Blues & Barbecue

Madison Ribberfest enters its
18th year of partying on the river

Tommy Castro, Mike Zito are
this year’s musical headliners

(August 2019)
Read previous Don Ward columns!

Don Ward

Entering its 18th year, the Madison Ribberfest blues and barbecue festival in Madison, Ind., continues to thrive as one of Madison’s most successful and popular festivals. This year’s event is set for Friday-Saturday, Aug. 16-17, at Madison Bicentennial Park and will feature two popular headliners: Mike Zito on Friday night and Tommy Castro and the Painkillers with special guest harmonica player Magic Dick on Saturday night. Friday’s lineup will also feature another big act, Wee Willie Walker & the We “R” Band.
The Texas-based Zito released his 15th album in May, and it explores his journey from addiction to sobriety to musical fame. He is a two-time 2017 Blues Music Award nominee. Zito says he grew up poor in St. Louis and now gets to play for blues audiences around the world.

Photo by Don Ward

Participants in the Madison Courier Backyard Blast bring all sorts of smoker contraptions to compete in the cooking event on Friday. Teams offer free tastings to the crowd.

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers will close out the Blues Bash on Saturday night. The guitarist, singer and songwriter from San Jose, Calif., has released 15 albums ranging from soul and R&B to blues to rock and roll. He has performed all over the world, earning countless fans with his exhilarating live shows.
Advanced admission wristbands went on sale June 15 and are $30 for both days and are available through Wednesday, Aug. 14, either online or at the Lanier-Madison Visitors Center, 601 W. First St. or at various local retailers. Admission wristbands purchased at the gates on Friday or Saturday will be $35. If purchased at the gate on Friday, they are good for both days.
After a 16-year run as Ribberfest coordinator, Kathy Ayers resigned in December 2018, just ahead of a major announcement in January 2019 by VisitMadison Inc. Executive Director Tawana Thomas to relieve the remaining four external festival coordinators for the other two festivals – RiverRoots Music & Folk Art Festival and the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art. Thomas, with her VMI board approval, moved to bring the festival management in house and hire two part-time employees. Existing staffers Sarah Prasil, VMI marketing director, and Marci Jones, VMI group tour coordinator, began transitioning into managing the three festivals and meeting with their respective committees. By June, Thomas had hired Katie Burress and Holly Love to fill the two part-time roles. Burress has been busy learning the ropes of running Ribberfest in particular as the festival approaches.
Burress, 27, a former school teacher and catering manager, said she attended Ribberfest for many years as a youth with her parents and also later as a teenager with friends. But she said there was a big learning curve to become involved in planning the two-day event. “I have just been trying to become as familiar as possible with all aspects of the festival,” she said during a late July interview that included Thomas, Prasil and Jones.
Prasil said the staff “all jumped on board in February and stepped up to start organizing the list of what had to be done.” She said the biggest challenge was gaining the confidence and trust of the 45-member Ribberfest volunteer committee that everything was getting done.

Photo by Don Ward

Colorful, creatively designed concrete pigs are displayed at last year’s Madison Ribberfest as part of the Pigmania pig decorating contest.

Jones, who first got involved in local tourism as a Ribberfest committee volunteer at its inception 18 years ago, said the group is great to work with. She said the community has always strongly supported the event. “There’s just something about this event that everyone loves. I guess because there are many aspects to it, so there’s something for everyone.” Jones joined VMI 15 years ago as an employee and coordinates the annual Nights Before Christmas Candlelight Tour of Homes and handles group travel arrangements.
Thomas said Ribberfest’s blues band selection committee is “outstanding. When you have a group of volunteers who are that knowledgeable and committed and take ownership, it makes an event planner’s job so much easier. All the people on that committee are pretty amazing.”
She also noted that since moving to Madison and attending Ribberfest that “it seems that everyone likes coming to this event. And even if you are not necessarily a blues fan, you are after attending this event. And who doesn’t like barbecue? I’m a Texas girl and was raised on barbecue. And to see how big it is here in the Midwest among these people who do it all year-round is great.”
In addition to blues bands, the two-day event features the Madison Courier Backyard BBQ Blast amateur barbecue cooking contest on Friday and the pro contest, the Indiana State Champion-ship Barbeque Cook-Off, on Saturday that is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The pros cook throughout Friday night and begin turning in their entries for judging at 11 a.m. Saturday. Judging takes place inside the Brown Gym on Broadway Street.
The pro contest has 48 teams registered this year, according to KCBS pro contest chairman Ken Schneider of Hanover, Ind. Last year’s event was capped at 54 teams due to some street construction that limited available street space. The most ever was 63 teams a few years ago, Schneider said. Three past Grand Champion teams – Grey Street BBQ, ButtRub.com and Iowa Smokey Ds – have registered to return.
Entry into the pro contest is $275. Entry into the amateur contest is $25. The pro contest awards more than $12,500 in prize money and awards, with the top 10 teams in each cooking category receiving cash awards.
Teams compete in four meat categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork and beef brisket. It takes about 60 KCBS-certified judges to determine the winners. In addition to prize money and awards, the Grand Champion earns a trip to the 2020 KCBS American Royal in Kansas City. The team is also entered into a drawing of eight other Indiana KCBS competition winners to determine a berth in the Jack Daniels Barbeque Championship in Lynchburg, Tenn.
The popularity of the pro cooking event and the amateur event allow many local residents and visitors to participate in the fun. And perhaps the best part for the crowd is to line up for samplings of barbecue chicken, beef and pork after the teams have turned in their judged entries.
Meantime, 39 amateur teams had registered as of Aug. 8. The Backyard Blast, held on Vaughn Drive just east of the festival gates, is chaired by Steve Thomas and, like the pro contest, attracts teams from mostly Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Many of the teams return annually to take part in the popular event and share a love for the “sport” of competing. Most importantly is the camaraderie and fun had by both team members and visitors who show up to taste their food samples.
The “Kidz Q” contest, meanwhile, allows youngsters and teens a chance to test their grilling skills in two age groups – 8-11 and 12-15. The event takes place at 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, at the gazebo area on the Madison riverfront and is chaired by Sara Hare. This year, contestants will be grilling boneless, skinless chicken breast. The winners in each age category will receive a $200 cash scholarship. The second place in each category will receive a $100 cash scholarship. Entry forms and information for all cooking events may be found at the website www.MadisonRibberfest.com.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday of the festival, the Good to the Bone rib eating contest, sponsored by Madison Apothecary, will take place in front of the Blues Bash stage. Contestants are drawn from the audience.
In addition to blues and barbecue, the festival offers many other activities. These include Ohio River boat cruises, a 5K run and walk, a 60-mile bicycle ride, a Run-Then-Ride event, a concrete pig decorating contest among local businesses that raises money for scholarships, a Piglet Pen play place for children and a Pig Toss corn hole tournament. The Piglet Pen, to be operated by the Lide White Boys & Girls Club this year, will feature free face painting and two presentations by The Magical Entertainer Greg Carson – at 7 p.m. each day.
Meantime, the colorful and creative concrete pigs are set up at the west end of Vaughn Drive inside the festival gates as part of Pigmania. The judges choose a winner, while proceeds from public votes for the best decorated pig go to a local scholarship fund.
Ribberfest committee members want to remind people that chairs will not be allowed to be set up inside Madison Bicentennial Park before the gates open at 5 p.m. Friday or 11 a.m. Saturday.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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