Chris Schulz Published

Blues Music Festival Enters Third Decade In Wheeling

A Martin D-28 guitar. Regulations on the international trade of rosewood have negatively affected C.F. Martin & Co., a family-owned business that has been making guitars in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley since the 1830s.

On Friday, a weekend of blues will kick off at Wheeling’s Heritage Port Park. Now in its 21st year, the Heritage Music Blues Festival continues to bring the genre’s biggest artists, as well as up and comers, to the banks of the Ohio River. Reporter Chris Schulz recently sat down with festival organizer Bruce Wheeler to discuss the event.

Schulz: Bruce, how did the Heritage Music Blues Festival come about in Wheeling?

Wheeler: Twenty two years ago, Wheeling built a waterfront amphitheater. Once a year, we turn it into a concert venue. When the amphitheater was built, I was involved in the entertainment business in Pittsburgh and lived here in Wheeling and thought, “Oh, well, this is a great little facility, we should do something with it.” And I thought about music events that somehow connected to American heritage. The name of the amphitheater is the Heritage Port amphitheater.

I put together my plan for the first year, which was probably overly ambitious, was to put together a festival per month at the amphitheater: a jazz festival, a folk music festival, and a Blues Festival, which I figured those three genres are connected to American heritage. The first two didn’t get off the ground, but in August, The Blues Festival did.

It started that year, probably with more people on stage than we had in the audience. But that year, I had a gentleman performing out of Texas, Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets. And Anson said, “I don’t know you from Adam, and I don’t know what kind of resources you have, but there’s something really cool about this space. If you could keep this going, you should do it.” And here we are, 22 years later.

Schulz: What is it about the blues that keeps people coming back year after year?

Wheeler: The blues fan really admires the artists and what they do, I think, because you don’t have that superstar, rock star attitude. In blues, they’re all the good old boys, and most of the year they’re playing in small clubs, probably to audiences of 200 people or less. The blues fan gets to know these artists on a come up and shaking hands basis. I think they feel very comfortable around that.

What I see, when people come for the first time, they might not know that they like blues. The average person who comes grew up on the Rolling Stones, and they grew up on rock and roll music that is rooted in the blues. And they didn’t even realize they were listening to blues, but it was cloaked in rock and roll.

Schulz: How has it been planning and organizing the festival around COVID the last few years?

Wheeler: It’s a little challenging, but one of my major sponsors is Roxby Development, and one of Roxby’s business divisions is COVID testing laboratories. For example, last year, there was kind of a spike happening in August. We didn’t have the festival in 20, but we did in 21, and we had an indoor after jam at the McClure Hotel, which is also one of Roxby’s businesses. We did on-site testing so that people would be able to go inside without being masked.

It’s scary, of course, because you really never know. However, when we had to cancel in 20, what I did was just offer anyone who had a ticket, because we canceled, the opportunity for a refund or just carry over their ticket to 2021. Probably 80 to 85 percent of those who had pre-purchase tickets for 20 carried on into 2021.

Schulz: Bruce, I know that this is a family affair for you, your children are involved with organizing and administering the event, but what does this festival mean to the broader community?

Wheeler: It really has become over the years, we almost look at it as an extension of our family. It’s almost a family reunion party where we invite a couple thousand of our closest friends. People from all over the country come back and do that. It’s really got a good, friendly vibe that is there. What it means to the local community is, there are like I said, people who come into wheeling from 24 plus states.

Schulz: What can people expect when they come to the festival? 

Wheeler: We have craft vendors, we have food vendors. That’s there to enhance the experience. And we have two stages. The main stage features national and international blues talent, and the second stage features local or regional talent.

One of the things that I try to do when I put together a lineup, I try to bring up and comers, like the Katie Henry Band, she’s out of New Jersey. And King Solomon Hicks. And then of course what I call legacy artists like Joe Louis Walker, etc.

People say well, “How do you come up with a lineup?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure but I know what I like.” I kind of program it as if I’m going to be in the audience and what I would like to hear and how I would like to take the ride through the weekend of different styles of blues.

More information about the festival can be found at