One of the best things about our slow return to normalcy has been the reappearance of the festivals we missed in 2020. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa each year at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County was founded by blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah to commemorate and preserve the Hill Country blues traditions, and especially the legacies of the Kimbrough and Burnside families. Held over two nights, the festival generally attracts several hundred people from all over the world; sadly, this year, most of the international visitors were unable to attend, due to ongoing travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Still, several hundred people attended on Friday night, seeing performances by Jimbo Mathus and Kent Burnside, and Duwayne Burnside with his band. Lots of musicians were backstage, including Little Joe Ayers, and there were great charcoal-grilled hamburgers for the performers.
An even bigger crowd attended on Saturday, when artists like Memphisippi Sounds, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band performed.
One week after the earlier graduation party, there was an even bigger outdoor backyard party in Holly Springs, this one at a large house north of town, said to be sponsored by a law enforcement officer for his wife. No expense had been spared; the type of large stage used by cities for their outdoor festivals had been rented, and two bands had been hired, Duwayne Burnside and his band from Marshall County, and the southern soul artist Ms. Nikki and her band from Memphis (although apparently Ms. Nikki is originally from Holly Springs as well). A mechanical bull had been rented, and a DJ hired, and a building in back of the house which looked like a garage had been decked out like a club, with tables and chairs for at last a hundred folks, and a full bar. Inside was a buffet table, with pulled pork, grilled burgers, hot dogs and grilled corn on the cob. The pulled pork shoulder was just about the best I have ever eaten.
Outside, almost 300 people enjoyed great blues music and southern soul, despite an unexpected late cold snap. People danced and partied, and it was almost more like a large festival than a private backyard party, with cars filling the front yard of the house all the way to the road. Holly Springs knows how to party.
Marshall County, Mississippi is one of those out-of-the-way places in the South where old traditions and ways have retained a foothold. The county is the epicenter of the Hill Country Blues style, and the related Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of the Kimbrough family, and blues is often the soundtrack for picnics and family gatherings.
On May 22, a family graduation party turned into a virtual music festival in Holly Springs, as the family had booked Hill Country greats Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside to perform in their front yard. They also had a DJ and plenty of good barbecue, and a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered, with cars up and down old Highway 4. Although it was quite hot, it didn’t deter the party-goers, and after the sun went down, things cooled off some. It was actually a big night for Hill Country blues in Holly Springs, as Kenny Brown was also performing at a historic home on Salem Avenue for the first of the summer Blues on the Porch performances. Blues is still the soundtrack of summer in Marshall County.
Although the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale typically fills up all hotel rooms in Coahoma County, sometimes something will open up in the last day or two before the festival as people cancel their trips, and so after weeks of fruitless searching, I had been able to eventually get a hotel room at the Quality Inn in Clarksdale, and therefore didn’t have to make the drive back and forth from Memphis. But I woke up early, and decided to head downtown in search of breakfast.
In a normal year, Yazoo Pass would have been my choice for breakfast, but they had been severely affected by the pandemic, and were not open on the morning of the festival. So the only option was Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, a decent restaurant whose staff was harried by the flood of customers. I was fortunate, because I managed to get in just before the crowd swooped in, and already had a table before things got truly gridlocked. Although it had been expected that crowds would be down this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds seemed about what would be expected for a Juke Joint Festival day, and there were few masks and not much social distancing. With many people getting vaccinated and case loads declining, a lot of people and places were beginning to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life.
I leisurely sipped a cup of strong coffee and enjoyed my bacon-and-cheese omelette, hashbrowns, biscuit and pancakes, while blues fans from all over the country filled up every other available seat in the house. It was fun, and delicious.
Heading down toward Cat Head, I ran into DJ Hustleman from Neshoba County out in front of the old Club Vegas. He had not eaten yet and wanted to get caught up with me, so I led him down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, where I knew we could get right in and enjoy at least breakfast biscuits. In that regard, I was not disappointed. I opted for a pour-over coffee, and a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, which was delicious. Hustleman and I sat at a back table and spent some time getting each other up to date, and then I headed up to Delta Avenue to check out vendors and get ready for the first acts of the festival day. The only impact that the pandemic seemed to have was that there were fewer vendors. Even so, I found a very beautiful piece of etched wood-art in honor of the late fife-and-drum-band leader Othar Turner from Gravel Springs, outside Senatobia, and as the price was reasonable enough, I purchased it. Hustleman moved his car and then began playing his guitar on the sidewalk in front of Club Vegas. It was a great beginning to the day.
After dinner, I began my first night of the Juke Joint Fest at Red’s Blues Lounge in Clarksdale to catch Grenada bluesman Frank “Guitar” Rimmer Jr. To my amazement, the place was packed with people. After a year of almost no live music, it was so good to see people back in a nightclub enjoying good blues in person. Unfortunately, Red’s has always been restrictive with regard to filming and sometimes even photography, so after Rimmer’s first set, I headed around to Bluesberry Cafe to catch Robert Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. Robert was the first blues artist I met at my very first Juke Joint Festival back in the day; at that time he was selling a burned CD with a few songs on it. He has come a long way since those early days, with four studio albums to his credit. His performance at Bluesberry Cafe included songs from his new album The Pain Won’t Stop and several covers of songs recorded by his late brother David Kimbrough III, notably “Home Alone.” As at Red’s, there was a significant crowd at Bluesberry Cafe too, and the mood was jovial on the streets. It was a great way to kick off this year’s Juke Joint Fest.
I am not sure how my friend Sherena Boyce became aware of Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, but at some point a couple of years ago, she began to tell me of this female blues artist who was kin to the late Paul “Wine” Jones and who sounded something like Jessie Mae Hemphill. Since that time, we had wanted to help her market and promote herself as an artist, but the pandemic got in the way. Finally, here in April 2021, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly subsiding, we set up a time for her to come to Clarksdale so we could shoot still photos and video footage of her that we hope will enable her to gain notice and get more live performances.
“Honeybee,” as she likes to be called, lives at Indianola, in the Delta, but her guitar style more resembles the Hill Country style of blues than that of the Delta. She is furthermore a traditionalist, and has avoided the influence of most modern blues; her repertoire consists of old, traditional lyrics like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” or “Catfish Blues.” Her appearance should be welcomed at a time when most blues is of the Southern soul variety, and where female blues artists are few and far between outside of Southern soul.
Sean “Bad” Apple, blues musician and entrepreneur extraordinaire in Clarksdale was gracious enough to provide the use of his new club, the Bad Apple Blues Club, for our video and photo session on a Saturday afternoon before a small crowd of people who were in Clarksdale for the full week before Juke Joint Festival. His club, in the former Club 2000 building on Issaquena Avenue, has something of the authentic juke atmosphere of Red’s, but if the color scheme of Red’s revolves around red, Apple’s club revolves around blue. The space is tiny, but the atmosphere is warm and convivial. As for Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, she is a new voice of Mississippi blues that we will be hearing about for some time to come.
One of the worst things of 2020 was the cancellation of nearly all live music events, gigs, festivals and parties. It was understandable, in the light of COVID, but it was still disappointing. Having not played a gig since August, I was thrilled when the great blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside called me to play his birthday party out in the rurals between Independence, Mississippi and Holly Springs. With the weather unseasonably warm, I imagined there would be a fairly good turnout.
Duwayne chose to have his party at a rural club and baseball field called Mattie B’s along the Wall Hill Road east of Independence in Marshall County. The place has the look and feel of a real Mississippi juke, complete with pool tables, but it has a surprisingly ample stage. When I arrived, there were a lot of cars in the back near the baseball field, and a food truck had set up there selling plates. The inside was not drastically crowded, but there was a good number of people inside, among them the blues musician Robert Kimbrough, and the DJ was playing good blues and southern soul inside.
Duwayne took the stage at about 8 PM, and we played until around 10:00 PM, with Pinkie Pulliam on bass and Artemas Leseur on drums. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when Duwayne played the late David Kimbrough’s song “I Got The Dog In Me,” which was the first time I had heard him play that song. Blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah also made an appearance, and Kenny briefly joined Duwayne on the stage. The crowd especially took to the more upbeat Hill Country tunes, filling the dance floor in front of the stage. It made a nice throwback to how things were before the pandemic.
The COVID pandemic has had a drastic and devastating effect on the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues scenes in North Mississippi, with almost all festivals and events cancelled this year, or reconceived as virtual events streamed online rather than events in the real world for fans to attend. One bright exception has been Foxfire Ranch, the rural blues and event center at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, which, because of its outdoor nature and rural setting, felt confident in continuing to host events and book artists.
In August, Foxfire booked Duwayne Burnside and his band, which included his brother Garry Burnside. The weather was beautiful, although hot, and a surprisingly large crowd of fans attended. With great blues coming from the stage, and dancers on the floor in front, for a few sunny hours it was possible to imagine life without the pandemic at all.
Foxfire has continued to book blues-related events as weather permits, including a camp this summer that featured Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis, two of the hottest young Black blues artists in America today. Having so many events cancelled helps us appreciate the few that we have left.
The approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
The house where TBC was to play at 4 PM looked like a fairly ordinary Uptown home from the street, but it was abuzz with activity and people coming and going, including a number of Black Indians who had been down at Second and Dryades. The party was being held in the back yard of the house, and when Darren Towns and Bunny Adams arrived, we were all led into the backyard, and it became apparent that the house had been beautifully equipped to host parties. On the back, a roofed deck complete with a bar was full of partiers, and another free-standing bar was located in a corner of the backyard. At least fifty people were present as the TBC Brass Band struck up a brief set of their most popular tunes, and everyone had a remarkably good time. I was later told that the house in fact belonged to the Big Chief of one of the Black Indian gangs. Although it wasn’t even 5 PM when we left the party, and Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge was less than a mile away, due to Mardi Gras, it took us from 4:45 PM tp 6:15 PM to drive the mile from First Street to Treme.