The Hill Country blues scene has always been a music of juke joints. Although the music is occasionally heard at large festivals and big city clubs, its home is the rural Northeast Mississippi hole-in-the-walls and picnics. For many years, the nerve center of the music (in the related form of Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family called it) was the rural juke on Highway 4 in Chulahoma which the late Junior Kimbrough owned. After it burned, there have been a succession of attempts to replace it in the Marshall County area, from a Burnside Blues Cafe out on Highway 310 in 2011 to David Kimbrough’s Junior’s Juke Joint No. 2 in 2015 in Holly Springs on Highway 7.
In early 2022, R. L. Burnside’s son Duwayne acquired the building in which David ran his juke joint and began converting it into the Burnside Bar and Grill. After a soft opening in April, the place has become a gathering point for barbecue and great live blues on an almost weekly basis. Not only has Duwayne Burnside performed there himself with his band, but also such great musicians as Garry Burnside, Kinney Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Memphis Gold and Robert Kimbrough have graced its stage. Like most jukes, the ambiance is generally informal. People walk in and out. Sometimes there is an admission charge, often there is not. Sometimes there is free food, sometimes food is available for a price per plate. There is no DJ as such, just a cell phone hooked to speakers playing good blues. But then, one doesn’t expect a juke joint to be formal. Burnside Bar and Grill is a must-experience destination in Holly Springs, especially for all fans of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul blues styles.
Hernando’s Hide-a-Way was once a popular and famous nightclub on the Old Hernando Road west of Highway 51 in Whitehaven. Named for a song from the 1950s musical The Pajama Game, the club was popular as a place for early rock and roll, country and rockabilly. In later years, it had been famous for country music and then it finally closed altogether. After about three years of closure, Hernando’s Hide-a-Way was renovated and reopened, but I had somewhat assumed that the focus of the club would be country, so I had not taken the time to go out there, although some musician friends I knew in Memphis had been playing there since the reopening.
Nevertheless, in July of 2022, Hernando’s Hide-a-Way booked Hill Country blues musician Duwayne Burnside, and I became aware that they were booking far more than simply country or rockabilly. In fact, upon entering the club and seeing all of the historic memorabilia on the walls, it became clear that the booking policy had always been more diverse than I had thought. Even Fats Domino had played there in the 1950s. The furnishings and stage are in keeping with a nostalgic throwback ambiance…..there is even an old-fashioned cigarette machine. But what is new is the food menu, which is a vast step above the usual bar food. Even the bacon cheeseburger I ordered was a delicious thing of beauty indeed, and the prices were quite reasonable. If one wants to talk with their friend of significant other over a meal, the outdoor patio makes a great alternative to the club interior.
Altogether, the new Hernando’s Hide-a-Way is a must-visit attraction in the city of Memphis, for its history, for its great music and for its great food as well.
After an interruption caused by COVID-19, the annual Hill Country Picnic returned to Betty Davis’ Ponderosa near Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, with two days of great Hill Country music and artists. The Hill Country Blues style (or Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family calls their style of blues) is a unique form of music that originates in the Hill Country of Northeast Mississippi, and is especially prevalent in Marshall County, where well-known blues musicians like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived. The county is still home to prominent musicians, including Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough, as well as Joe Ayers, who was an original member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys band.
Unlike many other summer blues events, the Hill Country Picnic is generally restricted to artists who are from the Hill Country region, or who were mentored by the original Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues performers. This guarantees plenty of opportunities to see the African-American originators of the tradition, which sadly is increasingly not the case at other high-profile blues festivals.
On the hot July Saturday of this year’s festival, fans got an opportunity to hear R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Kent Burnside and Kenny Brown, who started the festival in Potts Camp some 15 or so years ago.
Although the crowds have been smaller since the pandemic, it is good to see things beginning to return to normal, and one hopes that attendance will bounce back toward pre-pandemic numbers with each coming year.
Saturday April 23 was the main day of Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a bright and sunny day, but extremely windy. In fact, the wind was so severe that it blew down a number of the vendor tents along downtown streets. When I arrived at the Wade Walton Stage, one of the free stages throughout the daytime, Memphisippi Sounds was on stage, the duo of Cameron Kimbrough and Damian Pearson. While there are not a lot of young Mississippi Hill Country artists, this group is one of the best emerging artists from the region. They were followed by Garry Burnside and his band, and then Duwayne Burnside and his band, and finally Kenny Brown, who was mentored by Mississippi Joe Callicott and the great R. L. Burnside. Around the same time, Como bluesman R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm were on the Sunflower River stage next to Quapaw Canoe Company.
2022 brought some new openings to Clarksdale as well as some sad closings. The Riverside Hotel, famous as the the former hospital where blues great Bessie Smith died, has remained closed since it was damaged in a storm, and a fundraising effort is underway to keep it from closing permanently. Yazoo Pass, although open to a limited extent during weekdays, has closed at night, and was open only briefly on the festival day. But Sean “Bad” Apple’s new blues club in the former Club 2000 building, as well as the opening of the new Buster’s Blues Club next door show that the renaissance in Clarksdale still remains strong coming out of the pandemic.
After a dinner at the Hooker Grocery, I made my way over to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue for Duwayne Burnside’s night show. While the daytime stages are free to the public, the night shows inside the various juke joints require wristbands or paid admissions, but the shows are generally well-attended, and Duwayne’s was no exception.
As events go, the annual Juke Joint Fest has played perhaps the biggest role in making Clarksdale, Mississippi a tourist destination on the world stage, and over the years it has grown into a bigger and bigger event. Although the official festival generally takes place on a Saturday, it has come to encompass four days of live music and events, some of them official and others not. This year, the Juke Joint Fest kicked off on Friday with a parade in downtown Clarksdale, the first such parade during the festival I can recall. It was breaking up on John Lee Hooker Street just as I walked up to the Hooker Grocery, perhaps Clarksdale’s most upscale restaurant.
After dinner, I walked down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, the youth-run coffee bar which was also quite crowded. Although it usually closes early in the afternoon, Meraki extends their hours during the festival, and it is something of a hub for visitors and performers alike. The streets were full of local residents and tourists in a festive mood, and music was everywhere. Making my way back to Yazoo Avenue, I met up with Duwayne Burnside whose band was setting up to play at Bluesberry Cafe, which was packed to overflowing. After his performance, I was tempted to swing by Red’s Lounge, but as it was late and the next day was an even bigger day for the festival, I headed back to Memphis.