How did Kathy Ayers become director of Ribberfest BBQ and Blues festival? It was a kind of an out-of-body experience.

Sixteen years ago she was at a board meeting of the old Convention and Visitors Bureau. The CVB had started Ribberfest one year earlier at the urging of then-Mayor Al Huntington, with encouragement from Dr. Dave Butler and Rocky Harrell.

According to Kathy, “We were informed at the meeting that Ribberfest needed a new director. All of sudden I heard someone say ‘I’ll do it’ and all heads turned towards me.” Apparently her mouth had accepted the job before her brain had time to think.

“It’s an all-consuming task,” Kathy said, “Pretty much full time for six months or so.” After a remarkable 16-year run, Kathy resigned this year to take a break and pursue other interests. But her impact on the Madison music landscape has been significant, and it’s worth examining.

Kathy enjoys music for sure, but she’s not an impassioned music lover. And she’s never had a special affinity for blues music, which is the bailiwick of Ribberfest.

“But that’s good,” she says. “You don’t need music appreciation to run a festival. You need management, organization, and leadership.” She was the glue that held it all together, and propelled Ribbrerfest to heights of success.

“I had an amazing music committee,” she said. “Dave Butler and Rocky from the very start, plus Rick and Becky Burress. They are a big part of what’s made Ribberfest what it is today. We’ve pretty much grown steadily since the beginning.”

“A lot of people point to the year we had Buddy Guy as our high-water mark, but in fact two years later we were even bigger, when we had Robert Randolph and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Great artists attract their own fan base, and then those new people discover Ribberfest and the town of Madison. They tell their friends. It’s a positive upward spiral.”

Kathy also points to the 1990s bars and clubs that cultivated an appreciation for live music in Madison. “Joey G’s brought great talent to town, including a lot of blues players. The Broadway was active back then, and the Electric Lady. Even the old Drake bar down on Mulberry was a music hot spot. Those places opened a lot of minds and paved the way for the festivals.”

Kathy thinks our burgeoning music scene will help drive a tourism growth trend. And she intends to be a part of it. She’s thinking about promoting some of her favorite live acts at local venues. “Ever heard of Elvis Junior?” she asked me. I had not, but I googled him. What a story!


It’s not on the calendar, but every Tuesday is Open Mic Nite at the Taproom, hosted by Arlie Box. Free, fun and great tacos! On Saturday Mike Oberst at Thomas Family Winery might be a little magical, but you gotta be there to find out. And next Tuesday at the Taproom they have a Los Angeles band coming through called Buck Thrifty. Stand up bass, banjo, violin, high-energy. Check them out on Youtube, they look awesome. I’ll be there, for sure.

Charlie Rohlfing is a stalwart of the RiverRoots Festival committee, a campfire guitar strummer, and a partner in The Red Bicycle Hall music venue. Look for his distinctive fedora bobbing above the crowd, anywhere live local music is happening. Find him out and about or at