Although the Friday night shows had been harassed by storms, no such problem occurred on the Saturday of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. In fact the day was a bright sunny blue one, with fairly cool temperatures compared to what we had been having, and it was the perfect setting for a full day of Hill Country blues. The gates had opened with R. L. Boyce at 10:30 in the morning, but by the time I arrived, Joseph Burnside was on stage, with Duwayne and Garry Burnside backing him up. He was followed by Bill Abel, then Cary Hudson of the band Blue Mountain, and finally Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from the Gravel Springs community near Senatobia, one of the last Black fife and drum bands in America. Garry Burnside and his band went up on stage after that, and then I left to go to dinner at Lamar Lounge in Oxford. In addition to the live performances, there were lots of arts, crafts and clothing for sale at various tents up on the hill, and a raffle, which was being held to raise money for a gravestone for the late bluesman Robert Belfour. And the whole day’s proceedings were broadcast live by New Orleans’ superb radio station WWOZ.
Keep up with R. L. Boyce:
Keep up with Bill Abel:
The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, sponsored annual at Waterford, Mississippi by Sarah and Kenny Brown, is arguably the most important annual event in the world of Hill Country Blues. It helps preserve the legacy of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and allows their descendants and disciples an opportunity to perform in the county where it all began, and takes on aspects of a music festival, a jam session and a family reunion all in one. But this year’s festival got off to something of a rocky start due to a series of violent thunderstorms, with lightning and hail that caused the festival grounds to become a mud-bog, and which caused a significant delay in the schedule. Fortunately, it all passed over eventually, and indie-blues/country/rock star Jimbo Mathus came out to perform with his band, followed by David Kimbrough Jr’s band, although David’s brother Kinney handled the vocal chores since David had a touch of laryngitis. And finally, Friday evening’s lineup was closed out with Duwayne Burnside fronting his newest band, which was extremely tight indeed, and which sounded great. Just as they were leaving the stage, the first flashes of lightning from a new round of storms appeared, but no rain could bring anyone down after all that great Hill Country blues.
T-Model Ford was for many years a crowd favorite at the Hill Country Picnic, but poor health has made it impossible for him to perform recently, and it has also caused a considerable amount of medical bills. To help Ford deal with that, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic sponsored a raffle of donated items, and a group of local musicians played a set of songs in his honor, with his nephew Stud on the drums. It was a moving, heart-felt tribute.
Vicksburg native George McConnell first gained notice as a member of Oxford area bands like Beanland and Kudzu Kings. Eventually, he became a member of Widespread Panic for a period of time before putting together his current band the Nonchalants. Although blues and soul heavily influence his current work, the Nonchalants were by far the most rock-oriented act of this year’s Hill Country Picnic.
Although Americans tend to think about music in terms of a sacred/secular divide, that difference was never a part of African culture, where the everyday tended to be considered sacred. Although the European way of thinking about these things made some inroads (for example in people calling the blues “The Devil’s Music”), there is a considerable amount of ambiguity between the sacred and the secular in Black culture, and particularly in the Hill Country blues tradition of North Mississippi. All Hill Country musicians include a certain amount of religious music in their repertoire, so it’s not out of place for R. L. Burnside to sing “I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down”, or for Mississippi Fred McDowell to sing “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, and on the other side of the coin, Hill Country gospel musicians often play their music in a style that differs little from Hill Country blues other than the lyrics. Such an artist is the Rev. John Wilkins, a pastor and musician whose dad was the bluesman Robert Wilkins, who also eventually became a preacher. Perhaps because his music differs little from the traditional North Mississippi blues aesthetic, Wilkins is immensely popular with blues fans, and his accompanying band are first-rate musicians. When he isn’t performing at concerts and festivals, he preaches Sundays at Hunter Chapel Church near Como, Mississippi, the church that Mississippi Fred McDowell and his wife were once members of.