Pittston blueswoman Phyllis Hopkins to return to Briggs Farm Blues Festival
Two decades ago, a fledgling performer on the Wyoming Valley music circuit opened the first Briggs Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck with her Little Sister & the Rhythm Method band.
This year, Phyllis Hopkins returns as a veteran bandleader and seasoned blueswoman to open the festival’s 20th year on the Back Porch stage July 7. She has played thousands of gigs, has three CDs under her belt and tirelessly works to improve her technique.
Festival founder Richard Briggs said he first recognized Hopkins’ potential when he heard her in a Wilkes-Barre club in 1998 while checking out bands for his inaugural fest. He said he thought it would be a “cool connection to that first festival to bring her back for our 20th year.”
In recognition of her guitar prowess, Hopkins also will be given the privilege of playing the national anthem, a longstanding festival tradition, he said.
By design, electric blues is a big part of the Pittston woman’s life. She met her husband while performing at Scranton’s Blues Street club on Wyoming Avenue. And she teaches guitar to young aspiring musicians at Rock Street Music in Pittston.
In addition to performing this summer, she will make time to go back to the studio in July for her fourth self-produced album.
In Hopkins’ view, the genre would be more popular and better understood if the uninitiated were exposed to live blues performances.
“When someone can see really good blues players, it’s a really great experience for them, even though many did not really know much about the blues. The young people who hear us always comment about how much they like the music and they tend to stay to the end of the show because they find it so refreshing to experience,” she said.
Though she had dabbled with the guitar as a young adult, Hopkins said she did not practice regularly until after she was inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s energized music years ago when the late iconic guitarist was sitting on top of the blues world.
Vaughan’s dazzling technique and high-energy performances reinvented electric blues. His riveting music attracted new audiences — and Hopkins became a disciple.
“Listening to a Stevie Ray Vaughan album was my first real exposure to the blues. Santana was always a huge influence but Stevie Ray opened the doors for me to study players like T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam and Ronnie Earl, who became one of my biggest influences,” said Hopkins, who disciplined herself at age 24 to practice religiously. She felt competent enough to perform at clubs by the time she was 27 with the Little Sister & the Moneymakers band.
“I got a late start taking music seriously, but it all worked out,” she said. “I started at an age when a lot of rock stars died.”
Briggs was a small gathering when it opened on a hot July day in 1998 with Hopkins fronting the Little Sister and the Rhythm Method band. There was only one stage then and, with an audience of 800 people, was about a tenth the size it is today. But those who journeyed to Nescopeck knew they found a good thing.
Like the Briggs festival itself, Hopkins has grown musically and has matured as a bandleader. Her trio — the other players are bassist Nolan Ayers and drummer Julio Caprari — has been playing together for five years. Joining them at Briggs will be guest guitarist John Basta.
“The blues is an artform that I love. It’s never been pushed like rock ‘n’ roll and it never will be, but those who come out and listen will appreciate it once they give it a chance,” she said.
The Phyllis Hopkins Band kicks off three days of enduring American music at 2 p.m. July 7 off the Old Berwick Highway, Nescopeck. Outfit yourself with light clothing and be prepare to hear some heavy sounds.