An average of 5.5 million drivers speed past the intersection of I-90 and Hwy 395 each year, oblivious to the charms of Ritzville, the quiet German farming community anchored in a cluster of trees just beyond the crossroads.
We zoom by the century-old brick buildings punctuated with metal sculptures tastefully placed for our enjoyment and miss the historic railroad museum with working telegraph, the funky Flying Arts Ranch, refreshing Water Park and shops brimming with collectibles.
“How do you get people to stop and come downtown?” asks a frustrated John Marshall, who owns Landcraft Repair, Research and Development, an auto body shop decorated with vintage signs.
Other merchants wonder the same thing as their efforts at hospitality go unnoticed by throngs of commuters in a frenzied rush to someplace else. It’s enough to give a businessman the blues.
But instead of crying in their beers a group of tenacious Ritzville volunteers began giving the blues to us 14 years ago. They do it in award-winning style every second Saturday in July, when famous musicians, regional talent and thousands of music lovers arrive for one of the most successful blues festivals in the Northwest. Blues, Brews & BBQs has been inducted into the Inland Empire Blues Society’s Hall of Fame twice.
“The whole town becomes a big blues venue,” says Sandy Hansberry, the event’s coordinator.
Officially a one-day bash, it has grown into a weekend-long celebration with visitors streaming in Friday to enjoy early performances by regional artists in bars downtown, and lingering through Sunday morning breakfast at the fairgrounds.
On Saturday, a stage for national headliners is set up on Main Street under the turret of the 100 year-old Victorian Gothic G.E. Gritman building, where music starts at high noon. This year’s lineup features harp superstars Magic Dick and Lee Oskar of Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout, as well as Tinsley Ellis, and T-Broussard and the Zydeco Steppers.
Dick was the original harp man for the J. Geils Band and Oskar was a founding member of the soul-funk-rock group WAR with Eric Burdon. He also started the Lee Oskar Harmonica Company, which is growing at a phenomenal pace.
World traveling guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Tinsley Ellis has shared stages with the Allman Brothers, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor and Widespread Panic; and Bryant Keith “T” Broussard’s mastery of the traditional Creole accordion has made the energetic performer a sought after act at major festivals.
“We try to get national acts unique to the Northwest for our headliners,” Hansberry explains, and she strives for fresh talent each year. Now in its 14th season, past performers include Bo Didley, Taj Majal and Junior Wells.
Acoustic artists perform free at intimate nooks on the outskirts of town, like Spike’s Deli & Pizza and Starbucks along I-90, and premier regional musicians appear in bars and lounges downtown. The acclaimed Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin’ Daddies, the soulful Randy Oxford Band, and Swamp Rockers Kelly Thibodeaux and the Etouffee Band are among 18 Northwest acts that start Friday night and play Saturday until 2 AM.
With its stellar line-up, tempting food booths, and rollicking beer gardens, accommodations are hard to find.
“Don’t wait until Friday,” Hansberry cautions. There might be a few tent and RV sites left at the fairgrounds but they fill up fast. People with motor homes can spend the night curbside if they’re lucky enough to find a spot.
Adam’s Automotive provides free shuttle service between downtown and the fairgrounds, and from motels along the Interstate. The event is also biker-friendly, with dedicated motorcycle parking by the movie theater.
There is a cover charge for the downtown entertainment and minors are welcome to the main stage performances. Contact the Ritzville Area Chamber of Commerce for tickets and lodging information.
Along with the obvious attraction of a major blues fest, Ritzville is a good place to turn off the freeway and chill for a few hours. It conceals delights for a variety of tastes, from its Queen Anne architecture and collection of German pioneer history at the Carnegie Library (call first), to Killian’s Creamery with designer ice-cream cones, one-way ladies room mirror, and old-time photo booth. The city boosters recommend a round of golf, historic walking tour with the 26-point guidebook in hand; or a stroll on the two-mile paved trail that loops from the corner of Main and Division through the fairgrounds and up the hill along the south edge of town.
It’s also a good base from which to explore treasures hidden in the hypnotic wheat fields and channeled scablands of eastern Washington; like the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, a non-motorized, unpaved Rails-to-Trails being developed from North Bend to Tekoa with a crossing near Ritzville in Ralston on Hwy 261, and spectacular Palouse Falls 35 miles further down the road. PJ Jacobson’s “church of nursing bras” is a surreal sight in Lind. The Seattle transplant is a Doula-one who helps physically and emotionally with birth and postpartum. The certified lactation consultant bought the church for a steal on e-Bay and provides support and supplies to nursing moms around the country from her office next to the showroom www.birthandbabyorders.com.
For Blues, Brews & BBQs tickets, lodging and information call the Chamber of Commerce at 509-659-1936 or go to http://www.ritzvilleblues.com.
When You Go:
From Spokane Head West on I-90. Go 57.9 miles. Take Exit #221/WA-261 South toward Washtucna/Ritzville. Go .2 miles. Turn right on Division Street, go .9 miles. Arrive at the center of Ritzville.