When Festival South partnered with Signature Magazine nine years ago to launch the Best of the Pine Belt competition, organizers had no idea it would eventually take on a life of its own.

Created to showcase the best of the best of Pine Belt’s businesses, personalities, cuisine and charitable organizations, the contest’s popularity grew and grew, first adding the award show component five years ago.

The tradition continued Friday, when the red carpet was rolled out in downtown Hattiesburg for the 2019 Best of The Pine Belt Awards Show, sponsored by Keith’s Superstores, Mississippi Music, First Bank and FB Wealth Management with support from VisitHattiesburg.

More than 743,000 votes were cast for this year’s awards, with Pine Belt residents casting their ballots in the categories of Shops, Wares and Services; Arts, Culture and Entertainment; Recreation, Health and Beauty; Food and Drink and Attractions and Lifestyles.

The BOPB celebration began with a Hall of Fame Dinner on Thursday evening at The Bottling Company, where six individuals were inducted into the 2019 Best of the Pine Belt Hall of Fame: Raylawni Branch, one of the first two African American students to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1965; Father Tommy Conway, longtime priest at St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Fabian Catholic churches in Hattiesburg; the Fokakis family, which has owned and operated the Coney Island Cafe in downtown Hattiesburg for more than a century; Cindy Pennington, executive director of The Arc of Southeast Mississippi, which works to support individuals with disabilities; Tommy “T-Bone’ Pruitt, a Jones County-based blues musician who has performed and toured throughout the United States for more than half a century; Robert St. John, a local chef/author/restaurateur whose Purple Carrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill and affiliated restaurants have been a staple of the Pine Belt culinary scene..

Nelson Haskin Jr. was honored with the James “Jay” Slaughter Catalyst Award. Haskin is the owner of Blu Jazz Cafe, Nellie’s Chicken and Daiquiris and Southbound Bagel, all located in downtown Hattiesburg.


On Friday night following a street party in front of the Saenger Theater, the festivities moved inside as Madewood Street Music warmed up the crowd prior to the awards show, where awards were presented in 12 categories, including:

n Best Live Musical Act: Hub City Sound Machine

n Best Volunteer: Shawn Harris

n Best Mover & Shaker: Allison Neville

n Best Unsung Hero: Kathy Garner

n Album of the Year: “Desperate Times & Blind Eyes”

n Best Local Chef: Josh Casper of The Depot

n Best Local Comic: Whodi

n Best Local Tattoo Artist: Anthony Washington of The Ink Company

n Most Effective Non Profit: Extra Table

n Best Hattiesburger: Robert St. John

n Best Local Podcast: A Paranormal Chicks

n Best Musical Duo/Group: Royal Horses

In between the award presentations, the crowd was treated to musical numbers by bands including The Pine Belt Pickers, Thomas Jackson Orchestra, Goth Dad, Royal Horses, Abigail Allen and Leann Marie, The DLX, Stephen Wade Scott, Midnight Revel and Down & Good.

“This just gets bigger and bigger, and better and better (every year),” Signature Magazine Publisher David Gustafson told the crowd of more than 750 at the Saenger Theater. “And it’s because of the support of everybody that’s here tonight, and everybody that voted in this process that makes nights like tonight so special.”

The dinner and awards show rounded out this year’s FestivalSouth, a multi-week, multi-genre arts festival featuring events that showcase the area’s economy and attractions.