Celebrating the Blues and Juke Joint Culture in its Birthplace

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.

Kicking Off The Juke Joint Festival With A Parade And A Friday Night of Music

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.

A Clandestine Juke Near Chulahoma, Mississippi

When Garry Burnside told me where we were playing on a Sunday night, I was confused. The place was almost to Highway 4 along Highway 309 near Wyatt and Chulahoma, but I didn’t see anything but houses. He had said there would be a lot of cars parked beside a house, and when I found that, I turned in. Although there were no signs, there was a sort of rough juke joint behind a house, and that turned out to be the spot.

Roosevelt’s Place is the name of the semi-secret spot; no signs will lead you there, and there is no logic to when or if they have a live band; it’s basically a two-room shack. The larger front area contains the small bar and pool table, and the much narrower, smaller back room barely has space for the band and perhaps ten or so patrons. But this is the environment in which Hill Country blues thrives, and must be somewhat similar to the vibe at Junior Kimbrough’s old juke along Highway 4 before it burned.

Whether Roosevelt’s is open to the public as such is also unclear; it certainly draws a crowd from people who live in the area and know about it, although I expect that many nights there is just a DJ and not a band. Visitors should enquire in the area to see if a band is playing.

Roosevelt’s Place is behind a house on the east side of Highway 309 about a mile north of Highway 4.

Remembering the Roots of Hill Country Blues at Chulahoma

Blues singer Beverly Davis’ family owns the only store in Chulahoma, a small town about halfway between Senatobia and Holly Springs in the Mississippi Hill Country, and in October of 2021, they allowed her to hold the first annual Chulahoma Blues Festival in a cleared field behind the store on Highway 4.

Chulahoma has a long history with the blues. Photographer and blues researcher Michael Ford visited in the early 1970s, and the rural community was home to blues legend Junior Kimbrough’s second and most famous juke joint until it burned down in April of 2000. More recently, the area has continued to be the scene of occasional blues yard parties and at least one clandestine juke joint.

October is still hot in the Mississippi Hill Country, and this particular Saturday afternoon was steaming, but a fair number of people turned out to see Beverly Davis as well as Duwayne Burnside and the Garry Burnside Band, and the weather cooled off after the sun went down. There was plenty of good food, great blues and dancing in front of the stage, and like so many Hill Country events, the feeling that we were standing on historic ground where these kinds of events have been going on for over a hundred years. The festival is intended to be an annual event.

A Hot Saturday in Covington on the Square

I drove up to Covington to Breakfast Cove on a Saturday morning to meet up with a friend so that we could discuss the possibility of a West Tennessee Music and Heritage Festival in Mason for the next year, and after breakfast, I drove on to the Covington Square where there was some sort of car show and sale day going on. Covington, like many West Tennessee towns, is built around an historic square with a courthouse in the center, and Covington’s is fairly well-preserved so I found quite a bit to take pictures of. North Main Street off the Square was the traditional Black business district, where there used to be cafes and pool halls; a few cafes still remain on Spring Street. My biggest find was the beautiful Hotel Lindo, which has been restored and converted to condominiums; it was a truly huge hotel for what at the time it was built must have been a small town indeed. On a window of the square was a poster for an afternoon concert by Southern soul artist Big Poppa at Mason’s Zodiac Park that I would have like to have attended if I could. But I had to play with Duwayne Burnside at the Chulahoma Blues Festival in Mississippi, so I headed south through Memphis and into Mississippi.

Juke Joint Fest: Johnny Rawls at Hambone and Kent Burnside at Gentleman Lyfe

After Sherena Boyce and myself attended the Jimmy “Duck” Holmes party behind Sean “Bad” Apple’s juke joint in Clarksdale, we went different directions. She wanted to go to Kent Burnside’s performance at a new club called Gentleman Lyfe, which usually hosts more of a hip-hop crowd, but I wanted to catch Johnny Rawls’ performance at Hambone.

However, when I got to Hambone, I was somewhat disappointed. Rawls typically has a large band with horns on his albums, but at Hambone, he had a stripped-down trio band instead. Worse, the place was so crowded that I could not get anywhere near the stage. So I left there and headed around the corner to Gentleman Lyfe for Kent Burnside’s performance. Sherena got there about an hour after I did, but although Kent gave some rousing performances of Hill Country standards, the long day had taken a toll on me, and I was running on fumes. Ultimately, I left to head back to the hotel and to bed.

Juke Joint Fest: Sean Bad Apple’s Private Backyard Party With Jimmy Duck Holmes

Although the scheduled outdoor shows ended at 5 PM, Sean “Bad” Apple, who recently converted the old Club 2000 on Issaquena Avenue into the Bad Apple Blues Club, had a private invitation-only Jimmy “Duck” Holmes performance in the backyard of his club, which my friend Sherena was able to talk our way into since she knew Jimmy. The performance before a small crowd sitting on the ground was intimate, in Homes’ usual way, and was intended to highlight his new CD release. Sherena managed to buy copies of the disc and a T-shirt as well.

Juke Joint Fest Journal: Friday Night: Frank “Guitar” Rimmer Jr. at Red’s; Robert Kimbrough Jr at Bluesberry Cafe

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.

Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal: A Powerful New Female Voice in the Mississippi Blues

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.

A Sunday Night in the Hill Country

Mattie B’s is an old ballfield and juke joint in far western Marshall County, where for the last month or so, they’ve been having live Hill Country blues with Duwayne Burnside. The address is Byhalia, Mississippi, although the club is really closer to Independence, in Tate County. Beginning on Sunday nights in November, the blues night has moved to Friday nights since the third week in December, and will continue in January after a hiatus for the holidays.

On one particularly cold and wet Sunday night, the crowd was late in arriving, and the musicians were just chilling, hanging out, and playing pool.