Blues Festival Coordinator Heads For Greener Pastures

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After 11 years of bringing blues to Payson, "Shakey" Joe Harless is heading east.

Harless, his wife, Dawn, and son, Gus, are moving to a 10-acre horse ranch in northern Arkansas in the Ozarks.

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Shortly before the last June Bug Blues Festival, "Shakey" Joe Harless and other local musicans, played in the Safeway grocery store, serenading shoppers with some blues.

"I'm conflicted about leaving," Harless said, "but it's time. We've been thinking about it for awhile."

One of Harless's major contributions during the past 10 years has been the June Bug Blues Festival.

"We've brought over 138 bands and artists to this small town in the mountains," Harless said. "We've had some great shows."

"When we first moved here there were two kinds of music -- country and western," Harless said. "We introduced a different form of culture to the town."

Harless contemplated trying to continue the June Bug in Payson, but believes that most likely, this was its last year.

Shakey Joe's Songwriters Cafe was another Rim country fixture, courtesy of Harless.

The Songwriters Cafe began four years ago at Michael's restaurant, then moved to Mario's, then the Mogollon Grille and is now at Famous Sam's.

Every Friday, local musicians gather to perform and meet other musicians.

"There was no forum for amateurs and Songwriters was open to anyone and all kinds of music," Harless said. "It's been a cornerstone for people. It's a place people are there to appreciate and practice music."

Perhaps Harless's biggest impact has been on the young residents of Rim country.

"I taught harmonica lessons at Payson Elementary School," Harless said. "I'd drive up and see a group of fifth graders standing in a circle playing harmonica -- you don't see that in Chicago!"

Harless gets calls and CDs from kids who began their music career at the Songwriters Cafe.

"I've had people walk up to me in Mesa and ask if I remember them and tell me they used to come to Songwriters," Harless said.

For many years, Harless and his wife ran the store, Shaker Music. Although they continue to operate their microphone business, the music store has changed hands.

Many kids got their first instruments at Shaker Music.

Austin Edgar, a 15-year-old guitarist, rode his bike to Shaker Music every day and played on the guitars.

"Joe let Austin take home a guitar and let me make payments on it," Austin's mother Wendy said.

Now Austin has become a fixture at the Songwriters Cafe and has played in clubs in Scottsdale.

"My son, Gus, taught Austin for a year -- he's taught a lot of these kids," Harless said. "He was giving lessons in our store when he was 15."

Upon hearing about Harless's new home, few can blame him for leaving.

"It's a 70-year-old horse farm with 10 acres and a pond," he said. "It's got oak trees and black walnut trees and magnolia trees on it. We are going to have chickens and a mule and raise horses."

Harless may be leaving Payson, but not the music business. His farm is a day's drive from Branson, Fayettville, Nashville and New Orleans.

He is building a shop for Shaker Microphone right on the property.

"The whole south wall will be glass so we can look outside while we're working," Harless said.

The closest town to Harless's farm is Harrison and town officials have already asked Harless to start up a blues festival there.

"The biggest blues festival in the world is in Helena, Ark., in the southern part of the state," Harless said. "They said they would love to have one in the northern part of the state."

Famous Sam's is honoring Harless tonight with a going-away party at 9 p.m.

"Beat Red, a really good southern rock band will play. Two of the members started at Songwriters," Harless said. "Then each one of the Songwriters will get up and perform one or two songs."

During this final Songwriters Cafe, members of the public can bid farewell to the Harless family and thank them for bringing something special to Payson.

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