Clarksdale Celebrates The Blues And The Juke Joint Culture That Gave It Birth

Most people throw themselves a party on their birthday, but Cat Head Delta Blues owner Roger Stolle throws one for his whole adopted hometown on the weekend in April nearest his birthday every year. The Juke Joint Festival, as it is known, has become the largest festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, surpassing the older Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and has also become the unofficial kick-off to the blues festival season, which flourishes in the warm weather months.

While the official festival is always held on a Saturday, music and related events string out over four days from Thursday to Sunday, bringing blues fans into the Mississippi Delta from all over the world. On Saturday, vendors sell arts and crafts from all over the country, and seven outdoor stages feature the very best blues artists from Mississippi and elsewhere. Best of all, these day stages are free, and located in and near downtown Clarksdale. Only at night do festival attendees need wristbands, which for a fee allow them to access any of the juke joints and other indoor venues. Here they can see artists in a more comfortable setting, with longer performance set times, and a full bar available.

One highlight of this year’s festival to me was Terry “Harmonica” Bean, who seemed to be everywhere, from an early performance on the big permanent stage next to the Blues Museum, to a day-ending performance during dinner at Levon’s Restaurant. Bean is from Pontotoc County, a Hill Country county located between Tupelo and Oxford, but he often gets overlooked in discussions of Hill Country blues. Similar in style to Delta players, Bean first came to notice when he recorded for Stolle and Jeff Konkel’s excellent Broke and Hungry label, which sought to document living traditional bluesmen in a way that most blues labels were not. The other highlight was finally getting to hear Little Willie Farmer in person, as I had heretofore heard him only on records. Farmer is from Duck Hill in Grenada County, technically also a Hill Country county, but he is another artist that does not often get mentioned in the Hill Country listing, despite having recorded for Fat Possum, the same label that R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough recorded for. Like Bean, Farmer had two performances during the day, and both were excellent, featuring both original compositions of his and also covers of blues standards. In addition to recording and performing excellent blues, Little Willie Farmer also runs the Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, a two-day festival in June that is intended to benefit the local Head Start program.

The Wade Walton Stage on Issaquena Avenue is always one of the better attended stages, and this year it featured an incredible line-up, which included Garry and Duwayne Burnside, children of the late R. L. Burnside, and Kent Burnside, a grandson, as well as Kenny Brown, an accomplished blues player who was mentored by both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside.

Unfortunately, for those who traveled from Memphis or other locations, the day’s fun was cut short by a threatening line of storms approaching from the west in Arkansas. Fortunately, most of the outdoor activities had already ended before they arrived, but the prediction of extreme weather including tornadoes caused some of us to leave early to get back home.

The Juke Joint Festival is held every year in April, and the dates are already determined for many years in advance. It is probably too late to book a hotel room in Clarksdale for next year’s festival, but now is the time to make plans if you want to attend.

Great Soul and Blues on Kentucky Lake

For 33 years, the Kenlake Hot August Blues Festival has been bringing great blues to a most unlikely place, the shores of Kentucky Lake at Kenlake State Resort Park near Hardin, Kentucky. Although there is no extensive record of blues in the area, the location is an inspiring one, with its stage set in front of the lakeshore, the iconic Aurora Bridge and a flotilla of boats in the background. With a state-owned resort hotel less than a mile from the festival site, accommodations are easy for performers and attendees alike. On the hill above the amphitheater seats, guests enjoy a wide variety of food and dessert trucks, as well as the festival store, which sells festival shirts, posters and records and compact discs of the performers.

For 2022, the Kenlake festival booked three African-American bands, which is notable in this era where so many blues festivals book all-white or predominantly-white lineups, and often including many artists that play genres other than blues. The opening band, A Different Sound was from Paducah, and while competent, they did not live up their name, as they were primarily a cover band. They were followed by Hill Country legend Duwayne Burnside, the son of the late R. L. Burnside, who gave the crowd an hour-long set of authentic blues. Behind him came Lexington, Kentucky-based bluesman Tee Dee Young, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar, but one deserving a lot more attention and acclaim. His band was quite impressive, and his voice and original compositions stood out. Toward the end of his set, people were on their feet dancing in the seats. By that point there were several hundred people in the amphitheater, and the hot day had cooled off. It was a pleasant end to an exciting day of blues.

Keeping the Hill Country Blues Tradition Alive at Burnside Bar and Grill in Holly Springs

The Hill Country blues scene has always been a music of juke joints. Although the music is occasionally heard at large festivals and big city clubs, its home is the rural Northeast Mississippi hole-in-the-walls and picnics. For many years, the nerve center of the music (in the related form of Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family called it) was the rural juke on Highway 4 in Chulahoma which the late Junior Kimbrough owned. After it burned, there have been a succession of attempts to replace it in the Marshall County area, from a Burnside Blues Cafe out on Highway 310 in 2011 to David Kimbrough’s Junior’s Juke Joint No. 2 in 2015 in Holly Springs on Highway 7.

In early 2022, R. L. Burnside’s son Duwayne acquired the building in which David ran his juke joint and began converting it into the Burnside Bar and Grill. After a soft opening in April, the place has become a gathering point for barbecue and great live blues on an almost weekly basis. Not only has Duwayne Burnside performed there himself with his band, but also such great musicians as Garry Burnside, Kinney Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Memphis Gold and Robert Kimbrough have graced its stage. Like most jukes, the ambiance is generally informal. People walk in and out. Sometimes there is an admission charge, often there is not. Sometimes there is free food, sometimes food is available for a price per plate. There is no DJ as such, just a cell phone hooked to speakers playing good blues. But then, one doesn’t expect a juke joint to be formal. Burnside Bar and Grill is a must-experience destination in Holly Springs, especially for all fans of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul blues styles.

Burnside Bar and Grill

645 Highway 7 N

Holly Springs, MS 38635

Living Memphis Musical History at Hernando’s Hide-a-Way

Hernando’s Hide-a-Way was once a popular and famous nightclub on the Old Hernando Road west of Highway 51 in Whitehaven. Named for a song from the 1950s musical The Pajama Game, the club was popular as a place for early rock and roll, country and rockabilly. In later years, it had been famous for country music and then it finally closed altogether. After about three years of closure, Hernando’s Hide-a-Way was renovated and reopened, but I had somewhat assumed that the focus of the club would be country, so I had not taken the time to go out there, although some musician friends I knew in Memphis had been playing there since the reopening.

Nevertheless, in July of 2022, Hernando’s Hide-a-Way booked Hill Country blues musician Duwayne Burnside, and I became aware that they were booking far more than simply country or rockabilly. In fact, upon entering the club and seeing all of the historic memorabilia on the walls, it became clear that the booking policy had always been more diverse than I had thought. Even Fats Domino had played there in the 1950s. The furnishings and stage are in keeping with a nostalgic throwback ambiance…..there is even an old-fashioned cigarette machine. But what is new is the food menu, which is a vast step above the usual bar food. Even the bacon cheeseburger I ordered was a delicious thing of beauty indeed, and the prices were quite reasonable. If one wants to talk with their friend of significant other over a meal, the outdoor patio makes a great alternative to the club interior.

Altogether, the new Hernando’s Hide-a-Way is a must-visit attraction in the city of Memphis, for its history, for its great music and for its great food as well.

Hernando’s Hide-a-Way

3210 Old Hernando Rd

Memphis, TN 38116

(901) 509-2352

Preserving the Legacy of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues in North Mississippi

After an interruption caused by COVID-19, the annual Hill Country Picnic returned to Betty Davis’ Ponderosa near Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, with two days of great Hill Country music and artists. The Hill Country Blues style (or Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family calls their style of blues) is a unique form of music that originates in the Hill Country of Northeast Mississippi, and is especially prevalent in Marshall County, where well-known blues musicians like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived. The county is still home to prominent musicians, including Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough, as well as Joe Ayers, who was an original member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys band.

Unlike many other summer blues events, the Hill Country Picnic is generally restricted to artists who are from the Hill Country region, or who were mentored by the original Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues performers. This guarantees plenty of opportunities to see the African-American originators of the tradition, which sadly is increasingly not the case at other high-profile blues festivals.

On the hot July Saturday of this year’s festival, fans got an opportunity to hear R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Kent Burnside and Kenny Brown, who started the festival in Potts Camp some 15 or so years ago.

Although the crowds have been smaller since the pandemic, it is good to see things beginning to return to normal, and one hopes that attendance will bounce back toward pre-pandemic numbers with each coming year.

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.

Together We Stand: Celebrating the Soul of Como, Mississippi

The Hill Country blues season generally begins with the Juke Joint Festival in April, and ends with Como Day in Como, Mississippi, which is usually held late in October. Como in Panola County is an important town, which for many years was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sid Hemphill, and which remains the hometown of R. L. Boyce. Jessie Mae Hemphill lived nearby at Senatobia, and Glenn Faulkner lives and Otha Turner lived between Senatobia and Como at Gravel Springs.

It is a tradition in many predominantly-Black towns to have a “day,” when those who moved to other parts of the country can come home and celebrate their roots in small-town Mississippi, and Como Day is part of that tradition. But Como Day is perhaps one of the biggest of these kinds of celebrations, attracting hundreds of visitors each year to plenty of free music , good food and fun.

After two years of lockdowns and disruptions, the 2021 Como Day was extremely well-attended, with people coming out for what was one of the few public events since the onset of COVID-19. Performers included Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. As always the area near the stage was full of dancers, and the crowd was well-behaved. Como Day makes a great way to end the annual blues season.

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.

The Inaugural Alice Mae Blues Festival in Ripley, Mississippi

Garry Burnside, one of the sons of legendary Hill Country bluesman R. L. Burnside moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County not long ago, and was instrumental in getting the city of Ripley to build and dedicate a wonderful Blues Alley, which commemorates the Hill Country and Mississippi blues traditions with beautiful paintings of historic artists, a guitar-shaped table and benches. In addition, in October of 2011, he planned the first Alice Mae Blues Festival, named for his mother Alice Mae Burnside, held on a grassy field beside the First Monday Trade Day grounds on Highway 15.

The weather was incredibly hot for an October day, and crowds were small at the beginning of the day, but more and more people arrived as the weather cooled in the evening. Those who attended enjoyed great blues from Garry Burnside, Kent Burnside and Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s adopted son Kenny Brown from Potts Camp, and other local area performers.

In addition to music performances, there were food vendors serving delicious foods, and even a bar cart serving alcohol. When the sun went down, both the vendors and the stage were lit up in festive lighting, and the great Hill Country blues went on until the event’s end.