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.
Holly Springs and Marshall County, Mississippi are a frequent destination for blues tourism. Two of Mississippi’s greatest blues families, the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs are from the county, and Foxfire Ranch, the Blues in the Alley concert series, and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic attract blues fans, particularly during the summer months. But up until recently, tourists wanting an upscale dinner had to make their way to Oxford or to the Memphis area. That changed in July with the opening of Marshall Steakhouse on Highway 178 between Red Banks and Holly Springs.
Marshall Steakhouse is as much a destination as a restaurant, featuring a truly-massive park-like setting that includes an outside stage and plenty of seating. On the night of my visit, a bluegrass group was playing on the stage to a small crowd.
The restaurant, which had only been open a week, was incredibly crowded, with probably around fifty or more people waiting for seating. But, to my surprise, I suppose because I was only one person, I was seated immediately. It needs to be noted however that there are no small, intimate tables for two, and that parties of one or two are usually seated at the opposite end of a long table from other guests. Although Marshall Steakhouse is not cheap, they have some very reasonably-priced entrees, including two cuts of sirloin. I ordered the small sirloin, and was quite impressed with its flavor. Sirloin steaks can be tough, but this one was extremely tender, and easy to cut. The yeast bread was hot and delicious, and the baked potato was very good as well. I was also impressed by the fact that the price of my steak included all the accompaniments as well, something that is definitely not the case at a lot of steakhouses these days. I have to mention too that Marshall Steakhouse has a challenge- a 72-ounce steak with salad and baked potato that is free if a person can finish ALL of it within an hour. If not finished within an hour, it costs $89! I have not heard whether anyone has taken the challenge, and whether anyone has actually won it. As for the service, it was friendly, but fairly erratic, with lots of people being offered other people’s orders, but that is not necessarily surprising one week in. Corrections were made promptly, and everybody made happy. One thing to note, though- the Marshall Steakhouse is not a place to be caught up in your cellphone. Made entirely out of metal, the building is a true deadzone inside, and most phones get no signal. There is currently no public wi-fi. But there is plenty of decor, and large-screen televisions hanging from the walls. Besides, who stays buried in their phone at dinner anyway?
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.
Beginning in July each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi sponsors Thursday night blues concerts on the courthouse lawn in the town square. While the events do attract tourists, it’s not just a tourist-oriented event, as Marshall County is an important place in Mississippi blues history. Two of the greatest Hill County bluesmen, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, were from Marshall County, and made their careers and reputations in the area. The county is also home to the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, held each summer in Waterford, and the county seat of Holly Springs is the location of Akei Pro’s Record Shop, a virtual blues-lover’s paradise, full of old vinyl records and some compact discs, as well as bluesman Duwayne Burnside’s local club, Alice Mae’s Cafe.
On September 25, I headed down to Holly Springs for the soft opening of a new juke joint, Junior’s Juke Joint #2, being opened north of town by David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. The opening date was chosen to correspond to the final Thursday night event of the year on the square, so I headed there first, and found a large crowd listening, dancing and enjoying the music of blues singer Brown Sugar and her band. After her performance, I ran across and grabbed a dinner at JB’s on the Square (good food) and then made it back in time to see indie singer Shannon McNally, who was performing with a band that included Garry Burnside (another son of R. L.’s) on guitar. North Center Street was also in a festive mood, with a large crowd outdoors, and good Southern Soul records playing in Alice Mae’s Cafe. In a large parking lot north of Akei Pro’s, there was a crowd of people hanging out and grilling food. After Shannon’s last song, there was a procession of Corvettes that came through the square, and the final Thursday night Blues on the Square event for 2014 came to a close.
Sharde Thomas is the granddaughter of Otha Turner, and leads her grandfathers’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from Gravel Springs,in Tate County, Mississippi, which would seem to be the last African-American fife-and-drum band in the country. They are frequently featured at festivals in North Mississippi, and are always a crowd favorite.
Up until this year’s Hill Country Picnic, every performance I have heard from Alvin Youngblood Hart has been a solo acoustic effort, a style at which he excels. But on Saturday afternoon at the picnic, Hart performed with his electric trio in a style that incorporated a harder-edged, rock-influenced aesthetic, and the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Oxford-based alt-country band Blue Mountain has broken up before and then reunited, so their fans are hopeful that the band’s end is not forever, but their performance at this year’s North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic was said to be their last ever. At least it was a good one, with people crowding close to the stage to see and hear them for what is likely the last time.
The legacy of R. L. Burnside was and still is truly amazing. He left not only an important body of recorded music in the Hill Country blues tradition, but a large extended family of descendants who mostly are musicians, as well as several musicians he considered “adopted children” whose subsequent work has also kept alive the music that was his life’s work. Garry Burnside is one of those descendants, and an annual favorite at the Hill Country Picnic. Although his band shows a willingness to incorporate rock and more contemporary styles of blues, Burnside keeps a number of Hill Country standards in his repertoire, from his dad’s “Goin’ Down South” to Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long.”
Garry Burnside Band-Goin Down South-Live at Hill Country Picnic 2013
Garry Burnside Band-All Night Long-Live at Hill Country Picnic 2013
British bluesman Ian Siegal made history this year as the first foreign blues musician to perform at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Siegal’s style shows the heavy influence of Howlin Wolf, as well as the influence of Black gospel music, and he was quite a hit with the crowd on Saturday afternoon.