Music awards

Music promoter and entertainment reporters T.J Cates and wife Jill Santabanez have teamed up with Mississippi Music Foundation founder Peter Whitham to produce the 2023 Mississippi Music Awards which will be held in April at the Landers Center.

The Mississippi Music Awards will be returning to the Landers Center in April after a two year lay-off due to COVID. The 2023 awards show will not only feature more than 40 musical acts who will be performing on stage, but will also offer fans a chance to experience and walk the red carpet and rub elbows with the actual artists.

“I’m excited to be back and have the event live once again,” said Mississippi Music Foundation Founder and CEO Peter Whitham. “We had to take a little time off and we didn’t do one virtual because the idea is to be able to see and meet the artists. We are going to have every genre from classical to blues to country to instrumental. But what’s exciting about this year is you will be able to walk the red carpet, get your picture taken, and say hello to these incredibly talented artists.”

Whitham, who was born in Malta but grew up on Long Island, lives in DeSoto County and started the Mississippi Music Foundation in 1998 as a way to showcase the incredible musical talent in Mississippi. As a concert pianist who traveled the world for over 20 years playing and composing music for some of the finest piano manufacturers, Whitham said he was drawn to Mississippi because of the extraordinary diversity of its music and the abundance of talent and struggling musicians who deserve to be heard.

“If you look at American music, roughly 80 percent of it started here,” Whitham said. “The reason I started the foundation is because there is so much talent here that didn’t have an opportunity. So this opens up a lot of opportunity.”

The mission of the foundation is to provide free education through seminars, conferences, workshops, internships, networking, musical training, technical expertise, songwriting collaborations, and performing opportunities to enable individuals to develop their talent while learning about multiple genres and Mississippi music history.

“We have all kinds of programs from youth orchestra to a money match program to seminars and workshops,” Whitham said. “The goal is to bring young people to music and older people back to music.”

The highlight of the year though is the music award show which recognizes artists in a number of categories including best Mississippi blues, best band, rock, alternative, song of the year, and a Lifetime Achievement Award to individuals in the music industry with Mississippi roots. Past honorees include BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Blind Mississippi Morris, and 7-time Emmy winner David L. Cook.

“It’s a four hour show,” Whitham said. “We have had as many as 90 people perform. It draws about 400 guests a year and we think we can double that this year.”

Whitham is teaming up this year with T.J. Cates and his wife Jill Santibanez to expand the award show and make it more fan friendly. Cates and Santibanez are the hosts of Nashville Entertainment Weekly and have years of experience appearing at red carpet events interviewing celebrities and promoting music acts.

“I think T.J. and Jill will be able to help grow the award show,” Whitham said. “I’ve always put it together myself, but T.J. and Jill are young and I like the idea of having new people and new blood with some fresh eyes.”

Cates said he plans to reach out to his extensive contacts in Nashville and the entertainment industry and bring even more celebrities to the show for people to meet.

“Peter already has a great system that works,” Cates said. “So what Jill and I want to do is bring a little bit of Nashville to the things that he is already doing here. We want to make this an entertainment show for the people of north Mississippi who don’t get to go to awards shows like the CMAs. It’s not going to be a concert where you are 500 feet away from the stage watching a Jumbotron. This way they will get to go on the red carpet and see these entertainers up close, which I think will be exciting.”

Cates said letting ticketholders and the artists who have been nominated for an award  who have never had that type of exposure walk down the red carpet and be seen is an experience like no other.

“I know that when I was in Nashville and started going to the CMA Awards how exciting it was for me,” Cates said. “People at home only get to see it on TV and don’t know how big and how loud it is. The red carpet is a loud and exciting place to be.”

Cates said he plans to reach out to Mississippians in the music business who have made it big like Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, and Marty Stuart to come to the awards show.

“We want to let them know how much we appreciate what they did and how we would love to have them come to our event and give them an award for taking Mississippi music worldwide,” Cates said.

Santibanez said the real stars of the show though are all of the super talented artists out there who don’t have a platform to showcase their work who will have the opportunity to compete in an award show with other great local talent from Mississippi.

“Some recording artists have never had a chance to take pictures on the red carpet, be nominated, or receive an award for their music,” Santibanez said. “It’s wonderful that Peter Whitham has created an award show to recognize recording artists at all levels who have gone through the process of writing original music, getting it professionally recorded, and loaded to digital distribution. It’s going to be a fun time and we look forward to seeing everyone there.”

Tickets are available for $50 but seating is limited. Meet and greet opportunities and VIP seating are also available as well as sponsorships. The show will be held in the grand ballroom at Landers Center. 

Cates said the cost to attend the award show is tax deductible.

“It’s a charity so they are tax deductible,”  Cates said. “So if you buy four tickets, that is $200 off your taxes. We also have sponsorships available. You can get your business logo on the background on the red carpet. You can also get VIP seating right up by the stage.”

For ticket information visit

Whitlam said they will have at least 40 musical acts on stage performing at the awards show. Whitham himself actually closes the show with a piano performance.

“Everybody gets one song,” Whitham said. “It’s got to be original and it has to have a Mississippi tie. I’m excited for the show. This will give people an opportunity to listen to music by artists who they may never have heard of before while supporting a good cause.”

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