As a state, Mississippi has largely chosen to avoid the stricter lockdown measures that other states have imposed during the pandemic; although many blues events have been cancelled this year, some live music has been ongoing in the state, especially in the Hill Country region. Mattie B’s, located in the rural areas between Independence and Holly Springs has been a bright spot in that regard, sponsoring blues on Sunday nights with greats such as Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough Sr. , who are children of the North Mississippi legends R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough respectively.
On a recent Sunday night, Robert Kimbrough took to the stage to play selections from his new album The Pain Won’t Stop, which is out now and available from his website. Robert calls his music Cotton Patch Soul Blues, which is a reference to a community at the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 72 in Benton County where his dad Junior Kimbrough and the rockabilly musician Charlie Feathers once played a small juke joint in the late 1960s. Robert’s music, although unique, shows points of similarity with his father’s music, and the music of his late brother, David Kimbrough Jr.
Robert’s appearance on stage was followed by Duwayne Burnside, whose style involves many separate influences, including his dad’s music, as well as the guitar styles of Jimi Hendrix, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As for the venue, Mattie B’s has the true ambiance of a rural juke, with pool tables, a bar, and a large baseball field out back. Occasionally, it is the site of car shows and rap shows, but recently, the emphasis has been on blues. Beginning in December, Duwayne Burnside has moved his weekly blues shows from Sunday nights to Friday nights.
Food halls, sort of like food courts without the mall, have become something of a trend in other cities; for the customer, they allow people to sample many different kinds of food in one place, while, for the restauranteur, they allow lower overhead for new startups. The concept has worked well at the St. Roch Market in New Orleans, and at Cultivation Food Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, so when I heard that Puck Food Hall was opening at the 409 South Main building on the south end of downtown, I expected it would do well. Instead, it struggled from day one, and undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic piled on. By the time I first visited in November, it was already winding down toward an inevitable closing.
Although Puck Food Hall will close for good in December, it was still home to Dr. Bean’s Coffee and Tea Emporium and to a retail outlet for Clarksdale-based Sweet Magnolia Gelato Company on my last visit. Dr. Bean’s will be relocating to the former Lo Fi Coffee stand within Stock and Belle at 387 South Main. Sweet Magnolia Gelato will likely be leaving downtown for a location in the east county suburbs.
Here’s hoping that after the pandemic, someone will try again to bring the food hall concept to Memphis. I think with the right management and in the right location, it could do well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to lots of lockdowns and curfews, but in the middle of it came a Curfew of a different sort: the new gourmet restaurant called Curfew Memphis in the new Canopy Memphis Hotel downtown across from the Peabody. Well-known Chef Fabio Viviani is the driving force behind Curfew, whose ethos seems to be that of a sports bar with a gourmet twist.
My first impression was the bright, sleek modern surroundings of the place. With plenty of glass windows, the restaurant has a nice, cheerful open feel, and the seating, which includes couches, suggests comfort and a feeling of being at home.
I ordered a burger, which the menu says was made from “beef belly.” It was beautiful cooked to order, and delicious, with cheese, bacon, and (at my request) house made steak sauce. The accompanying french fries were hot and golden brown. The menu is not large, but includes interesting choices, including a rib-eye steak, which I will certainly have to try on another visit. Prices are not cheap, but I felt the burger was worth every penny I paid. My server was cheerful and very attentive.
The area of the hotel lobby nearest the restaurant was decorated with record albums and small speakers. This seems to be a continuing trend in new Memphis hotels; similar music and record themes are in the lobbies of the Central Station Hotel and Arrive Memphis. Apparently, music is the way Memphis tourism will be marketed going forward.
New Orleans-themed restaurants have come and gone over the years in Memphis; few of them offered beignets, those delightful doughnuts we learned to love at the Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. Fortunately, there is now a place called Ben Yay’s on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis that offers the best in New Orleans cuisine and the delicious beignets as well.
Located in a space that has housed several New Orleans-themed restaurants over the years including most notably Chef Gary’s Deja Vu, which closed when he passed away, Ben yay’s proclaims itself a “Gumbo Shop,” but they have an absolutely delicious shrimp po-boy, and one that is fairly authentic. Nothing fancy, of course; po-boys are not fancy food. But it is, as all good po-boys are, a thing of beauty. There are too many shrimp for the french loaf; they fall off the sandwich onto your plate, which is the mark of a good po-boy. The french fries that came with it were delicious as well.
But it is what came afterwards that sets Ben Yay’s apart. Authentic New Orleans-style beignets, covered with powdered sugar. There have been beignet places in Memphis before, including several locations of Crescent City Beignet that have since closed, and a suburban place called Voodoo Cafe in Bartlett which sells sweet and savory beignets shaped like voodoo dolls. But the beignets at Ben Yay’s give the place its name, and are the most like what you would find in New Orleans I have seen in Memphis. They are delicious, but messy, and your clothes WILL be covered in powdered sugar when you are through enjoying them. All the same, it’s worth it.
One of the worst things of 2020 was the cancellation of nearly all live music events, gigs, festivals and parties. It was understandable, in the light of COVID, but it was still disappointing. Having not played a gig since August, I was thrilled when the great blues guitarist Duwayne Burnside called me to play his birthday party out in the rurals between Independence, Mississippi and Holly Springs. With the weather unseasonably warm, I imagined there would be a fairly good turnout.
Duwayne chose to have his party at a rural club and baseball field called Mattie B’s along the Wall Hill Road east of Independence in Marshall County. The place has the look and feel of a real Mississippi juke, complete with pool tables, but it has a surprisingly ample stage. When I arrived, there were a lot of cars in the back near the baseball field, and a food truck had set up there selling plates. The inside was not drastically crowded, but there was a good number of people inside, among them the blues musician Robert Kimbrough, and the DJ was playing good blues and southern soul inside.
Duwayne took the stage at about 8 PM, and we played until around 10:00 PM, with Pinkie Pulliam on bass and Artemas Leseur on drums. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when Duwayne played the late David Kimbrough’s song “I Got The Dog In Me,” which was the first time I had heard him play that song. Blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah also made an appearance, and Kenny briefly joined Duwayne on the stage. The crowd especially took to the more upbeat Hill Country tunes, filling the dance floor in front of the stage. It made a nice throwback to how things were before the pandemic.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
The Fisherville and Cordova communities in eastern Shelby County, Tennessee are among the few places in the Memphis area that have retained something of their rural character, but like similar places in Fayette and Tipton counties, the areas are severely threatened by the expansion of new residential development and commercial development eastward into the area.
On a hot but sunny Sunday afternoon, I decided to ride out into those areas and take pictures of the historic buildings that remain. Using an iPhone app called Filmroll, I was able to take beautiful pictures that have the finish of classic films, such as Agfa Ultra 50 and Kodak Ektar 100, and I was especially impressed with the results. Only a couple of historic buildings remain in Fisherville, which was never a large community, but Cordova’s old downtown is remarkably well-preserved, despite its annexation by Memphis. Even its old railroad depot remains standing, unlike the ones that have vanished in towns like Bartlett, Brunswick and Millington.
The blues researcher Bengt Olsson indicated that the Independent Pole Bearers Band No. 12 of Mount Pisgah used to march and play in Cordova, and I imagine it used to take place around the depot and the stores across the street. Sadly, the place is very quiet now. The only noise is the sound of car tires on pavement.
Fayette County, in the part of West Tennessee that we might call the state’s Delta region, was for most of its history a highly rural county. Primarily an area of large cotton plantations before the civil war, it had few large towns. Even its county seat, Somerville, was and remains tiny by most perspectives, with only about 2,000 residents. However, in recent years, the proximity to Memphis has begun to take its toll, and many of the old rural scenes and locations are disappearing into a realm of tract subdivisions and shopping centers, particularly in the western parts of the county nearest to Memphis and its suburbs.
Still, in the northwestern corner of the county nearest to Mason, Tennessee, one can find reminders of the county’s past. On nice and warm days, I still occasionally ride the backroads in these areas, looking for things to photograph before they too disappear to new development.
Here at The Delta Review, we have discussed the excellent Brunswick Kitchen restaurant before, and it is enough here to restate that it is a great and fun getaway from Memphis for a Friday evening dinner of catfish or pulled pork barbecue, in an old general store building which makes for a fun and pleasant setting.
But on this particular Friday night, there was a mysterious golden glow in the sky, after a day that had seen pop-up showers. Not only did the sunlight seem to make all the colors of buildings and trees more brilliant, but for the first time I noticed that the old abandoned house in the block north of the restaurant was situated in the middle of a pecan orchard. I had never noticed the perfectly straight rows of trees until that precise moment. It was a gorgeous sight to go along with a great meal.
The COVID pandemic has had a drastic and devastating effect on the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues scenes in North Mississippi, with almost all festivals and events cancelled this year, or reconceived as virtual events streamed online rather than events in the real world for fans to attend. One bright exception has been Foxfire Ranch, the rural blues and event center at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, which, because of its outdoor nature and rural setting, felt confident in continuing to host events and book artists.
In August, Foxfire booked Duwayne Burnside and his band, which included his brother Garry Burnside. The weather was beautiful, although hot, and a surprisingly large crowd of fans attended. With great blues coming from the stage, and dancers on the floor in front, for a few sunny hours it was possible to imagine life without the pandemic at all.
Foxfire has continued to book blues-related events as weather permits, including a camp this summer that featured Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis, two of the hottest young Black blues artists in America today. Having so many events cancelled helps us appreciate the few that we have left.