Hard Times and Hard Living Create a Blues Pioneer

Fans of the music genre known as the Blues groove to the music’s toe-tapping beat and revel in its good time vibe on any given night at Memphis’ Beale Street and throughout the year in festivals dotted across the country. Those “good” times were born from difficult circumstances and hard living. Borrowing on simple ballads from African-American culture in the Deep South, the Blues came into its own form as a result of harsh conditions for enslaved people and proved to be an effective outlet to soften and document the misery these families endured.

The music gained in popularity in the early part of the 20th Century, offering various musicians a living from the songs of their heritage. It proved particularly useful as an escape from sharecropping for a young Haywood Countian named John Estes. John would travel and play around the area, eventually making his way to Chicago. He earned the nickname “Sleepy John” from falling asleep at the most inappropriate times during music sets. Health issues eventually forced him to return to Brownsville and, though he continued to play, the popularity he once enjoyed had diminished.

When Sleepy John was “rediscovered” in 1962 by Bob Koester, little did he know that the “crying” vocals of his traditional country Blues would take off in the folk Blues craze at the time and reignite his career. Delmark Records immediately started recording sessions, and the world was reintroduced to the leg- endary Blues pioneer from Brownsville. Everyday life events that he wrote and sang about carried him and his sideman Hammie Nixon far beyond the boundaries of Haywood County. Europe was introduced to the duo in 1964 and again in 1966, and Japan got a taste of the Brownsville Blues in 1976. Sleepy John’s style has influenced scores of Blues musicians such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters. His songs have also been covered by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, among others. Estes died in 1977 and was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991.

Nearly 20 years after Estes’ death, a group of citizens hoping to promote the rich musical heritage of Haywood County, and in particular Sleepy John’s influential style of Blues, came together and created the first Brownsville Blues Festival. After several successful festivals, the event was revamped and renamed the Exit 56 Blues Fest (Exit 56 at I-40, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis). The music festival, held every Memorial Day weekend at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, draws thousands of Blues fans from around the world to fill their ears with soul-stirring vocals from some of the best Blues artists, against the backdrop of Sleepy John’s home (and Tina Turner’s childhood school).

Sonia Outlaw-Clark, director of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, coordinates the festival each year with the help of dozens of volunteers. The event hosts craft and food vendors, a Classic Car Cruise-In and the Volunteer Corvette Club of West Tennessee’s car show, drawing a parking lot full of Corvette enthusiasts from around the country. When asked about the impact of the festival on Haywood County, Outlaw-Clark responded, “Just like Sleepy, Hammie and Yank had an undeniable impact on the world’s music, Brownsville’s Exit 56 Blues Fest is keeping their legacy alive as people from all over the world come to Haywood County each Memorial Day weekend to hear and learn about the traditional Country Blues sound of these three Bluesmen.”

The two-day event showcases many of the areas brightest musical talents and provides a springboard for up-and-coming artists anxious to test the Blues waters. In addition to talented acts, the festival and the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center promote Haywood County’s phenomenal history and rich musical heritage.

Former Haywood County native and long- time festival musician J.D. Taylor said, “I have witnessed the Exit 56 Blues Fest grow from a hometown festival to an international Blues attraction over the past few years. The growing crowds and the appeal of the authentic Blues, with its roots and history, make Brownsville
an unmatched attraction to those who realize Sleepy John Estes and Tina Turner still influence music across the globe.”

Blues favorite Sean “Bad” Apple of Clarksdale, Mississippi, gives a glowing review of the festival and the thousands of fans who annually make their pilgrimage to be a part of the music and its history. “My favorite festival in Tennessee to play! The people who put it on warm your heart with small town charm and big-time hearts.”

As the Exit 56 Blues Fest celebrates its 13th year in 2023, it does so with great anticipation. Ford’s Blue Oval City brings excitement and people to the county and should enhance an even larger and more impactful event. You never know whom you will see or where they will come from, but you’ll share an instant “Blues groove” with each one. One thread runs through every event: you’ll have a great time, and you will forever be affected by the Brownsville Blues and the legacy of Sleepy John Estes.