I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Brownsville, so I headed out Highway 70 from Bartlett, and stopped in Mason, Tennessee to see if there were any announcements about upcoming events now that the pandemic seemed to be waning. To my surprise, there were several events coming up, including a retirement party for the Zodiac A’s, the local softball team in Mason for 35 years, and a community gospel concert at Fredonia Missionary Baptist Church. The biggest event coming was the July 4 Mason Community Family Reunion sponsored by the southern soul artist Terry Wright, for which I had already pre-purchased tickets.
However, in Brownsville, I could not reach my friend on the phone, and after driving around the town for a half hour or so, I headed on to Jackson, Tennessee. First, I drove by Reggie’s Bar-B-Que to pick up some bags of their pork rinds, which are unique and unlike any other brand, and then I headed from the east end of town toward downtown. Along Whitehall Street, I came to an old and seemingly-abandoned motel which seemed frozen in time. I decided to stop and photograph it, and to my surprise, an elderly couple came out of one of the rooms, so apparently the motel wasn’t quite as abandoned as it seemed.
Downtown, I pulled up to the Blacksmith Bar and Grill, and, faced with the prospect of eating dinner by myself, I posted a message to any of my Jackson friends on Facebook to meet me up at the restaurant. To my surprise, one of my friends from Huntsville responded, Codie G, who was in town doing contract work for the U.S. Army. We had a decent time catching up with one another over dinner, and then, resisting the temptation to run by Green Frog Coffee, I hit the road back to Bartlett.
Drum practice can be noisy, and in the early days of young people learning to play, whether snare drum or the set, parents demanded that they practice in the backyard, in the wood shed so as to not disturb the house. Over time, practicing became known as “hitting the woodshed” and eventually just “shedding.” Informal gatherings at which several drummers battled back and forth became known as “shed sessions” or “drum sheds.”
In the milieu of Black gospel music, where many musicians are largely self-taught, aside from possible mentoring by older musicians in the tradition, shed sessions gave young drummers an opportunity to practice in conjunction with other drummers and other musicians, and continue to be an important part of the way Black music styles are transmitted from older musicians to younger musicians outside of a formal classroom setting.
Sheds are also exciting, and a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, they are not generally advertised ahead of time, and often are spread only by word of mouth. Even if they are mentioned on social media, it is not always clear where they are being held. So when South Memphis’ K3 Studio Cafe announced something called the Start Playing Drum Shed on a Wednesday night, it was both exciting and somewhat unusual. With February 12 being a Wednesday night, and a cold, wet one at that, I was not sure just exactly how many people would attend.
To my shock, the tiny venue was filled within an hour of doors opening. There were four drumsets, and about three keyboards, and although I had come with the intent of watching and documenting with my phone, I ended up playing the Rhodes piano, and fortunately one of the drummers who was taking a break filmed while I played. That particular groove turned into a Prince-ish funk romp that I enjoyed immensely By that point we had three keyboard players, four drummers, two saxophonists and a bassist. I had supposed that this was the shed, but we soon learned that the actual shed would be after the workshop presented by Memphis drummer Chris Pat.
Chris has been impressing me for some time with his recorded solos on the Memphis Drum Shop channel. Although they are intended to sell drum sets or cymbals, they are well-composed musical solos in their own right and not just product demos. Pat is a versatile drummer who is at home in gospel or behind Christina Aguilera, and who has as good a sense of swing as any jazz drummer I ever heard. More impressively on this workshop occasion was his great advice to young drummers and his humility. He also played drums against three recorded tracks and was absolutely amazing.
At that point, it was 10 PM, and it was announced that the shed was going to begin in earnest. I had to work the next morning at 5 AM, so I was not able to stay. I suspect that it went on until the wee hours. Did I mention that there was also no admission charge?
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.
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.
Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.
As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.
The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.
The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.
Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.
Sherena Boyce, daughter of the great Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce had told me that Deandre Walker and his band the Mississippi Boys were going to play Saturday night at a club called Como Catfish Bar & Grill in Como, so I made plans to join her and go to check them out. This was, so far as I knew, the first time for the relatively new restaurant to book live music, and my friend and I had intended to eat dinner there while enjoying the show. We soon found that we could not, because every table had been occupied by people that were there to see the show, and who would not be leaving anytime soon. So we decided we would have to grab dinner across the street at Windy City Grill and then come back.
What we didn’t know was that Windy City had booked Sean “Bad” Apple, a noted bluesman from Clarksdale, and was fairly crowded as well. However, we were able to get a table, and Sherena got a chance to perform with Sean before we finished dinner and headed back across the street to where Deandre Walker was performing.
Deandre Walker is a child of the family that has the Walker Family Singers in Como, and is a gifted young soul singer. His band, the Mississippi Boys, are first-rate also, with an incredibly funky young drummer laying the foundations. Walker typically does cover songs of many popular soul and R & B songs, but on this particular evening he also did a couple of original tunes.
With him being from Como, the little bar and grill was full to standing room only with relatives, friends and fans, and everyone had a good time. The music and fun continued until around midnight, and then everyone headed home.
A while back, I had crossed paths on Facebook with the Rev. T. Ray Greer, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in the countryside just to the north of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County. He was interested in the research that I and John Marshall were doing into the history of Mason, and so he reached out to invite us to come to a breakfast at his church, meet some of the older members, and perhaps gain new information into the history we were working on.
So on the Sunday morning after my journey to the state archives in Nashville, I drove out Austin Peay Highway, and made my way to the historic church, which was founded in 1868, although the current building was built in 1913. There was a huge quantity of cars outside, and my friend John Marshall was already there when I arrived.
Inside, we were warmly welcomed, and there was coffee and breakfast. John Marshall had brought a copy of the church’s deed, which he had copied from the county courthouse in Covington, and he was sitting and talking with a woman that was said to be 94 years old.
After breakfast, there was a rousing and joyful service, with a choir, and a drummer and a keyboard player. Although the congregation was fairly small, the members filled the stage area in front of the pulpit with all kinds of donated food goods for the needy and poor of the Mason area. When it was time for the offering, the keyboard player took a break, and to my surprise, a young man sang a song accompanied only by the drummer, who impressed me with his funky playing style.
Then it was time for John Marshall to get up and make his historical presentation. He outlined what he knew of the church’s history and property boundaries, and named many of the notable families that had helped to found the church, He also discussed the Salem School, which had been across the road from the current church.
Afterwards, I made a brief presentation regarding my research into Black fife and drum music in the Mason area. I mentioned the horse races at Booster Pete’s on the Tabernacle Road, and the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band, and a few people in the church recalled what I was talking about. I ended up leaving with about three phone numbers of people that might be willing to be interviewed on the subject of the horse races, trade days, fife and drum bands and picnics, and then headed back to Memphis.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia.
Spring is the festival season in North Mississippi, and each small town has some sort of spring festival with games, vendors and live music. Senatobia, Mississippi, in Tate County, has long been nicknamed the Five Star City (I haven’t the slightest idea why), so, not surprisingly, its spring festival is called Five Star City Fest. Como blues musician R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform on the main stage on the Friday night, May 11, but I decided to head to the festival early to see if any other blues performers were scheduled. After all, Tate County is one of only two counties where Black fife and drum music still goes on, and it has a long and storied history of blues and Black gospel music. Unfortunately, I soon learned that almost everyone booked for the festival other than Boyce were country artists. There was a barbecue festival going on in the park along the railroad tracks, but the main festival was going on along Front Street north of Main. The street had been blocked off, and a number of vendors and food trucks had set up in the area, including the local Bliss Ice Cream Company from Senatobia. With the weather so hot, I really wanted some, but they were not set up to take debit cards, so I ended up walking down Main Street to the Sayle Oil Company store, and bought an ice cream Twix bar instead. Nearly a hundred people were running or walking in the 5K run, which had begun around 6 PM, and which started and ended near the main stage. Close to the stage also was the site of the new Delta Steakhouse restaurant, and while it is not open yet, I could see through the windows that the tables and booths and chairs were already in place within the restaurant space, and that the place should be open relatively soon, perhaps in June. R. L. Boyce came on stage at 7 PM, with Steve Toney on drums and the young guitarist Kody Harrell, and with Boyce’s daughter Sherena playing the tambourine and dancing. A small crowd of Boyce fans were in the audience cheering him on as he performed most of his standard compositions and tunes. I had considered staying on after his performance to see who would come on stage next, but I soon found that it was another country band, and I had no desire to see that, so I debated heading to Holly Springs for the first night of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Music Festival, but I ultimately decided to head back to Memphis.