Lifelong Clarksdale resident Nan Hughes was asked to attend a meeting two and a half months before the first Juke Joint Festival in April 2004.
Hughes did not realize the one meeting would lead to her becoming the festival’s event planner. She is still the event planner as the 16th JJF is set to begin on Thursday and her responsibilities have only increased through the years.
Hughes stays involved for two reasons – her love for Clarksdale and her dream to help revitalize downtown with local businesses. She is the president of the Clarksdale Downtown Development Association, which is the umbrella the JJF and Clarksdale Film Festival operate under.
“The town is exceptional,” Hughes said. “When I do a survey sheet asking people what did they like the most about our town, its people. This town captures people and makes people want this kind of life. We have a great town.”
Roger Stolle, who still runs the festival, and Bubba O’Keefe, who is currently the Coahoma County Tourism executive director, asked Hughes to attend the initial meeting in January 2004.
“Juke Joint Festival could not happen without Nan Hughes. She is that important to it from Day 1, really. When Bubba and I decided, ‘Hey, let’s do this festival,’ he pulled together a couple people he knew, who I didn’t even know really was in the community. One of them was Nan Hughes. We like to joke we kind of suckered her into taking the job to help out and she’s been just a key component since the beginning. At this point, she’s sort of our leader in many ways of our organization throughout the year.”
Hughes and Carrie Ledbetter, who still helps with advertising for the festival, attended the first meeting and were told they would get involved.
“I looked at Carrie and I said, ‘Did we say we were doing anything?’” Hughes said. “That’s how I got involved in it.”
Hughes credited her father, the late Billy Pharr, who an ad agency and was very involved with Clarksdale himself, with teaching her the importance of community service.
The first festival was behind the Old Greyhound Bus Station and Hughes said putting everything together was a “rush job.”
As the 2019 JJF is about to begin, there will be 13 stages and nearly 100 music acts and exhibitors apiece. Guests have come to the festival from 28 foreign countries, 46 states and 53 counties in Mississippi.
“People come, love our town and end up investing in it,” Hughes said. “It’s obvious what happened. People have taken an interest in it.”
Thanks to the JJF and other events, people have moved to Clarksdale from all over the place. Hughes said the owners of the Hooker Hotel come from Seattle, Theo Dasbach, who helped get the Rock & Blues Museum going, is from the Netherlands, and Stan Street came from Florida and opened Hambone Art & Music.
Hughes has been involved with planning everything except for the music, which Stolle takes care of.
O’Keefe expressed his gratitude toward Hughes.
“Roger Stolle and I started the Juke Joint Festival but Nan Hughes is the powerhouse that has made it into the international music festival that it is today,” he said. “Planning each year’s festival doesn't start a few months before the festival date but the year before. Actually, Nan is already making plans for next year’s festival. You can find her in her office at all hours of the day and night working on the computer or talking on the phone getting things lined up to make sure the festival is a success.|
“When Nan took over the reins, there were only a handful of volunteers. Now there is an army of volunteers working in the early morning hours into the late night hours, rain or shine to put this festival on. Personally, I can’t thank Nan enough for all she does. I wish people knew how hard she works on the festival. Nobody loves Clarksdale more than Nan Hughes and I hope people will tell her ‘thank you’ the next time they see her!”
Hughes has observed many changes with the JJF through the years.
She was an art major at Delta State University and used her background to start the art and writing exhibit at The Bank in Clarksdale at each JJF. It enables students in elementary school all the way through college to intermix.
Susan Berryhill, who died seven months ago, took over the art and writing exhibit for Hughes. Barbara Burns will begin overseeing it this year.
Hughes said some new events this year include the Coahoma Community College Fit for Life organization doing an obstacle course by the viaduct on Issaquena Avenue and tamale vendors doing demonstrations on the 100 block of Delta Avenue in front of Collective Seed & Supply Co. There will also be exotic animals such as water buffalos and zebras in the petting zoo for the first time and Cruzn the Crossroads Car & Truck Show will promote its festival that occurs in the fall.
The Monkeys Riding Dogs show and pigs have been at the festival for more than 10 years.
Having events not involving the blues has helped Coahoma County residents get to know tourists.
“Our reason to have a festival was to get our locals to intermix with our tourists so our locals would understand why our tourists were coming here,” Hughes said. “When it first started, our locals did not understand why these people were coming to our town. It took a long time for them to realize.
“It’s been a very humbling experience for me because I have watched it grow from a very small festival to a very large festival in a short period of time. We try to make it real family friendly during the day and we provide all sorts of family activities. That was to get our locals our so they would intermix with our tourists.”
The Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, the Tennessee Williams Festival and JJF were the only festivals in Clarksdale back in 2004. There are 22 festivals scheduled for 2019.
The Clarksdale Film Festival is every January and has taken place for nine years.
“We (Clarksdale Downtown Development Association) saw a need to have some kind of festival during the winter months and so we thought it would be a nice idea to put people inside of movies watching movies during the winter months,” Hughes said.
The JJF storage facility at 243 Delta Ave. has more than 148 tents and sandbags. Merchandise and wristbands will be sold there on Thursday and Friday.
Hughes thanked the countless volunteers, sponsors and all her friends and family members who head committees to make the JJF possible. She said the city, Clarksdale Public Utilities, the police and fire departments also help make things run smoothly every year.
“I love this town, but the thing that has been so humbling to me is the support of our community and the sponsors that we have,” Hughes said.” I’m talking from up top to the bottom. Our sponsorships have been amazing. We have over 200 volunteers. We couldn’t have put on this festival without those volunteers. They’re the ones that don’t get enough recognition because they give of themselves and do it so freely. Without our volunteers, our festival wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Hughes said good things are happening in Clarksdale and the different festivals are part of the reason music is playing somewhere in town 365 days a year.
“It’s because of who we are. We’re a great community,” Hughes said. “We’ve got wonderful people. We’ve got a unique downtown and what’s going on downtown and how people are investing in it. Everybody has a certain niche that just weaves us into a really tourist destination. People love our town, want to come to our town, and they’re coming like crazy. They’ve been coming like crazy, but they’re coming more.”
Stolle appreciated Hughes’ passion for Clarksdale.
“The biggest thing with Nan that’s not only beneficial to our festival, but to our town, is how much she loves our town and the people here – of course, the festival, by extension – to the point that when she talks about it, she sometimes will get emotional, literally get teary eyed,” Stolle said. “We all feel this way, but some of us are more guarded in our emotional, I suppose. Both of the festivals we put on through that organization, you would never do that for any other reason other than you love doing that, you love the people you’re working with, you love the art and music you’re dealing with, and you love the town you live in. That’s why you’re doing things like that and you grow to the extension where it’s such a positive thing within the community. It’s not just another festival."