After my final performance at the Oxford Blues Festival with Duwayne Burnside, my friend and I were hungry for barbecue. Although there was a barbecue restaurant on South Lamar near the festival, we had been there before, and wanted to try a new spot. Lamar Yard, located south of Oxford on Lamar Boulevard is a new restaurant and outdoor venue which had served as the location for the blues festivals Thursday kickoff party, which we had been unable to attend.
When we arrived, a guitar duo was just wrapping up on the outdoor stage. The outdoor aspect of the place was truly huge, with plenty of picnic tables, and cheerful lights strung between a large tree at the courtyard entrance and the buildings on each side. Although we were quite late, the staff was cheerful about taking our order. I opted for two meats, pulled pork and beef brisket, which came with two sides, french fries and macaroni and cheese. Good brisket is hard to find outside of Texas, but Lamar Yard’s is quite decent, with a nice pink color and the smoke ring that should always be evident on brisket. The portion of pork shoulder was small, but it was also quite good. The french fries were OK, but the macaroni and cheese was extremely cheesy and quite delicious.
In addition to the large outdoor space, Lamar Yard has a spacious inside dining area as well, which is where we chose to eat, at least in part due to the humidity and bugs. All the same, the courtyard is available for special event rental, and would be a fun setting for a concert or a party. We found the experience enjoyable, the service attentive and the food good, and will be back.
Home Place Pastures was originally founded in 1869 or 1871, depending on the source, as a cotton plantation in the wilderness east of the railroad town of Como, Mississippi. It has belonged to several successive generations of the Bartlett family, with the most recent owners having decided to convert it from traditional agriculture to sustainable and organic beef, pork and lamb. The decision was an inspired one, and more and more restaurant menus in our region bear the legend “We proudly serve Home Place Pastures pork.” In addition to pasture-raised livestock, the Home Place has also served as a wedding venue at times. But once a year, it also becomes home to one of the Hill Country’s most important food and blues events, the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic.
The French word “boucherie” literally means a butcher’s shop, but the Hill Country Boucherie is actually a five-course meal prepared by nationally-renowned chefs. This year, items from 25 of the South’s best restaurants were available, and many people chose to camp on the grounds for the whole weekend. There was also a rock and hip-hop music festival on Friday night called Muscle Fest, which included the groundbreaking Memphis hip-hop artist Cities Aviv.
Nevertheless, for lovers of the Hill Country Blues, it is the blues picnic after the boucherie that is the main attraction. The Home Place Pastures is actually the perfect location for blues music, with a large pavilion suited to the purpose, and a retrofitted school bus with its front wall cut away to convert it into a movable stage. Fans have to sit on bales of hay, but that is half the fun, and the kids love playing on the larger haystacks that separate the fans from the artists-only area backstage.
For those who didn’t buy tickets to the boucherie, the Blues Picnic always has excellent pulled pork, and this year was no exception, except that they also had delicious brisket sandwiches, provided by Smoke Shop BBQ in Oxford.
As for the music, the evening began with the Como Mamas, singing a capella, but their voices were so strong that they easily carried the crowd. They were soon followed by R. L. Boyce, the elder statesman of Hill Country blues, who had just celebrated a birthday a few days before. Boyce, who often improvises lyrics as he goes, sang that he had said he wasn’t going to sing anymore, but evidently had changed his mind. His slow and languid “Jesus Is Going To Meet Me By The River Jordan” is a study in discipline, a humid aural landscape based on the plagal cadence at the end of hymns, a fitting soundtrack to sweltering summer days, kids playing on haystacks, or slow-moving creeks and bayous in the late afternoons. As his fellow musicians often attempt to pick up its pace, Boyce calmly but firmly re-establishes the slow tempo he demands. It is a sound unlike any other in the region.
Kenny Brown is another matter altogether, a disciple of both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, who picked up the electrified sound of the latter man’s last stylistic phase. Hill Country blues amplified and electrified becomes a kind of rock and roll, and Brown, along with compatriot Cedric Burnside, are the two best exponents of this style and sound, which has a large following in and around the Oxford area.
The Home Place Band, AKA the Como-Tions, is Marshall Bartlett’s own band. They generally make an appearance at each year’s boucherie, and occasionally at the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas’ Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band. Although music is more a fun hobby than a vocation for them, they are actually quite good, and their “Hog Farmin’ Daddy” is a hilarious song that somewhat describes what Home Place Pastures is all about.
Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band were not on the published schedule, but nonetheless made a welcome appearance. Black fife and drum music is perhaps the earliest secular Black music in the Hill Country, and simply the right thing for a moonlight picnic near Como. The rhythms and polyrhythms demand action, and people get up to parade and dance and second-line around the grounds.
The headline performer of the evening was the Rev. John Wilkins, son of the late Robert Wilkins, of “Prodigal Son” fame. John is the pastor of Hunters Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, not far from the Home Place, and a major gospel music star in his own right. Playing a music that differs little from traditional Hill Country blues except for the lyrics has given Wilkins a forum that few other gospel artists could attain, for he plays many nights a year at festivals and even night clubs where he is often the only gospel act. Yet he never compromises his beliefs, or sings a secular song. One can only imagine how many blues fans, perhaps burdened with troubles or sorrows, have been comforted and perhaps encouraged by something the Rev. John Wilkins sang or said at precisely the right time. After reminding us that when God says we have to move, we have to move, he then reminded us that “You can’t hurry God” but He’s “right on time.” There was a final country band scheduled to go on stage after Wilkins, but there was really no better message to carry away from the Hill Country boucherie and blues picnic. God is always right on time.
Although I had heard of Wolf River Brisket Company when it first opened, I must admit that I was skeptical. Years of repeated bitter disappointments had led me to a sad conclusion: Never order brisket outside of Texas. Admittedly, I had had some passable brisket in other states- Central BBQ’s in Memphis was OK, and Jerry Lee Lawler’s in the same city was decent, and I had fairly good brisket at a place called Pig and Pint in Jackson, Mississippi. But nothing ever came close to the great brisket I had enjoyed at several different places in Austin- until now.
WRBC, as its rather long name is abbreviated, has the best brisket I have ever eaten outside of Austin. It can be ordered fatty, lean or mixed, and has a beautiful smoke ring. The slices are thick, and full of smoke flavor. And while the sides lack french fries (as is also common in Texas), I had no trouble finding something to my liking…they include homemade potato chips and baked macaroni and cheese, both of which are delicious. Every order comes with a quarter of a cornbread waffle, which includes jalapeno peppers and is awesome. A whole one can be ordered as an appetizer and comes with a maple butter.
I didn’t try a dessert on my visit- the Collierville location is in the same shopping center with the Levee Creamery, which has the same owners, so a lot of people probably walk down there for an after-dinner treat. But WRBC’s menu features something called a “Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie.” It sounds delectable, and definitely worth a try on a future visit.
Day 2 of South By Southwest 2011 was also St. Patrick’s Day, which made everything all the more crowded, as well as a sea of green. I started the day at the 24 Diner, which is sort of a crossroads in Austin during the conference. Nearly everybody ends up there at some point, since the place never closes and the food is good. It’s also in the same building with Waterloo Records, the city’s best record store. To eat there during SXSW requires getting up early, because eventually the parking lot will be closed for Waterloo Records’ performance stages. On this particular grey morning, which seemed to be threatening rain, they were setting up the stage while I enjoyed my breakfast.
The problem during South By Southwest is not finding something to do; rather, it is deciding which of the hundreds of options you want to do. On this particular day, a Treme day party at The Ghost Room caught my eye, primarily because of the great New Orleans musicians who were scheduled to play, including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I really was not all that familiar with Treme, the television series. I didn’t have HBO at home; if I had known that the series was made by the same folks who had done The Wire I likely would have been more aware and more interested. As it was, I found a huge crowd out in the street in front of the venue, snapping photos of some of the actors in the series. Inside, a group I wasn’t familiar with was on stage, but the music was good. Unfortunately, a call from the home office of the music distributor I worked for took up thirty minutes as I sat out on the deck, and I missed some performers I had wanted to see. All the same, it was enjoyable, and as we left, we were given DVDs that had the first episode of the series on them.
Elsewhere downtown, St. Patrick’s Day was in full swing. Not the least pleasure of Austin during SXSW is the warm, almost-summer weather, while Memphis and points east and north are still shivering in winter cold. Rooftop bars were full, and many venues had lines of people waiting to get in. Not far from the CNN Grill was a parking lot that had been repurposed into the Pepsi Max Lot. Here people were enjoying table tennis, Mexican street corn, and, of course, cups of Pepsi Max. After spending some time there, I decided that I would leave downtown for dinner and head out to Lake Austin.
Lake Austin, the city’s primary water reservoir is located west of downtown. It has a couple of restaurants on it, included Abel’s on the Lake and Chuy’s Hula Hut. Chuy’s, despite the Hula Hut name, is primarily a Mexican restaurant, so I chose Abel’s and had a delicious hamburger there, although the lake view was blocked by heavy shades that had been pulled down across the windows. Out on the deck, however, it was a different story. There I was able to photograph some beautiful views of the lake, boats and restaurant decks, including the quaint Hula Hut next door, complete with its tiki statues and palms. Next door, Mozart’s Coffee Roasters made a good place for an after-dinner coffee.
Back downtown, I briefly ran into the Texas reggae/singer/rapper Papa Reu, who was chilling outside his van at the Four Seasons Hotel, before I headed over to a club near Sixth Street called Fuze, where a Texas rap showcase was taking place.