Santa Cruz Blues Festival embraces country and morphs into the American Music Festival

One of the hottest new names on the blues scene is Yugoslavian-born Ana Popovic.

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

 The Santa Cruz American Music Festival

When: Saturday and Sunday. Gates open at 10 a.m. Music starts at 11 a.m. and goes until about 7 p.m.

Where: Aptos Village Park, Aptos.

Tickets: $65 single day, $120 both days, adult; $25/$40, children 6 to 12. Gold Circle tickets, $100 each day; $190 both days.


The recent death of B.B. King – can anyone deny he was the world’s most popular bluesman? – puts a punctuation mark on an inescapable demographic reality in American music. The Muddy Waters generation of great electric blues players is passing – or, with King’s death, has now already passed – from the scene.

When the Santa Cruz Blues Festival first started in 1993, many of those greats were still around, and the Blues Festival was part of a larger cultural effort to bring attention to influential musicians who had been largely forgotten by the mainstream.


Now, sadly but inevitably, that mission is finished. And the Santa Cruz Blues Festival is finished with it.

Or is it?

This weekend’s Santa Cruz American Music Festival in Aptos Village Park is going to look a lot like the Blues Festival. In fact, on Saturday, the first day of the two-day festival, it will be indistinguishable.

But the new festival is an evolutionary step beyond the beloved Blues Fest, to take place on the same weekend, in the same venue, with largely the same producers. On Saturday, the festival will showcase a fine blues-oriented line-up – headlined by the great Bonnie Raitt – and will give Blues Festival audiences what they’ve always enjoyed before.


But on Sunday, the newly named American Music Festival pivots and goes country, with high-profile country music acts such Big & Rich and Kellie Pickler, representing a mainstream country sound rarely heard in the otherwise musically diverse ecosystem of Santa Cruz County.

Not that the new festival is giving itself over to slick hat acts that regularly play Six Flags. Ryan Bingham, who play Sunday, rose to fame for the music he wrote for the Jeff Bridges star vehicle “Crazy Heart.” Alabama-born Drake White and his band the Big Fire, who start the day Sunday, play a rock-infused sound with hints of gospel.


The new orientation for the festival has been several years in the making, said festival coordinator Phil Lewis. “It’s been percolating for a while, as popular blues acts like B.B. King – God rest his soul – have been waning.” Lewis takes over festival leadership from Bill Welch of Moe’s Alley who had been running the festival through its golden era, which brought such giants as King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Etta James to local audiences.

Lewis and Welch were partners at Moe’s in the club’s early years, and Lewis has been part of the team putting on the Blues Fest from the beginning. He is confident that the American Music Festival can maintain the blues tradition of the old festival, while breaking out new names in a different genre.

“Look at a guy like Ryan Bingham,” he said. “Nobody knows him. But a few years ago, when we brought Trombone Shorty to the festival, no one knew who he was either. Then, they did, and couldn’t get enough of him.”

Here’s who’s playing, in reverse order of appearance:

Bonnie Raitt >> The blues world’s most famous redhead is the big name that sells itself at the festival. The queenly Ms. Raitt has scored 10 Grammys, and is on Rolling Stones Greatest Singers of All Time and Greatest Guitarists of All Time lists. Pretty impressive, that.


JJ Grey & Mofro – Singer/songwriter Grey hails from the swamp country of north Florida, the same region that produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the dark, rootsy sound he conjures with his band Mofro is proof that he’s never strayed too far from his homeland. The band will be playing a bit from his new album “Ol’ Glory.”

Coco Montoya >> The great lefty guitarist Montoya has performed in Santa Cruz roughly half a million times, which figures, given his status as one of the West Coast’s most reliable bluesmen. He’ll play alongside his friend and fellow West Coast blues icon Chris Cain.


Ana Popovic >> Belgrade, Serbia is a long, long way from the Mississippi Delta, but guitarist Ana Popovic, despite having been born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, fell in love with the blues from the earliest age. She now has many true-believer fans in love with her fiery playing.

Big Sam’s Funky Nation >> Trombonist Big Sam Williams leads this wild collection of talented musician in a vibe that is pure New Orleans-style blues/funk, and if Big Sam looks familiar to you, yes, he was a regular in HBO’s “Treme.”


Big & Rich >> Big Kenny Alphin and John Rich make up one of Nashville’s most successful duos, selling millions of records, even though their eccentricities and sense of humor make them far from a safe, middle-of-the-road act. Their latest album “Gravity” is a bit of break from the fun-loving, goofy side.

Kellie Pickler >> Singer Pickler was plucked out of North Carolina to become an “American Idol” sensation, followed by her hit country album “Small Town Girl.” Since then, she’s become a pop-culture juggernaut as an upcoming reality-TV star on top of her status as a country sensation (see sidebar).


Los Lonely Boys >> The trio Los Lonely Boys emerged from that cultural ground where Mexico energy overlaps with Texas sass. It’s been a decade now since they emerged with the mega-hit “Heaven,” and their most recent album “Revelation” finds them swinging through genres from Tex-Mex to country pop.

Ryan Bingham >> New Mexico-born, Texas-raised Bingham excites fans of alt-country and Americana with a trademark singing voice that sounds ravaged by years of whiskey and tobacco (though he’s barely in his 30s). His introspective, road-weary songs got a big boost when featured in the 2009 film “Crazy Heart.”


Drake White & the Big Fire >> Singer/songwriter White is making his reputation on high-energy songs that rattle with foot-stompin’ swagger. His biggest hit to date is the serene upbeat anthem “The Simple Life.”

Wallace Baine: I cover the arts scene in Santa Cruz County and write the weekly Sunday column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Reach the author at or follow Wallace on Twitter: @wallacebaine.


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