Mississippi turned 200 years old this year, and to commemorate its founding and the journey the state has taken since, Oxford held the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration.
The Celebration is taking place in three different sects of the state: Oxford, Gulfport and Jackson. Oxford’s share of the festivities began on the first day of June and included the Governor’s Concert on June 24th in the Gertrude C. Ford Center.
“This is an opportunity to think about where we are and where we have been,” volunteer usher at the Ford Center Reba McCullouch Greer said. “It’s a reminder of the things we have done that are outstanding and things we need to improve.”
The Governor’s Concert was a free event with host New York Times bestselling author and Natchez native Greg Iles. Governor Phil Bryant opened the show to welcome the performing artists and guests.
“Before an Alabama, there was a Mississippi. Before Texas or California, there was Mississippi,” Bryant said.
The concert featured star artists and songwriters Shannon McNally, Steve Azar, Vasti Jackson, Mac McAnally and Marty Stuart. Each artist was accompanied by the Mississippi Bicentennial Symphony Orchestra with Vasti Jackson commanding the group’s downbeats with stomps of his feet and thrashes of his guitar.
The styles of each musician were vibrant and different than the last, but they all spent much of their time onstage talking about Mississippi and the blues and country music in a language tinted with tenderness and nostalgia.
“The thing about the blues is that it has revered the world over and given us icons like B.B. King,” Jackson said during his performance. “Just as the roots of the blues came over from Africa and emerged under the traditions of Europe, when I look at the keyboards, the white keys symbolize Europe and the black keys symbolize Africa. What a beautiful tool for bringing cultures together and making all kinds of beautiful music.”
The Mississippi pride was almost tangible in the room and bled into the attitudes of the guests in attendance.
“I think this celebration brings us together,” religious studies major and cinema minor Doug Adair said. “All races. Young, old. Music is the international language. This is a good way to bring people together.”
Philadelphia native Marty Stuart and his band incorporated a steel guitar solo and a gospel song with an overly exaggerated held note that caused the singer to wheeze afterward. Elvis Entertainer and 2015 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Contest winner David Lee sang in a wig and white bedazzled suit as his three backup singers swished their red, white and blue sequined dresses.
Mississippi’s Music and Culture Ambassador Shannon McNally, a New York native and the only artist not from Mississippi, produced a sound so genuine and authentic to American blues it was difficult to discern if she wasn’t mistaken and really grew up in the same neck of the woods as the rest.
Steve Azar, who is originally from Greenville, talked about his recent move out of Nashville to settle back in his home state with his family.
The artists shared childhood anecdotes that later inspired songs like McAnally’s “Back Where I Come From” and Azar’s new album “Down at the Liquor Store.”
“I make people sick with how much I brag about Mississippi,” Belmont native McAnally said.
Most interesting about the night was the way these artists never seemed to really leave home. They toured in other states, lived in different cities, but celebrated Mississippi’s 200th birthday with a firm pride in the rich literary and musical fabric of the state.
“When I was young there was a train by my house and to me that represented motion, and I used to dream in my bedroom about getting on the train, going anywhere on planet earth to play my guitar,” Marty Stuart said before his last set. But even Stuart, with dreams of getting far away from Neshoba County, returned again for the opportunity to wish the state a joyous 200th year.
The Bicentennial Celebration aimed to display Mississippi’s history from its founding in 1817, but it did much more than that. It called its natives home and reminded them that to grow up in Mississippi is to call neighbors family.
“As many things as there are in the world to disagree on, there are more things we ought to agree about,” McAnally said before he played his song “The Opposite of Love” on piano. “There is pretty good payoff to getting along with the folks we share this world with.”