Karen Lovely Band is a hit in Memphis

Karen Lovely continues to bask in the afterglow of the 2010 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn.

The singer songwriter and her Ashland-based band took second at the competition, which featured 111 blues bands from around the world.

The first-place band, Grady Champion, had competed five times over the span of 17 years before placing, and the third-place band had competed three times.

"For a first-time competitor to make it to a second-place position is extraordinary," Lovely said.

The competition drew more than 1,600 entrants worldwide. The Lovely band finished second with a lineup of players who have been together for barely a year.

"The level of musicians (at the festival) speaks to this band's originality, hard work and commitment," she said.

Besides Lovely, there's guitarist Joe Diehl, drummer Teri Coté, bassist Bob DiChiro, and keyboardist Allen Crutcher.

For the past year, they dedicated themselves to the big show in Memphis. Last May they competed in Vancouver, Wash., and finished among the top three, which earned them a ticket to perform at Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival, the second largest blues festival in the country. There, the band won the regional competition and qualified for the International Blues Challenge.

In 2009, they were nominated for three Muddy Awards and won two — "Best New Act" and "Performance of the Year" — for their Portland show.

"We worked really hard for months, choreographed and chose songs, rehearsed," Lovely said.

Through community support and fundraising shows, they raised about $9,000 for plane tickets and a week in Memphis.

The competition began with two evenings of semifinals. Bands were assigned to venues along Beale Street, the music hub of Memphis. Winners from each venue would compete in the final round at the Orpheum Theatre.

"We competed against nine bands at our venue to make it to the finals, and we won at our venue, the New Daisy Theatre, to make to the finals," Lovely explained.

For their two, 25-minute semifinal sets, the band played "Blues Ain't Far Behind," "Knock, Knock," "I've Had Enough," "Never Felt No Blues" and "No. 9 Train."

"Both nights we played, we had standing ovations ... and by Friday night (the second night) there was standing room only," Lovely said. "We were the buzz of Beale Street."

Several notable blues figures were in the audience, including Candye Kane and Janiva Magness, top blues recording artists; Bill Wax, program director of satellite radio's "B.B. King's Bluesville"; Greg Johnson, president of the Cascade Blues Association; Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation; Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records.

That night during a song, Diehl broke a guitar string, but kept on playing. A musician standing nearby handed him his guitar so he could finish the set. Judges gave the band extra marks for how he handled the situation, and "we didn't miss a beat," Lovely recalled.

On Saturday night, the final set was 15 minutes, and the bands were judged on original music, stage presence, instrumentation, blues content and vocals.

"We've played at the Britt Festival and we've played at the Waterfront Festival, but we've never played at a venue like the Orpheum Theater, and the level of competition was outstanding," Lovely said.

"I think we all feel that this has been the most extraordinary week in our professional lives," Lovely said. "We're just on cloud nine, and we're just really proud to make it this far."

They won $1,000 in prize money, along with press kits and bookings throughout the U.S. and Canada later this year. A 2010 European tour also is being negotiated.

"The biggest prize, and everyone knows it, is the exposure you get," Lovely said.

At the Memphis challenge, Lovely's album "Lucky Girl," featuring Diehl, Richard Cousins, Jim Pugh, Tom Stamper, Jeff Addicott, Dave Scoggin and Brent Nelson, was the top-selling CD at the challenge. When "Lucky Girl" was released in 2008, it was the No. 1 "Pick to Click" on XM Radio, No. 1 on Blues City Radio, and it debuted at No. 13 on the Living Blues Chart.

The band now has set its sights on the 2011 Blues Music Awards in Memphis and producing a new album in March.

"I think we really put Oregon on the blues map," Lovely said.

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