The Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival occurs on just one day a year but pays benefits all year long, organizers say.
The festival, which is Saturday, September 24, is held annually in Campbell County in East Tennessee. The event honors Howard Armstrong, an acclaimed Black string musician who performed as Louie Bluie during a career that started in the 1930s in the Jim Crow South. He grew up in Campbell County’s LaFollette. He was also an artist, storyteller, and writer.
Despite his fame in the 1930s and a musical career that revived in the 1970s, Armstrong was not well known in the community where he grew up. When leaders in Campbell County started organizing ways to use the region’s local culture to build stronger communities, Armstrong’s legacy quickly became part of the discussion. In 2005, the nonprofit arts organization Campbell Culture Coalition was created. There were many ideas, and amongst them, a music and arts festival. And at the heart of the inspiration was Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong (1909-2003).
According to Peggy Mathews, a founding member of the coalition’s board, the idea to make Armstrong the festival’s namesake happened after attending a homecoming in his honor before he passed away. “Some of us and most of the county at that point, hadn’t heard of Howard Armstrong and didn’t know he grew up in LaFollette,” she said. “It really raised awareness, and we were so moved and inspired by the history. We all thought ‘Howard Armstrong is a renaissance man — a musician, a writer, an illustrator and he even made jewelry.’ And we thought we needed to have a festival with all of those art forms as part of the festival.”
Today, thanks in part to the festival, Armstrong’s artistry is much better known. And his legacy has inspired change in the way Campbell County sees itself in the world.
Manuel Mesa, executive director of Campbell Culture Coalition, said he thinks art and music can help youth see themselves in a new way.
Armstrong is the perfect example for young people to see that despite tough challenges, dreams can come true, he says. “That’s what I tell these kids when I tell them about Howard. It doesn’t matter what your background is. You can go forth and accomplish amazing things.”
Armstrong’s accomplishments are even more remarkable because he started his career in the Jim Crow South. “He was Black growing up in the 1920s, so he was not only facing poverty, but also Jim Crow laws. And in spite of all of this, he went on to fulfill his dream.”
Today, the annual Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival draws thousands to Campbell County. What began as a small gathering in 2007 with one tent, a wooden stage, and a couple of local bands quickly emerged as a staple in the East Tennessee music scene.
This year marks the 15th annual Louie Bluie Music & Arts Festival. It’s held at Cove Lake State Park at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau. The free event brings together some of the strongest talent in the region. This year will feature a double headliner: the Jake Leg Stompers and Tray Wellington.
From crafters and food vendors, award winning artists, local musicians, art vendors, and quilt competitions, there is something for everyone. The event also showcases the rich culture of the area.
But the festival, which continues to grow, is not simply an event that comes and goes each year. Its impact is felt across Campbell County year-round. “It is about embracing the local arts of the community. People don’t realize how much art is in rural communities. The festival is about lifting people up,” said Mathews.
She said she thinks the festival can be an example of how other rural counties can use their culture to build a better self image and counter rural stereotypes. “At the core of all of it is the message.”
Since its inception, the Campbell Culture Coalition, in addition to the festival, has completed 41 youth art programs in county schools in collaboration with the community as part of their year-round ArtReach programming. Projects have been as diverse as quilting, creating garden spaces, and painting murals on buildings.
Painted tiles, quilts, and other memorabilia from the art programs can be seen decorating Campbell County and Caryville streets, public buildings and museum walls. In a lot of ways, the art speckled around the county has become a legacy of Armstrong. “They would not be having these programs if not for the coalition and the festival,” says Mathews.
Other new arts organizations and more in-school art programs have also emerged as an after-effect of the festival and work of the nonprofit organization.
Mesa explains, “Art can be tremendously impactful, but we are not trying to change culture. Art has an impact because people can see and understand that there are many possibilities that can be accomplished in many different ways.”
Brad Smiddy, a longtime festival volunteer, said Armstrong is the inspiration of the motto of the Campbell Culture Coalition: Adapt, improvise, overcome. “Those are all based around Howard and his life,” Smiddy said. “He faced many obstacles and yet became world-renowned. Truly a special story of perseverance.”
He said Armstrong’s experiences should also warn us not to repeat mistakes of the past. “It’s important Howard’s story is told not only as a reminder of the potential we all have and our ability to do good, but also the potential to do harm – if we forget our past.”
Throughout the years, ensuring the festival remains accessible to locals has continued to be a priority, Matthews said. Keeping admission free is part of that.
“From the beginning, we were determined to make sure families … deep into the coalfields in Anderson and Campbell County, both very isolated with many low income families, could attend,” she said. “We want them to come over the mountain and enjoy the festival. It takes gas to get here, and we want to make the arts and festival accessible to all no matter financial ability or economic background. Art is for everybody.”
There has also been an economic benefit to putting on the festival each year. According to Mathews, area hotels have been sold out for months. She also attributes the success to the location of the festival in Caryville, which is close to I-75.
“We knew very much it would have an economic impact, but it is not why we are putting on the festival. For us, it is even more about the impact it has on people and the perception they have on themselves and their community in a positive way.”
She recalls a recent year at the festival watching some kids, while they performed on stage. They were performing Appalachian song and dance they had learned from one of the school programs. “The look of parents’ faces and how proud the kids stand singing a song that has been sung for years — that is the value of the festival,” she said. “People are going around with their chests sticking out a little more. They now have pride from being from Campbell County and pride in songs.”
This year, a number of local artists and older musicians will be featured, including the band New River Rising, Tribute to the Old Time LaFollete Fiddlers, Carie Ferra Hale, and the Rickard Ridge Pickers. For the first time this year, there will also be a community jam tent, where anyone with an instrument, local or not, can join in and play.
While the event brings in a lot of local music, it also serves as a platform for regional artists to become more recognized. Amethyst Kiah, known as a pensive pop artist, was already popular before hitting the Louie Bluie stage, but later went on to win a Grammy nomination. She is one of a handful of artists to play at the festival and go on to be nominated or garner such recognition.
Mathews attributes this caliber of talent throughout the years to the hard work of the committee and the spirit of the festival. “We have learned so much, and it has grown, and every year we still have the drive to do it a little bit better,” says Mathews. But she says this doesn’t come without challenges, a lot of hard work, and dedication. And the festival couldn’t happen without so many people from so many walks of life coming together.
In large part, the festival is able to happen thanks to the generosity of the Tennessee Arts Commission and local business sponsors, including banks, utility companies, restaurants, stores, and city and county governments.
According to Smiddy, his favorite part of the festival is the people and the fact that the festival shows that a predominantly white rural community embraces a diverse heritage. “It shows the potential of growth, the human spirit, and how we all may overcome.”