Almost 100 years ago, an adolescent Robert Johnson, then known as Robert Spencer or, in honor of his new stepfather, Little Robert Dusty, arrived on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation in Tunica, Miss. Over the next decade, Johnson would receive most of his formative schooling there, both academic and musical, through watching area performers Son House and Willie Brown, before becoming arguably the most famous bluesman who ever lived.
This weekend, a group of Tunica businessmen, including a descendant of the plantation’s longtime owners, hope to build on Johnson’s legacy with the Delta Country Jam, a two-day music festival featuring not the blues but some of Nashville’s brightest stars, including headliners Tim McGraw and Billy Currington.
“It wouldn’t be fair of me to comment for (Robert Johnson) since I really didn’t know him but I have a feeling he would think this would be a good thing,” says attorney Bobby Leatherman, one of the principals in Tunica Music Entertainment Group, the company behind the festival.
The lonely, grassy stretch of land just south of Tunica’s Hollywood Casino might seem like an unlikely spot for a major music destination, but crews have been busy in recent weeks preparing the grounds for an event organizers expect to draw between 20,000 and 25,000 people, making it the biggest festival in Tunica.
“It has involved a substantial amount of meetings and renderings and planning and measuring,” says Drew Dedo, president of Nashville’s Harbor Entertainment, which is staging the festival for Tunica Music. “I would say it has transformed itself 10 times over.”
According to Dedo, shuttles will be available to ferry festivalgoers from the VIP parking lots at Hollywood and Resorts Tunica casinos and the general admission parking at the Sam’s Town Casino to the festival grounds.
Once inside, they will encounter the Zuus Media Country Salon, a tent featuring food vendors as well as a small stage with performances from up-and-comers. Headlining this stage will be Jordan Allen on Friday and on Saturday former “The Voice” contestant Casey Weston. The two rising performers won their slots by placing as runners-up in a battle of the bands competition sponsored by Zuus Media, music website ReverbNation, and Hollywood Casino.
The winner of that contest, Alabama country rockers the Shane Givens Band, will kick off Saturday on the festival’s main stage, which measures 120 feet across and 50 feet high. In addition to them and headliners Currington and McGraw, main stage artists include Brantley Gilbert, “American Idol” alum Kellie Pickler, Maggie Rose, husband-wife duo Thompson Square, and Mississippi native Randy Houser.
“We tried to bring in a variety of acts,” says Dedo of the lineup. “The goal was to try and build the talent lineup in a way so that it didn’t just circle around one artist but offered people a chance to see several different kinds of country acts and make it so it was a great value, too.”
The Delta Country Jam has already enjoyed tremendous support from the area’s corporate entities, who helped ensure that the festival’s VIP cabanas, skybox-like tents accommodating anywhere between 12 to 250 people, sold out quickly. But organizers admit the weather and the drawing power of the lineup will be key to the event’s success.
It’s a big gamble for Tunica Music, a group that also includes Mike Lampley, Arno Justman and Russ Young. The company has staged several events around the Mid-South but nothing on this scale. Tunica Music principals saw an opportunity, however. While country concerts have been a top ticket draw in the area for some time, there was no country music festival in the area. And with the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation, a property that has been in Leatherman’s family since its founding 1830, they had a prime spot located near the casinos with their plentiful and hotel rooms
“There’s not any country music festivals in the area, and country music is very popular in the area,” recalls Leatherman of the group’s thinking. “And what a great place. It’s really out in the country, but there’s a lot of infrastructure here.”
Depending on how things go this weekend, Leatherman sees not only the Delta Country Jam returning next year but also the opportunity to use the space for other kinds of events, including, perhaps, even a blues festival.
“There’s a real thirst for this kind of thing down here,” he says. “I think that’s why everybody has been so helpful. I think it’s something everybody recognizes is good for the region.”
Delta Country Jam 2013 Music Festival
Friday-Saturday, Abbay & Leatherman Plantation, 1150 Casino Strip Blvd., Tunica Resorts, Miss. (next to Hollywood Casino). Tickets: $80 a day, $125 two-day pass, $280 VIP. Tickets available through Ticketmaster. 615-823-3500. Visit deltacountryjam.com.