The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.
Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.
2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.
The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.
There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!
Fife and drum music was once found in Black communities throughout the South, but by 1970, it was found only in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, and by 1981, only in several Mississippi counties. With the recent retirement of Calvin Hurt of Panola County from playing,the Hurt Family Band seems to be a thing of the past, and there is really now only one Black fife and drum picnic in the United States, the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which nowadays takes place in Coldwater, Mississippi, after many years at Otha Turner’s farm near Gravel Springs.
This year, on Saturday, the event was hampered to some extent by storms and lightning, but there was enough breaks in the rain that the performers were able to come on stage, and there was a decent crowd outside the Northwest Shrine Club in Coldwater, which was the site of the festival this year. The evening opened with female blues singer Andrea Staten, who covered classic songs by Senatobia artist Jessie Mae Hemphill and longtime Como resident Mississippi Fred McDowell. She was followed by R. L. Boyce, who performed with an Australian blues musician named Dom Turner, who was visiting Mississippi,and with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums. Afterwards, the band 78 from Memphis came up to play a mix of originals and Hill Country standards.
Between the bands, Sharde Thomas brought out her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, and they marched through the crowd with fife and drum, attracting a group of dancers behind them. The second time the Rising Stars played, they marched onto the stage and were joined by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. That impromptu jam session was memorable indeed.
Unfortunately at that point, the thunder and lightning that had been visible to the southwest started approaching nearer to the festival grounds. With bad weather eminent, and having to drive back to Brownsville and then Memphis, I left the event early.
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.
After a breakfast at the Brunswick Kitchen at Brunswick near Lakeland, I decided to spend the afternoon putting up flyers for the R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration, which is being held on September 1 during the Labor Day weekend. Coffee bars make a great place to promote events, as they typically have large community bulletin boards, or plenty of window space, so I made my way around to several Memphis area coffee bars on what was a very hot day indeed.
At Cafe Eclectic, one of Memphis’ oldest coffee bars, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a beer tap with the Illy logo on it. As Illy doesn’t make beer, I was curious, and had to ask the barista what it was. She explained that it was nitro, or nitrogenated coffee, and to my inquiries of what it was like, she responded by giving me a cold free glass of it. Without any added sugar or cream, it was absolutely delicious, mild and rich, the perfect option for such a hot day.
Downtown in the Pinch district, I came upon the new Comeback Coffee on North Main Street near Westy’s. This is Memphis’ most recent coffee bar, and an amazing and cool oasis in the city, with excellent coffee, wi-fi, comfortable seating, and an awesome multi-story outdoor courtyard.
At breakfast, I had downloaded a new iPhone photo app called Hydra, and so I spent the afternoon experimenting with it. It basically takes multiple photos and then merges them to create amazing detail and clarity with your phone. Of course it has limitations, because that method of improving photo clarity does not work with moving objects like people, pets or vehicles. But for buildings, such as old churches and other historic structures, it works very well indeed. In the South Memphis area along Florida street, I came across an old warehouse that bore an inscription for Mr. Bowers’ Stores, an old Memphis grocery chain. A painted logo for one of the locations still exists on Jackson Avenue near Breedlove. Further down Florida was an interesting new lounge called D’s Lounge, with an attractive guitar logo painted above the door. Great blues and southern soul recordings were playing inside, and I would have liked to check with them and see if they ever book live bands. But a rather draconian sign on the door read “Members Only” so I thought better of trying to go in, and continued on my way down to Mississippi, as the blues picnic portion of the annual Hill Country Boucherie was starting at 7 PM in Como.
Old habits die hard in Mississippi, and candidates for office still see a value in hiring the old-time blues musicians to play for rallies. With Tuesday August 6 as election day, Friday night the 2nd was a busy evening indeed with blues musicians hired to play for campaign rallies in places like Senatobia and Holly Springs. Carlton E. Smith, a state senate candidate from Holly Springs is running for a senatorial district that combined Marshall County and Tate County, so he thought it wise to conceive of a campaign rally in Senatobia that celebrated the musical legacies of both counties. He ended up hiring Robert Kimbrough Sr from the Holly Springs area and R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi to play for his event in Senatobia’s Gabbert Park near downtown, on a late afternoon where temperatures were approaching 90 degrees.
When I arrived, perhaps because of the hot weather, almost nobody was in the park other than the candidate and members of his campaign staff. Robert Kimbrough was on stage, with the latest version of his band, the Blues Connection, consisting of J. J. Wilburn on drums, G. Cutta on second lead guitar and Artemas LeSeuer on bass. This line-up had played with Robert in the early days of his career, and had a rawer, more traditional sound than some of his more recent versions. Kimbrough calls his music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues” at least in part because of a community called Cotton Patch near the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 72 in Benton County where Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers used to play together at a juke in the late 1960’s. One notable point from Kimbrough’s performance on this afternoon was the extent to which he performed songs from his brother David Kimbrough, who passed away on July 4 this year. Ultimately, Robert had been hired to play for another rally for a candidate, J. Faulkner, at the Bottomless Cup in Holly Springs, so his band had to quickly break down and head to the other engagement.
Lightnin Malcolm had already been there with his son, and soon R. L. Boyce made a grand entrance, arriving with a whole lot of kids, some of them at least his grandchildren, and Ms. Carolyn Hulette from Senatobia, whose son Travis used to play guitar with R. L. before he moved to Nashville. Lightnin performed a couple of songs with Artemas LeSeuer’s wife Peggy Hemphill LeSeuer, better known as Lady Trucker, before R. L. came up on stage to perform. By that point, the weather had begun to cool off, and a small crowd of older Black folks had appeared, willing to dance to R.L, and Lightnin’s grooves. When R.L. finally slowed things down a bit, he improvised lyrics to some of his friends in the crowd, pointing out that God had awakened them that morning and that one day they would have to “meet that Man.” The secular and the sacred merge together in R.L. Boyce’s Hill Country vision.
As for politics, Carlton Smith spoke a couple of times to the crowd, but he kept it brief, and to the point, talking about the need for healthcare, and the need for reducing taxes and utility costs. By the end of the evening, there was a fair number of people in the park.
Unfortunately, one thing was different from the campaign rallies of old. Traditionally, in addition to the blues or fife and drum music, there would have been a whole hog roasted, with food for everyone. Times have changed, and the campaign only had cookies, chips and bottled waters. Kids enjoyed them well enough, but at evening’s end, I was starving, so I decided to make my way to the Windy City Grill in Como for a pizza. As was typical for a Friday night, the place was packed, with a Panola County band called the Hilltoppers playing in the front right corner of the bar. In one of the windows on Main Street was an announcement of an upcoming movie screening at the Como Library, a showing of Michael Ford’s documentary Homeplace which was filmed in the Hill Country in the early 1970’s, and which features footage that was shot in and around Como as well as other places in the area. The film will be screened at 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, August 24, the same weekend as Sharde Thomas’ GOAT Picnic at Coldwater. Both events are not to be missed, for true fans of the Hill Country blues.
Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.
While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.
But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.
Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.
R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.