Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.
After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.
The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
Fans of the unique Mississippi style of blues known as Hill Country blues are of course very familiar with Marshall County, as it was the home of both Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, arguably the two most important Hill Country bluesmen. And they are probably also familiar with the Foxfire Ranch at Waterford in Marshall County, where a superb summer schedule of live blues occurs nearly every Sunday at 5 PM, under a shelter known as the Hill Country Pavilion. But this year, the Hollowell family, which owns the ranch, decided to sponsor an all-day concert of blues, and somewhat surprisingly, chose to do it in March, which is slightly earlier than the start-up of the festival season, which generally occurs in April.
Although the weather can be chilly and unpredictable in March, this year’s inaugural Foxfire Blues Festival was warm and pleasant, with plenty of sunshine. A large portable stage had been set up in the valley at the back of the large hill on which the pavilion stands, and a moderate crowd sat on blankets on the hillside, enjoying performances by Little Joe Ayers, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones, The Duwayne Burnside Band, Kenny Brown, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Lightning Malcolm. For a first-time festival, the event was fairly well-attended, it rolled smoothly, and the crowd enjoyed a beautiful day of great music.
Perhaps Easter doesn’t bring thoughts of blues to many people, but this Easter evening was the occasion for an amazing event at Foxfire Ranch celebrating the release of a new album by 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. Welch’s story is amazing, for he is an authentic traditional bluesman who remained undiscovered until 2013 at the age of 82, when he began recording his first record. He signed with Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess subsidiary the same year, and released his debut album Sabougla Voices, which was a gospel record. (“Sabougla” is a hamlet in Calhoun County, Mississippi where Welch is from). Gospel is Leo’s preferred music, but his young audiences love to hear him play blues, and he does so on his sophomore album, which is aptly entitled I Don’t Prefer No Blues. But to celebrate its release, rather than a typical release party, a full evening of live Hill Country blues was scheduled at the Hill Country Pavilion at Foxfire near Waterford, Mississippi. Although the sun was out, the day was chilly, but a decent crowd showed up at 5 PM for the opening act, Jason Carter, who performed acoustically with another guitar player. Right behind him came Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayres, collectively known as the Cedric Burnside Project, who got things crunk with the heavy, rock-inflected brand of blues they play, including one of Cedric’s trademark extended drum solos. Several members of the legendary Burnside family were in the audience, including Duwayne and Garry Burnside. The next act up was something a little different. Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are also on the Fat Possum label, and are more of a strange but winsome amalgam of indie rock, traditional country, blues and funk, which Jimbo whimsically calls “catfish music”. Although he maintains a different sound than Hill Country blues, the influence of blues can be heard through much of his work. Robert “Bilbo” Walker is 76 years old nowadays, and is a former Mississippi bluesman who currently lives in California. Although he is originally from Mississippi, his music has considerable Louisiana and swamp influences, which came to the forefront in his reading of the classic blues/soul song “Staggerlee”. Finally, at the end of the night, Leo “Bud” Welch came up with his three-piece band and performed a collection of songs from the new album, which he had available for sale there at the pavilion. When things finally came to an end around 10 PM, there was still a decent crowd.
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Friday February 6 was some kind of special day for blues apparently, because there were blues performances everywhere. Ori Naftaly was at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis, Duwayne Burnside was at the Blue Monkey in Memphis, Leo “Bud” Welch was at Rooster’s Blues House in Oxford, Albert King Jr and the Final Touch Band was at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod was at Club 2000 in Clarksdale, and Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry was at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. Choosing between all of these great options was hard, but I finally decided to head for Clarksdale, stopping first at Sardis, Mississippi in order to enjoy a pizza at the superb Tribecca Alley Cafe, and then heading across the Delta on Highway 6. I had intended to check out the Albert King Jr. performance at Ground Zero, but when I first arrived in Clarksdale, I could hear a loud rock-influenced band playing elsewhere downtown, and since I could hear the Hill Country blues influence in it, I started looking for it. At first, I thought that the band was playing in an old warehouse on Sunflower Avenue, but it soon became clear that the sound was bouncing off that building and was coming from somewhere on Delta Avenue, so I walked around the Ground Zero club and found that they were playing in the new Delta Blues Alley Cafe, which is the former Club Vegas across the street from Ground Zero. It cost me $10 to go inside, and I proved to be the only patron, but the duo that was playing was Greenville, Mississippi drummer Stud, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford, and a Native American guitar player named Cactus from South Dakota who periodically hitchhikes to the Delta each year to play. They sounded good, and I spent some time checking them out before I finally headed back across the street to Ground Zero.
I learned about the Blues At Home Blowout at the Lamar Lounge from attorney Tom Freeland’s excellent North Mississippi Commentor blog, which is a great online destination for all things Oxford, from music, to legal things to Faulknerian lore, so even though I had just gone to Oxford the week before, I had to go again. The line-up displayed on the poster was absolutely amazing, and I frankly could not imagine how all of those artists would be able to perform even in the three hours or so allotted for the concert. As it turned out, not all the performers listed appeared, but even so, the three hours were jam-packed with blues, and everything got worked in by the expedient of having Jimbo Mathus on drums for everyone, and keeping the same bass player throughout, and they did a yeoman’s job, although I’m sure they were quite tired when it was all over. The event was actually an after-party for Mississippi artist H.C. Porter‘s remarkable Blues At Home exhibit at the University of Mississippi, and fearing that I wouldn’t get a table in front of the stage otherwise, I showed up at the Lamar Lounge two hours before starting time. As it turned out, Jimbo Mathus performed a dinner hour set on guitar with his bass player for an hour before the starting time for the concert. He then switched to drums, and the first performer of the night came on stage, 82-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch, who released his first album Sabougla Voices this year on Fat Possum Records‘ Big Legal Mess subsidiary. He was followed by Hattiesburg/Jackson bluesman Vasti Jackson, a musician I had often heard my poet friend Charlie Braxton mention. Vasti Jackson was followed by Natchez blues guitarist Y.Z. Ealey, who is a brother of Southern soul star Theodis Ealey, and whose style showed a considerable influence from swamp blues and swamp pop. He was joined by Broke and Hungry Records artist Terry “Harmonica” Bean sitting in on harmonica. Mickey Rogers was up next, a blues guitarist I had seen last year on a trip to Indianola, and then Jackson-based Jesse Robinson came up, a guitarist I was really not familiar with, but whose guitar skills amazed everyone in the room. Behind him came Kenny Brown, the hometown favorite who grew up with blues legend Joe Callicot in Nesbit, Mississippi and who studied with the late R. L. Burnside. His music can always get an Oxford crowd to their feet, and what little space was available for dancing was soon filled. Finally, the headliner of the night, Bobby Rush came and performed very briefly, as he had driven down from an earlier performance at Rhodes College in Memphis. Altogether it was an amazing night of Mississippi blues, from a number of different performers than the ones often seen in North Mississippi, and there was a sort of lagniappe when, quite unexpectedly, Vasti Jackson and Bobby Rush launched a brief guitar and harmonica duo on the back patio near the barbecue pit. All in all, one of the most memorable Mississippi blues nights ever.
I went from having never heard of Leo “Bud” Welch a couple of weeks ago to suddenly hearing his name everywhere. He’s getting booked a lot more often suddenly, and he has an album in the works from Fat Possum Records/Big Legal Mess. Saturday night, the North Mississippi All Stars were on the main stage, and they’re great, but I’ve heard them many times, so I decided to check out Red’s Lounge to see who was playing, and it was none other than Leo “Bud” Welch. Red’s is a true juke joint with worlds of authentic atmosphere. The tiny open space in front of the “stage” was occupied by dancers, and Robert Belfour, another legendary Hill Country bluesman was in the audience listening.