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!
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.
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.
My friend Sherena Boyce was not ready to go home after the Beale Street Caravan Blowout event came to an end, so I suggested that we go up to Wild Bill’s in North Memphis. Even before Beale Street started charging an admission fee, Wild Bill’s juke joint was a great, authentic blues and soul alternative to the disappointing tourist-oriented entertainment district downtown. Of course, despite its history, Bill’s had been through a string of ownership changes, and a couple of closures, so I wasn’t exactly sure what we would find, as the place was under new management since the last time I had been.
When we arrived, I soon found that the parking lot was completely full, and we had to park on the street nearby. We were welcomed in, and found places at one of the long tables, but the place was nearly packed to overflowing. A good soul and blues band was on stage, with an especially-funky drummer as the rock-hard foundation. Several singers took turns getting up to sing with this band, including the Memphis female blues singer Joyce Henderson.
Although there was hardly room to dance, people got up and did so, including Sherena, who had brought her tambourine with her, and jammed onstage with the band. Unlike a few previous visits where there had been a lot of Midtown hipsters, the crowd on this night was mostly people from the neighborhood…old regulars, and long-time blues fans.
For those wanting to visit Wild Bill’s, you will be welcomed, but some awareness is needed…this is not a hipster bar. There is no beer on tap, and certainly no craft beers. They sell 40 ounces, and they have chicken wings to eat. You will have to sit at tables with people you don’t know. They allow smoking, as most juke joints do. But it is by far the best authentic music and the best authentic atmosphere that the Bluff City has to offer. Don’t miss it.
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.
“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.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
Joyce She-Wolf Jones is the mother of up-and-coming blues guitarist and drummer Cameron Kimbrough, but she is also a talented vocalist and song-writer in her own right, and each August, she puts on a traditional Hill Country blues picnic in the front yard of her home near Bethlehem, Mississippi, a wide spot in the road south of the Marshall County town of Potts Camp.
August is typically a hot month, and there had been strong thunderstorms at Holly Springs when I came through, but the weather was quite pleasant when I arrive at Joyce’s modest home along the rural highway. The smell of barbecue was in the air, and former Soul Blues Boy Little Joe Ayers was on stage. Everybody was having a good time, despite the ominous flashes of lightning to the north. Joe soon launched into a skillful version of Willie Cobbs’ classic “You Don’t Love Me,” a standard blues that doesn’t get heard all that often in the Hill Country. The crowd was loving it.
As the night progressed, we got to hear Cameron on drums, Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside and R. L. Boyce, as well as Cam’s cousin Kelly Payson on vocals, and of course, our hostess Joyce She-Wolf Jones herself, who sang a couple of her original songs.
With good food, plenty to drink, great music, and the rain staying away, it was a perfect evening in Mississippi’s Hill Country.
Natchez bluesman Y. Z. Ealey is 81-years old this May, and is a brother of the much better-known Southern Soul artist Theodis Ealey, of “Stand Up In It” fame. Y. Z., Theodis and their brother Melwyn were all blues musicians from the town of Sibley, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez, but Y. Z. has largely been a factory worker who plays music more as an avocation. Given the extent to which we have been losing our elder statesmen of blues over the last several years, I was determined to catch Ealey’s performance in Clarksdale at this year’s Juke Joint Festival. So I made my way to the Coahoma Collective , which had formerly been Ms. Del’s General Store, where Ealey performed in the courtyard with his band. His style is a swamp-pop infused style which demonstrates the fact that Louisiana is merely across the river from Natchez, and his current band features some younger musicians, and on this occasion, a clarinetist. But Ealey is still in fine form and voice, and his performance was definitely a high point of this year’s festival.
Robert Kimbrough Sr. is one of three musician sons of the legendary bluesman Junior Kimbrough, and in recent years he has been the most prolific and ambitious of the three, releasing several albums, performing frequently with his band the Blues Connection, and helping to organize an annual Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival each May in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Recently, on a Friday evening, he brought out his new band to Rooster’s Blues House on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, for a night of what he terms “cotton patch soul blues.” Although Kimbrough can play his father’s hits, and usually obliges the crowd’s desire for the seminal “All Night Long”, much of his shows are given to his original compositions, which straddle the fence between the style that many musicologists call “hill country blues” and a more modern southern soul. Songs such as “Battlefield” are typical, with a strong driving beat provided by drummer J. J. Wilburn, formerly of the band Old Grey Mule. The club was filled to the rafters, despite the chilly and foggy weather outside, and the sizable crowd enjoyed themselves immensely, until the early closing time, that apparently was precipitated by it being spring break week. On the other hand, the utter desolation of the square after the clubs closed was remarkable and unexpected. We were told it was due to the students being out of school for the break.