Brooks Family Blues Dynasty

"I'm not working as much as I've been," said 78-year-old Lonnie Brooks in a recent phone interview. "I had in mind to try to retire, but my boys keep tellin' me, 'Let's go out there.'"

I asked him when he decided he wanted to retire. Without missing a beat or belying the joke, the Louisiana-bred Chicagoan deadpanned: "I was thinking about this about 16 years ago. But I needed money, so I kept on."

Brooks' "retirement" decision coincided with his last studio release of new recordings, 1996's Roadhouse Rules - which in retrospect seems to have ended a two-decade solo run on the Alligator label, including 1979's classic Bayou Lightning. The All Music Guide called him "a Chicago blues giant" with a "unique Louisiana/Chicago blues synthesis unlike anyone else's on the competitive Windy City scene."

Coco Montoya

For the music career of singer/guitarist Coco Montoya, thank the persistence of John Mayall.

It's not merely that Mayall called Montoya to ask him to join the legendary Bluesbreakers band in the early 1980s. It's that he called back when Montoya - who had quit music as a profession after a stint drumming for Albert Collins in the 1970s - hung up on him.

"I didn't think it was him," Montoya said in a recent phone interview, promoting his Saturday bandshell performance at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. "I was bartending at a British pub. ... So I thought it was some of the English cats in there teasing me. ... He called back. 'No, this really is John Mayall. ... Do I have to come down there ... ?'"

Kenny NealA lot of people count the harmonica player Slim Harpo as an influence - among them the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Pink Floyd - but nobody can claim a connection as direct (or harrowing) as swamp-blues master Kenny Neal.

Slim Harpo was a regular in the Louisiana home of the Neals, and Kenny - one of the sons of harp player Raful Neal - recalled in a recent phone interview the story of how he got his first harmonica when he was three years old.

"He was just playin' around," Neal said of Slim Harpo. "He tricked me into a trailer one day. ... He told me, 'Look inside and see if there's any more equipment in there.' I went inside, and he closed the doors. It got pitch black and I got phobia. ... Freaked me out. I started screamin' and yellin', and that freaked him out. He was trying to quiet me down, so he decided to give me a harmonica - that was the closest thing he had that would probably soothe me a little bit."

Preston ShannonPreston Shannon was working and performing in Memphis during the 1960s and '70s, when "Soulsville USA" rivaled Detroit's Motown. Stax Records ruled the airwaves with Booker T & the MGs laying down the backing "Memphis Soul Stew" for hits by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett, while over at Hi Records producer and songwriter Willie Mitchell was working with Al Green and Otis Clay. It was a magic time. You can hear those soul influences in Preston Shannon's music, but he doesn't acknowledge the soul connection.

"I am really a blues man," Shannon declared in a recent phone interview. "I know the blues, I've experienced the blues, I play the blues. You know, when I recorded all my CDs, the reason I inserted R&B ... was because at the time it was so hard to get airplay for the blues."

Paul Smoker

It would be hard to argue that acclaimed trumpet player and bandleader Paul Smoker isn't an ideal local-musician-makes-good choice for the 2011 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. After all, the 70-year-old was raised in Davenport, performed in numerous Quad Cities nightclubs (starting at the tender age of 14), and earned four degrees from the University of Iowa, including a doctorate in music.

Granted, if you were feeling particularly quarrelsome, you could note that Smoker isn't a blues musician, as he freely admits. But while he and his bandmates - the four-man ensemble the Paul Smoker Notet - will be performing at this year's festival in the annual slot reserved for jazz artists, it's not as though the blues is a genre he's unpracticed in.

Nellie 'Tiger' TravisWhen Nellie "Tiger" Travis sang "Wang Dang Doodle" - Koko Taylor's signature hit - she could never hit the high notes in the chorus: "We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long."

"I always did it down low," Travis said in a recent phone interview. Then came Taylor's funeral in 2009.

"I hit the high note for the first time ever," Travis said. "That day, it just came out like that. ... I do it all the time now. ... I can't explain it. I don't know if it was a spirit thing, or if I was just so full until it just came out ... . I just know I hit it now."

"Is he soul? Is he blues? Is he gospel? Yes, and he has become an iconic figure in all those genres." - Chicago Sun-Times

Otis Clay

"I've always been a bit open-minded about the music," Otis Clay said in a recent phone interview. He recalled that when he first went professional, he performed a genre of music called jubilee that included show tunes alongside gospel. "In the '60s we would be all up in the Catskills during the week, and do churches on Sunday. I had done secular even then. [But] I never left gospel. It was all mixed up in there."

That genre-blending had begun even before Clay - who will receive the Mississippi Valley Blues Society RiverRoad Lifetime Achievement Award before his July 3 festival performance - started touring when he was 18. Born in Waxhaw, Mississippi, in 1942, Clay started singing in the church at four, but even then he was also getting a different music education. "My father was an entrepreneur - he always had a juke joint, and my mother was very religious. But ... for the Saturday-night fish fries, she would cook and sell sandwiches," Clay said. There he would listen to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf on the jukebox. He was seven years old when he experienced his first live concert: Muddy Waters in Clarksdale.

The Lionel Young Band

With his 2008 victory in the solo/duo division, and his six-man ensemble's 2011 triumph in the band category, Lionel Young stands as the first double winner in the history of Memphis' International Blues Challenge (IBC). Meanwhile, the reviews that he and his Lionel Young Band have amassed would seem to back up the IBC's choices; Blues Blast Magazine wrote that the group "deserve[s] a place on your must-see list," and American Blues News called Young himself "an entertainer's entertainer."

Yet even given his awards and plaudits, this Colorado-based musician - one of the genre's few professional violinists - understands the importance of daily practice, and not just at the blues elements you might expect.

"Most people play loud and proud all the time," says Young during a recent phone interview. "Especially in the blues. But in any music, just like in any conversation, dynamics play a very important part. You know, when people want you to pay attention to what they're saying, they can either yell at you, or they can say something re-e-eally quiet. If you say something really quiet, people listen a lot harder.

Eric Gales

You wouldn't know it from his discography, but 2010's Relentless marked a comeback for the blues-rock guitarist/singer/songwriter Eric Gales. The Story of My Life was released in April 2008, and its follow-up came this past July - a pretty standard interval in the music business.

But there's a hint of his troubles on Relentless' lead track, "Bad Lawbreaker," on which he sings: "I'm a bad lawbreaker / Three strikes ain't enough for me."

In between those two albums, Gales served 21 months of a three-year sentence for violating the probation he received in 2006 for drug and gun charges. "I was smoking weed on the road and I didn't want to risk them telling me to come home in the middle of the tour" because of a dirty urine sample, he said in a recent phone interview. "I just said to myself, 'I'll deal with it when I get home.'" So he turned himself in after the tour and was sent to prison. (He couldn't play a guitar for his first six months of incarceration but - because of the intervention of a warden who knew who he was - eventually led a prison band.)