In little more than two years, Bishop Gunn has gone from playing local bars, parties and festivals around Natchez, Mississippi, to performing in front of audiences of thousands across the U.S. and Europe.
Bishop Gunn, last year, opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Whiskey Myers, The Marcus King Band and Gov’t Mule, and the band recently returned from its first European tour, during which it opened seven dates for Slash, Guns N' Roses' lead guitarist. The group's 2018 debut album, “Natchez,” went to No. 8 on the iTunes Rock index and to No. 4 on Billboard Magazine’s blues chart.
It has been an exhilarating run for Bishop Gunn — lead vocalist Travis McCready; drummer Burne Sharp; lead guitarist Drew Smithers; and bassist Ben Lewis.
On Saturday, May 11, thousands of people will converge on Natchez's Bluff Park for the second annual Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil, a daylong music and food festival featuring performances by Tyler Childers, Black Stone Cherry, Southern Avenue and Magnolia Bayou. Organizers estimate between 8,000 to 10,000 people will attend.
The festival's headliners, Bishop Gunn will take the stage at 8:30 p.m. Natchez is Bishop Gunn’s town, and this Woodstock-on-the-Mississippi is their party.
Bishop Gunn takes its relationship with its hometown seriously. In the past 50 years, Natchez has lost more than half its population and nearly the entire industrial base that supported the town’s once thriving local economy. Burne Sharp conceived the idea of the Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil last year as a way for the band to help the town.
“Burne came up with the idea,” said Aubrey Preston, the band’s manager. “We were like 90 days out and I’m like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ But Burne’s so optimistic; he’s young."
Bishop Gunn was preparing to release its debut album, and there was the financial risk of setting up the festival and promoting it in enough time, "but they talked me into it," Preston said.
The inaugural Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil was a success: 4,000 attendees filled the town’s lodgings, and kept the restaurants and bars overflowing with weekend business. A grateful Mayor Darryl Grennell presented the band with the key to the city.
Bishop Gunn is taking the long view of how the crawfish boil might help Natchez transform from a moribund river town to an international music tourism destination.
Natchez has a strong claim to being the center of gravity for much of the world's popular music. Sitting along U.S. 61, linking Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, as well as the Natchez Trace Parkway — which runs through Jackson and Tupelo, Mississippi; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; and Nashville, Tennessee — the town is deeply a part of the Americana Music Triangle.
“Natchez has got more antebellum homes than any place in any city in America,” McCready said. “It’s got beautiful, high-end, comfortable accommodations of every imaginable kind. It’s full of stories. It sits up over the Mississippi on one of the prettiest spots you could ever be in. It’s a walkable town. You can walk all over — to the bars, to the music — I don’t know of any place more endowed, that has more potential to build music tourism. We’re proud to be from Natchez. Everywhere we play, we say, ‘We’re Bishop Gunn, and we’re from Natchez, Mississippi.’ ”
To make the crawfish boil part of that music tourism growth, "We're strongly considering making it a two-day festival next year," Sharpe said. "We want to grow it to about 12,000 and cap it at that. That way, it would be kind of an exclusive ticket."
And, McCready added, the band is considering other aspects of the event, like a steamboat cruise down the river with the bands, arriving in Natchez for the festival.
Although not yet a household name, Bishop Gunn is poised to put Natchez in the rock ’n' roll conversation in a serious way.
The band isn't easy to classify. Its sound may be best described as a dense construction of Delta blues motifs, Wilson Pickett soul, four quarts of dirty motor oil, a shot of Nashville and a chaser of The Allman Brothers — all wired, taped and packaged into a straight up rock ’n’ roll time bomb, circa 1974.
Asked if the band is defying the conventional wisdom that rock music is dead, McCready replied, “We were banking on this three years ago. We were told time and time again that there was no market for rock. But our manager, Aubrey, was like, 'Well, you know, you don’t go fish where all the people are. You go somewhere else and start chumming the water.' Three years later it’s like, 'Ah ha' — we were on the right path.”
Bishop Gunn Crawfish Boil
Saturday, May 11
Gates open at 1 p.m.
Bluff Park, Natchez, Mississippi
$30 general; $250 VIP