Seven years ago, Payson music store owner "Shakey" Joe Harless set out to develop a local blues festival that showcased bands for fans and record executives.
He capitalized on his connections with blues performers across the nation and created the June Bug Blues Festival, an event that now brings about 2,000 blues fans to Payson every year.
Now in its seventh year, the June Bug Blues Festival will take place this Saturday at the Payson Multi-event Center in south Payson.
"The whole idea behind the June Bug Blues Festival was to create a South by Southwest in Payson," Harless said. South by Southwest is an annual festival in Austin, Texas, where blues bands go to be heard by record executives.
"We've already had a couple of guys literally signed up as they came off the stage," he said. "Our goal is to make that a regular, natural occurrence."
This year, Harless said, his greatest coup was landing the festival's headlining act, Chicago blues band Mississippi Heat.
"Logistically, it was extremely difficult," he said. "They just got back last week from a European tour. They were home for three days, and then went down to Venezuela. They just happened to have a couple of free hours in their schedule.
"(Mississippi Heat) is one of the major blues bands in the country," he said. "The vocalist, Katherine Davis, is right in the top-10 of gospel-blues singers in America. The bandleader, Pierre Lococque, was the world champion harmonica player in 1977, and he's also a great songwriter.
"Everybody I've lined up in this festival does original blues, not just the same old covers. I don't want somebody who copies, note for note, other famous dead players."
The White Mountain Boogie Band, which opens the festival for a one-hour set at noon, is among the living originals who'll round out the program Saturday.
"They're like Canned Heat, that kind of blues-boogie," Harless said. "They're the real deal; hard-line dudes out of Pinetop. They've been playing the bars for 40 years. The lead sax player is like 68. They'll show up in a van; they don't come in a limo."
Next up, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., is Blue Z. "(The band is) straight-ahead blues-rock," Harless said. "Kinda new-age blues. It's very different; you don't hear this stuff anywhere else.
"They have a great harmonica player named Art Patient. He signs his name, 'Thou Art Patient.' This is a really hot band."
The Kat Crosby Band, which will bang its brand of blues from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., is "the only real, functioning, full-time blues band in New Mexico," Harless said. "They're in Vegas a lot. Kat calls what she does 'women's blues,' and it's really good stuff because, I don't know if you've noticed, but women have a totally different view of life than men."
Steve White and the Barstool Pigeons takes the stage from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
"This is a big-time guy," Harless said. "Steve White owns a record company and is one of the top record execs in California. His band is the best of the best. Steve is a keyboard player, a lot like Greg Allman."
Up next, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., is The Conrads, led by Tucson guitarist Stefan George.
"(He's) one of the greatest technical slide guitar players in the world," Harless said. "He's headlined the Telluride Jazz Festival. He octave-solos with his voice. If you aren't watching him, you can't tell if those notes are coming from his voice or his guitar. And he writes some of the best songs being written in America right now."
Soloist Henry Mojo Thomas, who'll be in the spotlight from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., is "a very famous R and B guy," Harless said. "He was playing with the Robert Kennedy campaign band in California two days before Kennedy was assassinated. He's done command performances for the Queen of England, he's toured all over Europe. He's a fantastic vocalist."
From 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Peter Madcat Ruth will show why he was named 1999 harmonica player of the year worldwide by the Society for the Preservation of the Harmonica. "He played with Dave Brubeck for 20 years," Harless said. "He plays jazz, blues, rock, you name it, and he's extremely versatile. He owns his own record company. Blue Z will be backing him up."
"The best way to describe Hans Olson," the opener for Mississippi Heat from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., "is to say he's the father of the blues in Arizona," Harless said. "More than that, there are very few solo performers who can be put on a bill with a band and he can."
For diehards planning to spend 10 full hours enjoying full-throttle blues at the shadeless arena, Harless offers this advice: "Bring umbrellas without points on them, or, if they have points, put tennis balls on them. Bring blankets, sun block, hats, sunglasses. We're going to have a giant misting system put up that will help tremendously by dropping the temperature about 10 to 15 degrees.
"But the simplest survival rule is this: Don't forget. This is Arizona."
Tickets for the June Bug Blues Festival are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. They'll be available at the gate of the Payson Multi-event Center. Food and beverages will be available in the arena's food court.
For more information, call Shaker Music at 472-7393.