The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival is celebrating its 25th anniverary this year, and community volunteers are integral parts in keeping the event running smoothly each year.
Bob Flanders and Brad Ansley, both long-time volunteers, help organize the volunteers at the front gate and the souvenir and concession tents, respectively.
Ansley has been volunteering at the festival for 15 years, starting in the concessions tent. He said about seven years ago he was tasked with organizing volunteers for both the souvenirs and concessions tent. He assigns volunteers to work pre-assigned shifts in each tent, and he said it takes approximately 44 people to run each tent.
Ansley said the people he meets at the festival are what brings him back each year to volunteer.
“I enjoy the people and of course the music of some of the most awesome blues musicians around!” Ansley said. “A lot of the people that volunteer have done so in years past and are truly dedicated. The patrons as well are often familiar faces of people that share the same love of good blues music. Whether patrons, volunteers or staff, the people are who bring me back year after year.”
Ansley said as a fan of blues music, many of his favorite musicians have been in the lineup for the festival over the years.
“Last year's show was out of this world!” Ansley said. “I love being included in such an awesome event right here at home.”
Flanders, who has volunteered at the festival for approximately 10 years, said his role at the major community event is manning the front gate, taking up tickets and selling tickets.
“We’re the people who meet the guests first,” Flanders said. “It’s always a fun kind of thing. You meet an incredible variety of people from a lot of different places in the world.”
The festival, which takes place each May in a field off Stagecoach Road, brings people from all over the country as well as from Canada to Thomson to enjoy blues music. Volunteers are very important to the festival and help keep those in attendance happy and well-fed.
“If you can make people happy, they can go away from here happy, and for the most part, you’re successful,” Flanders said.
The festival is run almost completely by volunteers, and Flanders said it requires more than 100 volunteers to fully staff all the tents. Most of the volunteering corps consists of local people.
“The whole festival is run by volunteers, so you get to work with people who you live with and see everyday, but more importantly you get to act as a representative of the community,” Flanders said.
Over the time Flanders has been involved with the festival, the event has gained more community involvement, according to Flanders.
In addition, the festival’s vendors for souvenirs and food were once private entities, but Flanders said about five years into the festival, the vendors fell under the management of the festival itself, providing an additional revenue source.
Flanders said the performers who are asked to come to the festival have increased in notoriety over the years, becoming more popular and more accomplished. He added that the festival has also introduced more music genres other than blues to cater to a broader audience.
In addition to volunteering at the event, Flanders and his wife, Kelly, also created the original prototype for the guitars placed around Thomson as part of the Blind Willie McTell 12-String Strut. Flanders said he and his wife created the prototype based on the guitar McTell played, a Stella
With the festival, Flanders said it is truly something that happens in our backyard.
“It puts our community on the map in a much broader arena, and it’s a part of what brings people to town and helps promote this community in several different ways.,” Flanders said. “You’ve gotta get out there.”
For those interested in volunteering, Flanders said to get in contact with the Chamber of Commerce at 706-597-1000. This year’s event is set for May 5.
“Our festival is second to none,” Ansley said. “We have lots of good food, really cold beverages and some of the best blues music imaginable! I could not think of a better way to kick off the summer. You don’t have to be a blues fan to enjoy what there is to offer.”