What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.
Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.
Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.
Rossville, Tennessee, in Fayette County, was once called Lafayette Depot, but there was another Lafayette in Middle Tennessee, so sometime during Reconstruction, the town was renamed Rossville. For most of its history, it has been a small, quiet settlement of three or so streets, with some historic homes. A frozen foods plant came in the 1970’s, as did a Federally-funded community health clinic, which the Reagan administration eventually removed from the control of local community activists. Although proximity to Collierville is fueling a fair amount of suburban growth in Rossville, the main attraction is still the Wolf River Cafe, a local eatery famous for catfish that opened in 1989.
What people may not know is that the Wolf River Cafe is a great place for breakfast, too. They serve it until 10:30 AM, and on a summer morning, the place is fairly crowded. Like many rural cafes, prices are low, and the biscuits, omelettes and breakfast potatoes are truly amazing, and worth a drive from Memphis.
Also worth the drive is the little town itself, shady but full of historic houses. Little signs in front of some of them name them and give their dates. Some were built in 1860 or 1869, and some have dates that show they have been continuously added onto or improved. Rossville is best traversed on foot, as the historic district is only a few blocks wide. There is also a battlefield of sorts, the site of a small Civil War skirmish at what was once Lafayette Station, as well as a city park and a sort of boardwalk leading back across a creek to a lake behind the cafe. Altogether, Rossville makes a pleasant destination for breakfast and exploration.
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.
Signs had been posted in the Mason area regarding a large blues show at Zodiac Park for at least a month, and I had viewed the event with some interest, as I had often thought of Zodiac Park as a potential spot for a blues festival. The place is a historic Black baseball and softball field north of Mason, which has hosted car shows, but so far as I know never a blues event before. I would have conceived my event more as a roots event, with traditional blues artists and gospel groups, but this was more of a southern soul event being billed as a “Mason family reunion.” Terry Wright, himself a native of the area, was billed as the headliner, and rumor had it that he was the driving force behind the event, so I pre-purchased a ticket and made plans to go.
Despite the extreme heat, and the newness of the event, there was already a fairly large crowd at Zodiac Park when I arrived, and quite a few vendors, including a full bar. People were continuing to arrive throughout the afternoon, and several bike and car clubs had come as a group. A band was warming up on the outdoor stage as I arrived.
Unfortunately, the event was plagued by a number of issues, many of them beyond the organizers’ control. The extreme heat eventually gave way to heavy downpours of rain, which forced everyone under tents temporarily, but thankfully, the rains passed, and the sun came back out. Of greater concern were electrical problems on the stage, which occurred intermittantly all day.
Having been to only a couple of southern soul shows in the past, I had imagined that each of the acts would have their own band, but to my disappointment, the opening acts all performed to tracks instead. They included a local artist from Tipton County known as Big Poppa, someone called Big Sam, well-known female blues artist Karen Wolfe, and Mississippi artist Vick Allen. Even as these artists performed to tracks, electrical problems kept causing the microphones and tracks to cut out. Even so, a large crowd gathered in front of the stage, particularly when Karen Wolfe was on stage.
When it was time for Terry Wright to come to the stage, his band warmed up first, but the keyboard player took his instrument down and put it away, apparently because of the ongoing power concerns. Even without the keyboard, the band proved to be too much for the power available to the stage, and the microphones cut out, so a decision was made to have Terry perform with tracks instead of his band, and at that point, I made the decision to leave and go home.
Although some of the problems disappointed me, I have to say that I still had fun, many other people had fun, and there were no bad feelings or attitudes the entire day. I managed to see a number of people I knew, including Myles Wilson, one of the former owners of Club Tay-May in Mason and the former superintendent of Fayette County Schools.
Hopefully the event will continue in future years, and the only improvements I could recommend is making sure that there is enough power on stage, and having a house band to back all of the day’s singers.
Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and its county seat of Ripley have a significant blues tradition. Petey Wheatstraw was from Ripley, and Noah Lewis and John Henry Barbee were from Henning, the town made famous by Alex Haley. The blues researcher Bengt Olsson had suggested that there had been fife and drum bands in Lauderdale County, so I drove up to the Lauderdale County Library in the hopes of finding information in the back issues of the weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. Unfortunately, to my shock, the county library did not have any of the back issues of the local newspaper. The microfilm of them is instead kept at the Enterprise office, which of course was not open on a Saturday. I soon came to realize I had come to Ripley for nothing at all, but I called an acquaintance Gwen Blackman, who happened to be a block from the library at an agricultural fair, and who attempted to put me in touch with some community people who were old enough to perhaps remember some fife and drum bands or picnics, but she really could not reach anyone on that particular day. So, with little else to do, I ventured over into the Black neighborhood east of the railroad tracks, where I took some photos of historic spots and locations…old stores, old clubs, and old cafes. It was not the research toward my thesis paper that I had intended, but it was fun.
“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.
Last year marked the first time we had organized a large outdoor birthday party for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, and that first picnic, with limited promotion and budget, attracted an amazing crowd of 500 people. This year, with the involvement of Amy Verdon of Fancy Magazine and Go Ape Records, we were able to plan the event on a slightly bigger level, and despite the threat of rain all around, we enjoyed great weather and a larger attendance.
The event, held on Friday August 17 to avoid conflict with the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic which was being held on Saturday, began with an exhibit opening of photography by Como artist Yancey Allison, who has been documenting the Hill Country blues for many years. Live music began in nearby Como Park at 6 PM, with the performers being documented this year by the Memphis-based Beale Street Caravan radio show. A crowd of around 600 braved the threat of rain to enjoy fife and drum bands like The Hurt Family and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and blues and soul artists such as Andrea Staten, Kody Harrell, Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones, Cameron Kimbrough, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, Willy and the Planks, Dee Walker and Duwayne Burnside. Several times, the guest of honor, R. L. Boyce made his way to the stage to perform, and on one of those occasions the crowd joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
In addition to the five hours of some of the best Hill Country blues and soul, attendees also enjoyed free hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked sausages until they were gone.
It appears that the R. L. Boyce Picnic will be a major event in Como, Mississippi for many years to come.
Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I headed over to yet another new breakfast spot in New Orleans, this one in a familiar location, 139 South Cortez in Mid-City which was the original location of the Ruby Slipper, now a fairly-popular breakfast chain in New Orleans. The chain had let their original location go as they opened new locations closer to the tourist areas, but I was surprised to see that it had reopened in June as a new restaurant called Fullblast Brunch. Opening a breakfast restaurant in New Orleans would seem to be a foolhardy proposition, as the city seems to have more of them than any other place I have been, and yet, with few exceptions, they seem to fare well despite the obvious level of competition. One must conclude that New Orleanians absolutely love to eat breakfast out rather than at home. One of the things I find so special about the city as well is its tendency to have great restaurants on street corners in otherwise residential neighborhoods, a dynamic that is certainly true of the building where Fullblast is located. The restaurant is still relatively new, and to our surprise, we had no trouble getting a table at all. Both the food and the coffee were great, and although we enjoyed standard breakfast fare, we heard others rave about the crab cakes.
After breakfast, I wanted to head out along St. Claude Avenue to get some pictures of the neighborhood murals, which are another unique facet of New Orleans life. Every time I visit, it seems that new murals have appeared along the major thoroughfares, celebrating local hip-hop artists, Black history icons like Harriet Tubman, or the musicians and social aid and pleasure clubs of the 9th Ward. The latter mural particularly interested Darren, as it included a painting of TBC’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin, who was from the 9th Ward, but I was somewhat shocked by a building on which seemed to have been painted the slogan “Support Murder.” I am well aware of the problems in America today, but I wasn’t expecting to see so stark and violent a message. But as it turned out, a crucial letter was hidden behind a telephone pole, and when we got closer, the slogan actually read “Support C-Murder,” the former No Limit Records rap artist, a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly.
Darren and TBC Brass Band were getting ready for a performance at some beer and barbecue festival at Wollenberg Park along the Mississippi River, but I had to get on the road and head back to Memphis. Leaving New Orleans is never easy for me, and it typical leaves me rather sad. However, I was able to stop at a Rouses in Ponchatoula, and load up on French Market and Mello Joy coffee capsules for my Keurig machine at home. I also picked up a pound of beans from a Baton Rouge coffee roaster called River Road Coffee Roasters, and was quite pleased with the results when I got home.
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.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.