Gatlin, McCray to receive 2015 Sonny Awards

Delta Cultural Center - Thursday, October 01, 2015

Electric guitar powerhouse Larry McCray and Delta blues and rockabilly performer C.W. Gatlin will receive the 2015 Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence to be presented by the Delta Cultural Center during the 30th Annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in historic downtown Helena-West Helena.

The DCC’s Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence – called “The Sonny” – recognizes individuals who have strongly influenced the blues music of the Arkansas Delta. The honor is named for “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, longtime host of the Peabody Award-winning “King Biscuit Time” program broadcast each weekday from the DCC Visitors Center at 141 Cherry Street on radio station KFFA-AM. The DCC is a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

Gatlin, will be presented with the Sonny Award on Friday afternoon, Oct. 9, on the festival’s Lockwood-Stackhouse Stage. The performance is slated at 3:20-4:20 p.m. The presentation to McCray is slated Saturday, Oct. 10 on the festival’s Main Stage at 4:10-5:15 p.m.

Previous recipients of the “Sonny” include Robert Lockwood Jr. and Houston Stackhouse (posthumously) in the award’s inaugural year of 2002, Sam Carr and Pinetop Perkins (2003), Cedell Davis and John Weston (2004), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (2005), Michael Burks and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (2006), Hubert Sumlin (2007), Bobby Rush (2008), Red Holloway (2009), B.B. King (2010), James Cotton (2011), the Cate Brothers (2012), Willie Cobbs (2013), Big George Brock and Sonny Burgess & The Legendary Pacers (2014).

“This year, we honor two Arkansas musicians who have made their own unique marks on the blues,” said Thomas Jacques, deputy director at the DCC, a museum of the Arkansas Department of Heritage.

C.W. Gatlin, much like his childhood friend Levon Helm, grew up surrounded by the diverse musical influences of Phillips County, Arkansas, and found instruction in the blues, rockabilly, and country music. Veteran bluesmen Robert Nighthawk and Houston Stackhouse befriended the young guitarist, providing him with an informal introduction to the music business. Nighthawk also gave the eager student instruction in his technique for playing slide guitar. Sun Records rockabilly and country artist Mack Self also served as a guide early on, tapping Gatlin to perform with him. Gatlin would later play and record with area rockabilly singer Jimmy Evans.

“To me, rockabilly and blues are really the same thing,” Gatlin once explained to an interviewer.

A longtime regional favorite, Gatlin crosses musical boundaries throughout his shows. A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, he is beloved by fans and respected by his musical peers. He has performed, along with Johnny Cash drummer W.S. Holland, as a member of the Rockabilly Masters.

Larry McCray, a native of Magnolia, Arkansas, signaled with his 1990 debut album, “Ambition,” that his goals as a blues guitarist were high. Today, he is regarded as one of the masters of contemporary blues guitar. His is a style that refers to the blues greats of the 1950s and 1960s who amplified the sound, as well as referencing the explorations of blues and rock artists who would take the guitar in other sonic directions.

The Sonny Award is traditionally given to musicians with distinguished status and a lengthy career, and additional consideration is given to those with ties to Arkansas and the Delta region.