Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.
Last year, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic took a one-year hiatus, but most years, in June, a large two-day picnic is held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa in Waterford, Mississippi to celebrate the past and current legends of the Hill Country style of blues.
Founded by Hill Country bluesman Kenny Brown, the event features performances from people like Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and the Eric Deaton Trio. The weather is usually hot, but this year a fairly large crowd came out to enjoy the performers.
As the afternoon progressed however, dark clouds developed, and soon a fairly steady rain began over the festival grounds. As there was no shelter outside of the VIP areas, I decided it was time to go, as I didn’t have my camera bag, and my Nikon D3200 didn’t need to get exposed to water. I decided to head South to Oxford and get something to eat.
Sunday is always the biggest day for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival in Holly Springs. The day of live blues starts early in the afternoon, and really doesn’t stop until the wee hours of morning. The day of music featured appearances from Duwayne Burnside, Robert Kimbrough, Eric Deaton, Garry Burnside and Lucius Spiller, but the real highlight was David Kimbrough Jr, who had been in and out of the hospital with cancer all year. Although weak, his performance was as strong as ever, and afterwards he made a short speech, telling his fans that he had at least made it this far. We couldn’t know that day that it would be the last performance David would ever give us. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, died on July 4, 2019. His loss is not merely a loss to Mississippi or the blues, but a loss to the world at large.
The second night of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival occurred on Saturday night, again inside The Hut in Holly Springs, featuring for the most part a different line-up of performers.
When I arrived, Little Joe Ayers of Benton County was on stage performing. He is one of only a handful of blues musicians remaining from his generation, and he did some classic tunes like “Two Trains Running” and “Feeling All Right,” backed by the great J. J. Wilburn on drums.
A few of the artists from Friday night appeared, including Robert Kimbrough, Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside, but arguably the highlight of Saturday night was the appearance of Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, who is equally talented on both drums and guitar. He can perform blues standards like “Mellow Peaches,” but he also has a unique gift for creating original compositions that fit the style of Hill Country blues.
As is always the case at The Hut, the little building was packed from wall to wall, and dancers pounded the floor in front of the stage. The weather was hot and steamy, but nobody noticed or cared. There was too much fun, food and good music to worry about the weather.
I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.
Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.
With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.
By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.
Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.
Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.
Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.
“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.
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.
When I left Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, I headed out to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue to catch the Duwayne Burnside and David Kimbrough performance. Pete’s is another juke joint in Clarksdale that generally has live music only during the Juke Joint Festival, but it is a perfect venue for live blues, just a block or so from the legendary Riverside Hotel. Unfortunately, the performance started late, as the musicians were waiting for someone to arrive with an amp or microphone, and the first set only involved Duwayne Burnside, as David Kimbrough was nowhere to be seen. Of course Duwayne is one of Mississippi’s most gifted blues performers, so it was still an enjoyable show, and I heard that later, after I had left, that David did show up and perform with Duwayne. But Lightnin’ Malcolm was performing out at the Shack Up Inn, so I decided to head out there and see if I could catch him.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.