By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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By Christian Schaeffer
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If Dave Beardsley had followed his first impulses, his search for a creative outlet might have led him to become a "true crime" writer. The 44-year-old paramedic and Soulard resident has worked for more than twenty years with St. Louis County's Emergency Medical Services, but his first year in emergency medicine was spent in the City of St. Louis, where stabbings, shootings and other forms of interpersonal mayhem were, at the time, regrettably commonplace.
"I even had a title for the book: The Knife and Gun Club," Beardsley chuckles, recalling the morbidly humorous term used by cops and emergency medical personnel to refer to the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes. While his career move to the county substantially reduced the average body count in Beardsley's workday, his vocational interests in writing, photography and blues music eventually led him to create www.STLBlues.net, a Web site dedicated to the city's blues scene, and true crime's loss became the blues' gain.
Started in 1999 with seven pages of content, STLBlues.net now contains more than 500 individual pages, gets more than 10,000 total hits a day -- a pace that should yield more than three million visitors this year -- and earns high rankings from Google, Yahoo and other search engines when users look for "blues music news."
St. Louis musicians and listeners have embraced the site, so expect a packed house at the second annual STLBlues.net Benefit Concert on Sunday, February 29, at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups. For a modest cover charge, blues aficionados will get almost eight hours of music from a variety of working St. Louis acts, including pianist Matt Murdick; the Bottoms Up Blues Gang; Cryin' Shame; former Hired Help frontman Alvin Jett with his new group, the Phat noiZ Blues Band; singer-guitarist Melissa Neels and her band; Rob Garland and the Blue Monks; Bone Daddy and the Blues Shakers; longtime local favorite Rondo Leewright and the latest iteration of his Blues Deluxe; and the Rich McDonough Blues Band. A portion of the show's proceeds will go to the St. Louis Blues Society, with the rest going to maintain and expand the Web site.
A sturdy-looking fellow with a big mustache and a ready grin, Beardsley is pleased and a little surprised by the growing popularity of STLBlues.net. Reading the site's visitor statistics, a recent addition, for the first time "blew my mind," he says. "I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would be this successful."
What brings in the visitors is a mix of blues news items; original content including interviews, photo galleries and reviews of concerts and CDs; and an extensive set of links to St. Louis artists and clubs as well as to other blues resources on the Web. The site also offers all interested local blues musicians and groups free space for their own pages on the site, including a biography, photo and sample music clips, as well as links back to the artists' own sites. Beardsley gets some of his material from the musicians themselves, and some from a network of blues fans and tipsters who read the site, but he also spends a good bit of time simply digging for ideas, talking with fans and hearing live music at clubs and festivals.
And while the site may yield occasional perks, such as press credentials or free tickets for festivals and concerts, Beardsley is most assuredly not in it for the money. A fortuitous trade deal with his hosting company -- he gets free space on their servers in exchange for carrying a banner ad on his front page -- has helped him avoid onerous price increases for additional bandwidth as the site has grown. Still, he's spent thousands of dollars on computers, software, phone bills and other miscellaneous expenses associated with running STLBlues.net, and he continues to log an average of twenty hours a week gathering news items, adding new pages and features, updating and maintaining the site, and answering as many as 60 emails a day.
"It costs money to run the site," says Beardsley, "but it's a labor of love. It's a stress reducer for me. I see some bad stuff on the shift, and music puts it out of my mind."
There's an old saying that converts make the most zealous believers, so perhaps its no surprise that Beardsley didn't discover the blues until well into adulthood. Instead, like many St. Louisans in his age group, he grew up with the Top 40 on KXOK and, later, the album rock of KSHE in its '70s heyday. After graduating from high school and spending two years in the Air Force, Beardsley returned home, began working as a paramedic, married and started a family.
Beardsley's transformative listening experience came in the late '80s, when he and a friend caught a performance by Patti and the Hitmen at Schuster's, a now-defunct club in Soulard. "It was like the cover had been pulled off," he says. "It was a revelation to me." He started learning more about the history of the music and began seeking out other local blues bands, in the process striking up friendships with a number of musicians. One was John May, bass player with various blues acts and president of the St. Louis Blues Society's board of directors, and in 1993, when the society's Blues Heritage Festival was in a jam, May called Beardsley for help.
The entire first-aid team originally scheduled to work at the festival had been diverted to flood relief efforts, and insurance regulations demanded an onsite medical facility. Could Beardsley put together a substitute team of medical personnel on short notice? "The EMS world is pretty small. It only took two days to fill all the volunteer slots," recalls Beardsley.
A successful festival and more volunteer work at the next year's event led Beardsley to an ongoing involvement with the Blues Society. He began writing articles and taking photos for the society's publication, the Bluesletter,and later served on the board of directors for the 1997 festival. The next year, when the society wanted its own Web site, Beardsley volunteered to help get the group online. Though his primary qualification at the time was "a friend that knew how to do Web design," he learned HTML, the coding system used to create Web pages, and created a site for the society.
"Once that project was in place, I decided to start STLBlues.net, mainly because I wanted the creative control that being part of a committee just doesn't allow," he recalls. "When I began, I was told by web experts that a regional blues site wouldn't make it, that to succeed we had to have a national focus."
Beardsley disagreed, contending that that St. Louis' blues music was "a story unto itself. St. Louis is under-recognized as a blues entity," he says, and his faith in the talents of the city's musicians remains a motivating force. "My whole purpose still is to export St. Louis blues music."