- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - If Georgia isn’t on your mind, this is the year that state tourism officials are hoping vacationers near and far will be drawn to the state’s musical heritage and live concert offerings.

The “Year of Georgia Music” is the theme adopted by the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Tourism Division in 2016, with red-hot country music star Luke Bryan, who hails from Leesburg, Georgia, near Albany, gracing the front of the state’s official tourism guide.

The savvy move to put Bryan’s smiling face on the cover of the annual publication distributed at visitor centers across Georgia, and online, generated a Twitter retweet by the performer to his more than 6 million followers. That’s just what tourism planners love to see happen.

“I think the response so far to what we’ve been doing has been tremendous. I just think there’s no better platform this year than music,” said Lisa Love, speaking to about 100 travel executives and managers gathered in Columbus for the Georgia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus annual meeting, which wrapped up Wednesday.

“Columbus has such great music history,” said Love, with the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office. “Of course, there’s Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues … She was one of the early integrated artists (performing in front of mixed-race audiences) and she was huge. They loved her. She was bawdy. She sang. She told jokes. She used double entendre now and again. And she was a great, great artist.”

Many, but certainly not all, local residents might know that the Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House and Blues Museum is located in the downtown Columbus area at 805 5th Ave.

Still, Love said, there are plenty of people, local or otherwise, who might have no clue that blues guitarist Robert Cray is from Columbus, or that guitarist Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse fame (Neil Young was in that band) is from here, or that prolific record producer Dallas Austin - who has worked with Madonna, Gwen Stefani, TLC, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men and many others - was born in the city.

“Those are the kind of stories that we want to tell this year in the ‘Year of Georgia Music,’ Love said. “It’s really about music heritage and all of the great live music that you can engage in.”

Georgia as a whole has been a hotbed of talent through the decades. Major names with roots in the Peach State include The Allman Brothers Band, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, The B-52s, Sugarland, James Brown, Otis Redding and, of course, music legend Ray Charles, who made “Georgia On My Mind” a No. 1 hit in 1960, leading to it being named the state’s official song.

Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention Visitors Bureau, said his office has always made arts and culture - including that of music artists and performers - part of the city’s pitch to travelers staying here or contemplating doing so.

“What you’re seeing us do with the new campaign we have out is we’ve lifted that arts and culture a little more prominently in our imagery,” he said. “It’s woven into the copy of our ads, our Facebook or social media campaigns. We’re also highlighting events that tend to center around music or families that enjoy arts-related activity.”

Love also pointed to the potential impact that music festivals in particular can have on Georgia. She said the CMA Festival, held each summer in Nashville, Tennessee, is a prime example, with the country music event drawing 80,000 fans, filling 150,000 hotel room nights and generating $39.3 million in direct spending in 2014. The bottom line, she said, music can be big business.

The Tourism Division has created an online page for its “Year of Georgia Music,” located on the main ExploreGeorgia.org website. It allows visitors to order a travel guide, research a future trip and plan it.

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Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com

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