You wouldn't imagine that something as innocuous as a Kansas City Blues Society board election could turn as jagged as a Son House song. But contentious elections have become an unfortunate annual tradition for the KCBS, a nonprofit organization that purports to exist "solely for the purpose of promotion and preservation of various forms of blues music." And when the society convened January 10 at Knuckleheads Saloon, to elect its 2013 board, the knives came out in a hurry.
Most had been sharpened for "Lil" Joe Sherrick. Since his November 2010 election as the group's president, the society — already given to petty infighting — has grown especially discordant. Fourteen members of the board have quit or been removed. Many of the people who took over those board seats, according to KCBS members, are Sherrick's friends or Judy Abraham's friends. Abraham, chairwoman of membership for the KCBS, is also Sherrick's girlfriend. In the past year alone, Blues News, the society's monthly newsletter, has had five different editors.
In his "Letter From the President," in the January 2013 issue of Blues News, Sherrick endorsed specific candidates and pointedly reminded readers that certain other candidates had either walked away from or been voted off the board. Sherrick also mailed personal letters to some members, on KCBS letterhead, endorsing his preferred candidates. (With these notes, he enclosed a pocket-size list for members to bring to the election.)
Sherrick's campaigning angered an already displeased contingent, the most vocal of whom are former board members Karen Baum, Micki Houze and Janet Stephens. They took to the KCBS Facebook group page to challenge Sherrick's ethics. Much bickering ensued. Comments under posts piled up into the hundreds. As the election neared, each day seemed to introduce some further bureaucratic grievance to widen the rift between Sherrick's detractors and his loyalists.
January 10 at Knuckleheads, Danny Powell — the KCBS treasurer, who falls into the pro-Sherrick camp (a "Joe ho," as the opposition calls a member of that group) — served as the host. There were 17 candidates for 11 board spots. Each was given about a minute to make his or her case on the Knuckleheads main stage.
"This has been a down-and-dirty election," said singer-songwriter Sara Elrod, a longtime KCBS member. "For the president to print his choices for the board in the newsletter is just dirty."
Cassandra Houze, the youngest candidate and one of the few people at Knuckleheads that night under the age of 40, took the mic. She told the crowd that she had spent her high school years singing Trampled Under Foot's songs into a hairbrush in her bedroom. She loved KC blues, she said. But, she added, "all this baloney on Facebook is embarrassing the entire Blues Society."
Curt Straub, who served on the KCBS board for eight years before Sherrick relieved him of his duties, detailed the current administration's lack of communication skills. He complained that he had heard no response from the board about artwork for merchandise he was working on, and Straub said Sherrick had cut him out after he asked too many questions at the first planning meeting for the 2012 KC Blues Fest at Kaw Point. He sighed and said, "Joe has his heart in the right place but not his head."
According to the bylaws, KCBS presidents aren't elected by members. Members elect the board, and the board determines who serves in what role. So Sherrick, too, was up for re-election. He wore a lime-green button-up shirt over a black turtleneck and spoke quietly into the mic about the need for the KCBS to continue moving forward. Apart from mentioning a recent meeting with Mayor Sly James, he did not supply much in the way of specifics.
After the last candidate spoke, a middle-aged woman not running for the board commandeered the mic. She was a KCBS member, she said, and she had helped found the Blues Society of Omaha. "The KCBS is failing," she said. "People are talking about these shenanigans with the KCBS up in Omaha, in Topeka. I'm a member of this Blues Society. I want to volunteer. I want to help! But nobody will tell us what this Blues Society is working on. There's no minutes of the meetings. There's no information anywhere. I was actually going to vote for Joe until he published, in the Blues News, who we're all supposed to vote for. The president and the board are not the Blues Society. They represent the Blues Society." Cheers went up from the assembly.
One of the primary orders of business for the KCBS is choosing and sending local bands to represent Kansas City at the annual International Blues Challenge. This year, the society selected Jason Vivone and the Billy Bats, and Shinetop and Hudspeth. While the votes were tallied, the crowd enjoyed sets from both acts. Then the results were announced.
The status quo prevailed: Sherrick and most of his cronies were re-elected. There wasn't any screaming or shouting. A few members shook their heads in disgust, but most just gathered their belongings and exited the venue.
Sherrick did not respond to interview requests for this story. At the first meeting of the new board in February, he asked all members to sign a confidentiality agreement that would bar on-the-record conversations with the media.
In 1980, blues legend John Lee Hooker played a show in Lawrence. The next night, he performed in Columbia, skipping Kansas City entirely. At the time, touring and local blues artists had no presence in KC — no regular venues, no interested bookers. A handful of young, enthusiastic men decided that was not right. The next year, Roger Naber, Steve Shoemaker, Lindsay Shannon, William G. Osment and Teddy Dibble incorporated the Kansas City Blues Society as a nonprofit. A few years later, John Lee Hooker played an all-day blues party at the Uptown Theater.
The two decades that followed would become a golden age for the blues in Kansas City. Naber, who served as president of the KCBS for its first 13 years, opened the Grand Emporium in 1985, and it quickly became a world-famous blues destination. Shannon hosted a blues radio show on KCUR 89.3 and then on KCFX 101.1. Following Naber's lead, he opened the music-and-meat mainstay B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ in south Waldo in 1990.
Chuck Haddix, author, historian and host of KCUR's The Fish Fry, was involved with the society from the beginning. "It was a group that was really engaged with the community," he says. "The society put on a lot of major events, like the KC Blues Festival, which grew into the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival."
"It would hold picnics to raise money to bring in blues acts for shows at Parody Hall, things like that," says Dawayne Gilley, organizer of the now-defunct KCK Street Blues Festival. "And if you look at those guys now — there was a hellacious amount of growth that came out of that core group of blues society guys. Chuck, Roger, Lindsay — it's an impressive group."
"It turned Kansas City into a real destination for blues music," Pierre d'Entremont, a longtime local blues musician, says of the KCBS. "The Blues and Jazz Festival and the [KCK] street festival were truly international events in the 1990s. That's what I'd like to see again. It'd be nice to get that back."
The most recent Blues and Jazz Festival was in 2001, right around the time when local enthusiasm for the blues began to wane. Naber sold the Grand Emporium in 2004, and it closed for good a few years later. In recent years, Knuckleheads has stepped up to house big touring blues acts, but the festivals and events that the KCBS was associated with are memories — and growing more distant.
"The '80s and '90s were the real boom years," Gilley says. "You still had these legendary blues figures touring. The problem today is that the blues community hasn't replaced those legends with up-and-coming talent. There's still some people connected to the music, but most are older. It's a different world than it used to be."
Mismanagement in the KCBS hasn't helped. After failing to file an annual registration report in 2001, it lost its 501(c)3 status that year and didn't regain it until 2002. The same thing happened in 2007. And again in 2009.
Sherrick has been on the KCBS board since 2005, and he often claims (see: "Letter From the President," Blues News, January 2013) that he saved the KCBS from dissolution in 2010. This is not entirely accurate. The paperwork necessary for reinstatement was filed with the Missouri Department of Revenue prior to the first meeting of the board at which Sherrick was president. Then-treasurer Bonna Yost signed the application for reinstatement. Three months into Sherrick's first term, Yost resigned from the board.
A few months after Yost's departure, Sherrick attempted to appoint his girlfriend, Abraham, as treasurer. Some balked. "We felt it was unethical for two people living under the same roof to have total control of the Blues Society's finances," Houze says. "Joe pitched a fit, but we held our ground and demanded a vote on it. But we lost."
The opaque nature of the KCBS's finances has triggered concern among members, particularly in light of the first KC Blues Fest at Kaw Point, held September 29, 2012. Only Big Bill Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, was paid to perform; none of the local bands that played saw a dime. "Joe sent an e-mail to the bands telling them, essentially, if you donate your time this year, the KCBS will look favorably on you when they organize the fest next year," Baum says.
But is there going to be a 2013 fest? Last year's event was staffed by volunteers, was poorly promoted (The Pitch received no press releases about it, for example) and poorly attended (members seem to agree that about 100 people showed up).
Gilley, who knows a thing or two about throwing a blues festival in KCK, says, "I offered to help in 10 different ways. I've done nine street festivals. I worked on three blues and jazz festivals. The staff at Kaw Point had zero experience. We always paid a reasonable salary to the bands [at KCK Street Blues Festival]. Kaw Point charged $20 at the gate. They had no real star power, and it wasn't BYOB. Of course nobody showed up."
The KCBS has refused to produce a financial statement about the event, despite requests from the board and the society's members. Powell, the KCBS secretary, tells The Pitch that the festival "broke even" but has declined to elaborate.
This lack of available basic information is part of a trend. Sherrick has eliminated the distribution of board meeting minutes. He has also scaled back the meetings from monthly to quarterly.
Apart from its fledgling festival and its sending bands to the IBC, about the only thing the KCBS regularly does is publish Blues News. (It also operates a website that looks like it was built during the Clinton presidency.) Baum edited Blues News for three years. She resigned at the end of 2011, after a year of clashing with Sherrick. One point of contention was Sherrick's restriction against listing in Blues News any clubs or bands that don't pay KCBS dues. (For the previous 30 years, every blues venue and act had been included.)
"My feeling is that they have the idea of a society backwards," Baum says. "I believe a society should support venues and musicians by advertising for them, showcasing them, holding events for them. Every single blues event in this city should be included in Blues News. But under Joe, the board decided that only members in good standing were to be featured. So you start to see ill will and venues dropping their advertising. It's crazy. I don't see why musicians and clubs are supposed to support the Blues Society. It should be the other way around."
Powell disagrees. "We felt that if you're a society and you have paying members, then you have an obligation to promote those paying members over people getting free promotion without paying," he says.
Since Baum's resignation, five editors have come and gone, the most recent being Alexander Harrison, a 19-year-old musician and English major at the University of Central Missouri. Despite his age, the issues that Harrison edited — December 2012, January 2013 and February 2013 — were praised among insiders as a return to form for Blues News.
"I have never met Alexander Harrison," Gilley says. "But I picked up the February issue a few days back, and I see a story on Gino Bueno and the Side Show Band, a thing on Crosseyed Cat, a thing on Mary Bridget Davies, and a historical piece on Blind Willie Johnson. It was the first issue in a long while that had a good combination of articles, a nice layout. I tracked down Alexander to tell him he did a great job, and he tells me it's his last issue, that Joe Sherrick fired him."
Harrison says he resigned. His days working with Sherrick were numbered either way. Once again, Sherrick's dictate that Blues News cover only dues-paying bands ignited tensions. Says Harrison: "Joe got in touch in November, and I, along with my friend Samantha [Whitehead], who knows a lot about Photoshop and InDesign, agreed to start editing Blues News. We were warned that Joe and Judy are difficult to work with, but we still felt it was a good opportunity for us. There were a lot of hitches in communication — they're not very organized people — but we pulled off the first issue.
"The next month, I told them I wanted to put Gino's band, a non-KCBS member, on the cover for February," Harrison continues. "I wanted Gino because he's not one of the four bands Blues News is constantly covering. I wanted to feature a new artist. Joe agreed and said it was OK as long as we didn't make a habit of putting nonmember bands on the cover. I told him we planned to put Doghouse Daddies, who are very much a KCBS member band, on the cover the next month. Everything seemed fine. We submitted the final proof to Joe and Judy on January 23. Then, on the 24th, I received a professionally worded e-mail from Joe saying that I have no regard for the Blues Society, that I don't understand his vision for the Blues Society, and that he has no choice but to bring the issue before the board. I told him that's not necessary, that I quit, that I don't want anything more to do with his organization."
Harrison adds: "A year ago, Blues News had 30 ads an issue. Now there are two. It [the KCBS] is just a total mess, and it's all because of Joe and Judy."
Says Gilley: "I'm not trying to steamroll anything [Sherrick] is doing. But I went to that election in January, and I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. It was rough. I reached out to Joe after and said, 'What are you doing to mend some of these fences?' ... You can solve a lot of problems just by listening to people. I offered to bridge gaps with him, reach out to some people, try to help get them back onboard. But I never got a firm commitment one way or the other. And I continue to get people coming up to me asking, 'What's up with the Blues Society?' It's been going on for years now but particularly the last few. At a certain point, it's like, who are you serving? What are you about?"
It's kind of a mystery to me what exactly is going on with that entire organization," says Paul Greenlease, who plays bass with such acts as the Nace Brothers and Dave Hays.
On the KCBS Facebook page — as well as on the KCBS Response Group page, started by critics of Sherrick's administration after they noticed that their comments were being deleted from the official KCBS page — the accusations and arguments are invariably interrupted by well-meaning, mediating voices reminding everyone that the KCBS should be about the music, nothing more. But at this point, the KCBS is so divorced from most of the blues scene that a majority of the musicians The Pitch spoke with (many asked not to be identified, either because they didn't want to risk gig opportunities or because they didn't want their names associated with the KCBS's high school drama) said they just don't pay it much mind.
"I've been playing around Kansas City for about 20 years now, and they haven't done much for me as far as I can tell," Greenlease says. "But usually, I'm just too busy playing to really think about anything with the Blues Society. My feeling is that all the infighting just makes a lot of musicians want to steer clear."
Steve Ashton, who says he has been a fan of KC blues for about two decades, had experience with another local 501(c)3, the Structural Engineers Association of Kansas and Missouri, for which he has served as president, so he ran for the KCBS board in 2013 and won. Despite some reservations — he believes he is the only member who did not sign Sherrick's confidentiality agreement — he's optimistic about the group's direction.
"There's definitely some internal conflict, but I think it will be resolved," Ashton says. "They've done all these great things in the past: festivals, events, Blues News. One of the things I ran on is transparency, and the board is working toward that. There's some internal talk of releasing budget information and board meeting minutes to membership. I think it's just a matter of getting people to work together again."
Houze isn't buying it. "These new guys on the board," she says, "they don't know what they're in for."