Shakey Joe Harless


"I want to do four festivals a year in Payson," says "Shakey" Joe Harless, creator of the annual June Bug Blues Festival, owner of Shaker Music, harmonica and guitar player and perhaps the Rim country's most energetic cultural dreamer and doer.

"One, of course, would be the blues festival, because I'm a blues player and I have stronger connections in that world than anywhere else. But I also want to bring in an alternative rock festival, a folk-and-Celtic festival, and a country-music festival.

"The programs are already concrete, they're ready to go. But without the support of the town, without the chamber to help us, we'll only be able to do the June Bug."

If that last statement sounds like Harless doesn't exactly expect to receive that support ... well, for the moment, he probably does not. But he is not without hope, especially since the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors is in the process of finding a new head honcho.

Harless' advice to them: "Whatever selection criteria the chamber has been using totally reverse it," he says. "It's flawed. Do the exact opposite.

Harless' efforts to bring new and unique festivals to Payson, he says, have "been blocked by the chamber for years out of ego ... Egos do not have a place in that type of job; the chamber's leader needs to be a servant, a minister to others, there to facilitate things for other people.

"I get phone calls from towns all over the state asking me to bring them a festival," says the 49-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, "but the local chamber won't even talk to me. They want total control. But if they can't control what they do, how are they gonna control what I do?"

Harless has always dreamed of turning the June Bug Blues Festival into a major state event along the lines of the South-by-Southwest Blues Festival held every year in Austin, Texas.

"For one week each year," Harless says of that event's organizers, "they literally close off the downtown area, and it's attended by about 60,000 people a day, with performances by about 380 bands from all over the country. That's where all the record company executives go to see the hot new bands."

While Harless readily concedes that the relatively tiny town of Payson could never host a function of that magnitude, he is certain that Payson could create events that would bring 10,000 to 20,000 people a day. Easily.

"This could be the Branson of Arizona," he adds, back in full-throttle dream mode. "We want people to come up here, have a good time, spend the day or the weekend, fill the hotels, shop the stores, leave their money and go home. It doesn't help the local economy if they drive through, stop at Safeway, and go on up to the Rim. We really need to counter the town's current image: 'Where's Payson? Oh, that's where the McDonald's is where you turn right.'

"Payson is a vacation spot," Harless says, "a place you leave the Valley to go to. We don't want manufacturing or factories. Where are we going to put them? That's totally unrealistic. Festivals and tourism that's the answer."

Next month, Harless' most well-known and widely anticipated answer the June Bug Blues Festival will unfold before an anticipated 2,000 music lovers Saturday, June 9 at the Payson event center.

This year's line up of blues artists each of whom will blast their tunes through a brand-new 50,000-watt sound system includes the Gary Primich Band, the James Matthews Band, Buzzard Luck, Paris James, Big Daddy D & the Dynamites, Stephan George, Luther Tatum, Idle Wild, UVON & the Blues Knights, SHRI ... and Gus Harless & the Backstreet Howlers, a band in which Shakey Joe has a certain vested interest since it's led by his youngest son.

The reigning Miss Arizona, Tasha Dixon, will share master-of-ceremonies chores with Harless a fact which, surprisingly, seems to really tickle this music-world hipster.

"I'm going to have a meeting with the Miss America Pageant people ... They've told me they were interested in licensing the June Bug Blues Festival meaning that there could one day be a statewide June Bug Blues Queen beauty pageant!"

Harless never stops dreaming. Or doing.

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