because certainly I couldn’t do it. I would be way too busy behind the scenes and needed the mobility. Nevertheless, as I called around and crawled around the Internet, looking for a fill-in, the mantra was, “You should do it, Kevin.” Before long, I assumed the role, for better or worse. That problem was solved. But a technical problem with my laptop computer, namely that it was so old they no longer sold certain accessories for it, prohibited me from running videos I had planned through it, and I could not burn any files to DVD. So, instead of several videos to be interspersed throughout the four-hour festival event, I only had two that were already formatted to DVD that I could run via a DVD player to the big screen already secured.
There were other problems as well, none worth mentioning, that added to my anxiety at being an emcee at an event of my planning that was so novel that I had no idea how many people, if any, besides my family and the scheduled performers, would attend. In truth, I didn’t know what to expect.
Nevertheless, the next morning, my eldest son and eldest daughter set our for BB’s Lawnside Blues and Bar-B-Q, where festival was to take place, arriving just after noon to set everything up and allow for time, if I had to run to fix a problem. This was a small enough venue with a descent-sized stage front. (I had taken to heart the UK’s Chickenbone John’s advice to avoid choosing a venue larger than the number of people you expect.) Restaurant patrons looked on with curiosity, we brought in my guitars and amplifiers. I had my daughter hand out fliers to them, inviting them to the festival, if they didn’t know about it. Other members of the Kansas City Blues Society arrived at 1pm to set up their merchandise. And they had a surprise: the Blues Sistas, and offshoot of the Society came bearing buttons to be sold, which they had created, featuring our cartoon mascot cigar box guitar-playing cat, “Tabby Blue”, created and donated by Brady Scott specifically for the festival. This brought tears to my eyes, because I hadn’t expected it. The final poster struck, by Karen Baum from artwork donated by Brady Scott, featured Tabby, but as a very small element, and I silently wished we could have done more with the Cat. I was very touched at this surprise. If nothing else had gone well, that alone would have been enough.
An hour before the start of the festival, I had the privilege of meeting JP Swenson from Minnesota, whose name became familiar to me on the Cigar Box Nation website. He had brought some of his builds and wondered if he could exhibit them. I had already lined up my own guitars along the wall behind the stage, and invited him to set his up with mine. Later, Tim Covey (Stashbox Guitars), a heretofore unknown cigar box guitar maker and performer from nearby Blue Springs, Missouri introduced himself, asking if he could likewise sell his guitars, and before long he, too, displayed his work with ours. Thus, the back of the stage was lined by a wonderful array of cigar box guitars and diddley bows, each one different from the one before. Perfect! And it was entirely unplanned.
Also from the Nation, Uncle John from Iowa introduced himself. He had contacted me some weeks earlier and said he was a “definite maybe” as far as his attendance. I was happy to finally shake his hand as well. He also presented me with one of his beautiful cigar box guitars, donated for the raffle drawing, which was to benefit the Blues in the Schools program. Same story with Mike Anderson (Blues Box Guitars), from Oklahoma, whom introduced himself briefly just before the festivities were to start. The very sweet Linda Morrison, also from Kansas City, whom I’d met on the Cigar Box Nation, introduced herself to me as well—such a nice lady! It was so great to meet my fellow participants in the so-called Three-String Revolution.
Autograph seekers, of all things, handed me flyers to sign and the understandably curious were moving in for a closer look at the odd and wonderfully primitive instruments lining the wall. Snapshots were taken, questions posed, a few brave souls even picked up some instruments to try out. I found myself wondering if things were happening a little too fast before the festival had even begun. And people were quickly filling the place. But were they here for the festival or simply patrons?
Thank God for Mike Elrod, who was kind enough not only to let us use his sound equipment, but he set it up—a HUGE deal to me.
2:00 PM. BB’s was filled to capacity. Unable to prepare myself before performing like I normally do, I took the stage with my Cohiba box guitar and began to play. I decided to begin big with the rousing “Bottlenecker Part Two” a blue-rock number I’ve opened most of my recent shows. I watched the faces and saw the eyes widen of those who didn’t expect such a big sound to come from such a weird little instrument. By the end of the song, I had everyone’s attention. The applause was appreciative, after which I said, “I would like to welcome you to an history event: Kansas City’s very first Cigar Box Guitar Festival!”
I don’t remember anything I said after that. But...I do remember the fantastic performances by the scheduled artists – Shae Lee, whom I had to honor of accompanying, weighing in at twelve years old with a voice and charisma that belied her youth. Pharaoh Tarot, who tore up the Thummim Handmade Cigar Box Slide guitar I built him and sang with the unbridled gusto that has consistently energized audiences all over the city. And Jason Vivone...the consummate showman, with his cigar box guitar, memorable tunes and personable style, reminded us just why he was the winner of the Kansas City Blues Challenge and our city’s representative to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis last year. And the there were the open microphone opportunities that honored us with some truly worthy performers including Uncle John, Tim Covey and Lee McBee and the Confessors. I personally enjoyed these moments especially, as did an appreciative audience.
Between these short videos were played on the big screen television, including the first two segments of Max Shores documentary Songs From Inside the Box and my short motion picture Drifters. I wasn’t quite certain how much these presentations were appreciated in this setting, but I hope they were.
And then there were the numerous raffle drawings throughout the four-hour event. A signed Garfield cartoon panel from its creator Jim Davis, three cigar box guitars furnished by Thummim Guitars, two more provided by Mike Anderson and Uncle John, several event posters autographed by the musical artists and music CDs were presented to winner (a couple of them multi-winners!) whose tickets were drawn, the purchases of which all went to benefit Blues in the Schools.
The first Kansas City Cigar Box Guitar Festival ended at 6pm with my benediction suggesting another festival in 2012 and hearty agreement from the audience. I was surpsied at just how many stayed for the entire four hours—and some even longer than that, having come early. We were packed to capacity most of the time. And you would think that would be the end of the story. However, it was the outpouring of genuine gratitude from attendees that touched me most. Many of those who greeted me and congratulated me on a successful festival did so emotionally moved, which likewise moved me. And it became clear that this festival, a rave success by most standards—especially for the first in this city, was the beginning of something, not the end. Had I not experienced these expressions, I would not have believed them. It felt good (as it still does) to have been responsible, God-willing, for something historical and consequential such as this.
After cleaning up, preparing the stage for the following act for the night, I headed out with my children to the car, greeting Toby Tolbert, himself a CBG builder, whom I had exchanged emails with as a member of the Independent Film Coalition. Just as I was about to enter my car, Mr. Michael Anderson, from Oklahoma, whom I had met briefly, approached me. “I can’t let you leave without talkin’ to you!” he said with a hearty handshake. And for the next half-hour, he and I became acquainted. I met his lovely wife and beautiful (and verrrry shy) daughter, and he met my two eldest. He repeated expressed his appreciation for the festival. It left him feeling “really good” and he expressed his desire to see something similar in his own state. His wife was equally personable. Blues Sista and fellow Kansas City Blues Society board member Micki Baron surprised Mike and me by offering to pay the cover charge so that he and his family could enjoy the evening show! Mike was really touched, as was I. I complimented Mike on his “builds”—several of his homemade cigar box guitars were displayed on the veranda. “If I had the money, I’d buy one myself!” I said. “Tell ya what,” he said seriously, “Go pick one out.” “What? Are you serious?” I practically yelled. After several more inquiries, I realized that, yes, he was serious. “We’ll do a trade,” he said. “You go over and pick any one of my guitars...and in return you promise to [have another festival] next year.”
Deal. Next year. Bigger and Better.
Permit me a fitting epilogue. A story reached me about a little boy, who had never played a guitar before, taking up one of the CBGs out on the veranda and wailing on it like he was born to do so. A picture was snapped of the boy, but the only thing known about his identity is a first name: “Charlie”. As luck would have it, his face is partially obscured. But I can’t help but wonder if his exposure to the cigar box guitar, because of this festival, might affect him as my first experience with the instrument did me and many others...and that the virtues of the primitive chordophone might spurn the little tyke onto legendary status in the music world one day.