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.)

Roy RogersSinger, songwriter, and slide-guitarist Roy Rogers is not a blues purist. He could write a song in the style of Robert Johnson - the reason he became a blues player in the first place - but what would be the point of that?

"I'm just trying to stretch it," he said in a recent phone interview.

So on his new recording Split Decision - his first studio album with his Delta Rhythm Kings trio in seven years - there's the instrumental "Your Sweet Embrace," with a flamenco section by Ottmar Liebert, and "Rite of Passage" has a warm, funky jazz groove before taking a guitar-solo detour into the blues. "Bitter Rain" deals with Hurricane Katrina and has what Rogers called "almost kind of a tempest riff," and closing instrumental "Walkin' the Levee" features sax and a guitar tone simultaneously fuzzy and razor sharp. "River of Tears" is an irresistibly upbeat pop number despite its theme of sadness.

Radoslav LorkovićOn any number of subjects, pianist, accordionist, and organist Radoslav Lorković will preface his response with something along the lines of: "That's a funny story."

When asked about his appearance in the 2009 Naked Folk Calendar, for example, he said that the photo was taken at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in 100-degree heat. Lorković was playing the accordion and (of course) naked, and a man roughly 90 years old approached the group and said, "You know, I got some stories about Woody Guthrie," the musician recalled. "He looks at me completely ... unfazed, and keeps on telling this story about Woody Guthrie."

Joanne Shaw TaylorThe striking thing initially about Joanne Shaw Taylor's debut record, White Sugar, is a voice that has the soul and wisdom that only experience can provide. Decades of experience.

With an introduction like that, it's not surprising that she's only 23, but even though she lacks the requisite years, she has a startling maturity. Despite the quadruple-novelty appeal of being a (1) young, (2) British, (3) white, and (4) female blues guitarist and singer, Taylor has taken her time getting to this point.