An Indianapolis blues duo is going to Memphis, Tennessee, in late January to participate in the International Blues Challenge, a five-day competition that brings together solo acts, duos and whole bands from around the world.
Steve “Scrapper” Brown plays guitar and sings, and Ken “Harpman” Skelton plays the harmonica. Together, they’re called Scrapper and Skelton, and they’ve been playing together for a couple years. The International Blues Challenge will test how far they’ve come.
The competition is a worldwide search for blues bands and acts that need the extra push to go further with their passion. Contestants qualify by first winning a regional competition, as Brown and Skelton did at Slippery Noodle Inn.
“It’s just like playing a big basketball game or a big football game,” Brown said of the competition in Memphis. “It’s like the playoffs. It’s win or go home.”
This will be Brown’s sixth time competing. He’s gone by himself, as part of a duo and with a band, so the nerves that come with a high-stakes international event are at least familiar by now. But the stakes are still high. Winners get recording time and a lump sum of money, along with a performance slot at the Blues Music Awards, which Brown described as the Grammys of blues music.
For Skelton, a former editor at the Recorder, this will be a new experience.
“This is one of those bucket list things I’ve always wanted to try,” he said.
Aside from the competition, the International Blues Challenge is effectively a large networking event. There are plenty of blues artists hoping to find their big break, promoters who may be looking for someone to play a festival and record label scouts looking for their next client. Even the judges can be industry giants such as established blues artists and representatives from recording companies. Brown said he ate dinner with a couple of blues artists from Sweden last year.
Before they came together formally, Brown and Skelton played with each other at blues jams in the area. They auditioned to be the headliner for WTHR Channel 13’s Festival of Lights event a couple years ago and didn’t get the part, but they kept playing together anyway.
“We’re just good friends and we work really well together,” Brown said. “A lot of people said, ‘You know, you really ought to do this all the time.’ It’s just something that’s evolved. It’s taken off like gangbusters, and it’s beautiful.”
They’re also honoring Indianapolis blues legends who came before them. Brown’s nickname, “Scrapper,” is borrowed from Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell, a guitarist and singer best known for his time spent playing with Leroy Carr in the 1920s and ‘30s. Skelton’s nickname, “Harpman,” isn’t in honor of anyone in particular — he said he got the nickname about seven years ago — but they’re continuing the legacy of blues music in Indianapolis.
“It’s just like two guys sitting on a front porch, or sitting out in the park, and they’re playing guitar and blowing the harp,” Brown said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
Ken “Harpman” Skelton (left) and Steve “Scrapper” Brown