Pastor Keith Tonkel playing drums at WellsFest

The family-friendly music festival WellsFest returns for its 34th year on Saturday – but for the first time without the late Keith Tonkel, pastor for 48 years at Wells United Methodist Church.

The festival began in 1984 as a way for Mississippi Arts Commission executive director Malcolm White to repay Tonkel for marrying White and his wife because Tonkel wouldn’t accept an actual payment for presiding over the ceremony.

“It’ll be the first year without Keith, so he’ll be there in spirit,” said David Hampton, a pastoral assistant at Wells Church. “He would go around all day and pick up [trash] and talk to people. He’ll be missed this year.”

WellsFest will honor Tonkel, who passed away in March, with t-shirts and posters that will display one of his favorite sayings, “Always love, always.”

Organizers promote the event as the first and oldest festival in Jackson.

“It evolved from humble beginnings to a full out fun day out at the park,” said this year’s chair, Brenda Ferguson. “It’s like a family reunion: you might see people once a year but you’re going to see them at WellsFest.”

Prizes are awarded in several categories in the WellsFest pet parade, including Best Costume.

The gathering, taking place at Jamie Fowler Boyll Park, begins with a 5K run at 8 A.M., followed by a “pet parade” at 9:30 A.M. The musical performances kick off at 10 A.M. with guitarist Bob Gates; later acts include R&B group Aa’Keela and the Beats and local rock artist the Jason Turner Band.

“It’s certainly a landmark for music in the Jackson metro area,” said Raphael Semmes, a local bass player who takes care of organizing the music line-up. “We have groups calling us now, wanting to play, and that says a lot about the heart of the music community here because they know it’s a freebie, but they want to be a part of it. There’s really no festival around that I’ve been a part of quite like this one.”

Jewels Bass and Raphael Semmes performing at WellsFest, often called Jackson’s original music festival.

Artists aren’t paid, partially because entry to the festival is free and all proceeds go to a different non-profit each year. This year’s donations, expected to be around $50,000-$60,000, will go to the Methodist Children’s Homes of Mississippi. Specifically, the money will help renovate apartments for young adults who have aged out of the system but who are not prepared to live on their own.

The event brings in volunteers from all over the community, people from local schools, non-profits, boy scouts, as well as inmates.

Its become a true community effort,” added Hampton, who’s attended the event every year since it started. “Keith Tonkel used to look around and say, ‘this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.’ “

WellsFest promotes its family-friendly atmosphere: it’s an alcohol- and drug-free gathering and will feature a number of children’s activities such as pony rides, a climbing wall, and mini-golf.


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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.

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