What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.
Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.
Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.
Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.
While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.
But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.
Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.
R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
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.
When the Bentonia Blues Festival outgrew its place in front of the Blue Front Cafe in downtown Bentonia, Mississippi, it moved to a former Black baseball field north of town on land that seems to belong to the family of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Unfortunately, being what it is, the largely treeless flat field offers no refuge from the mid-June heat, making Bentonia Blues Festival one of the hottest blues festivals anywhere. What little shade there is can be found around the parking area near the front of the road behind the stage, where teenagers play basketball.
However, despite the withering heat, several hundred blues fans turn out annually to enjoy some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer. Unlike many other festivals in and out of state, the Bentonia Blues Festival is a free festival, with the only charge one for parking a vehicle.
This year’s line-up included Como blues legend R. L. Boyce, former member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, Dominican blues musician Tito “Harlem Slim” Deler of New York City, the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley featuring Kinney Kimbrough on drums, and of course the man everyone came to see, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, founder of the festival and a living legend of the Bentonia style of blues.
Toward the late afternoon, some clouds and rain developed in areas, and things began to cool off some, as the son went down. After Eric Deaton’s performance, Sherena Boyce, R. L. Boyce and I decided to head down Highway 49 to Pocahontas, Mississippi in order to eat dinner before the long ride back to North Mississippi. Although thoroughly tired, it had been a remarkable day of fun and great music.
San Francisco-based David Katznelson is the owner of Birdman Records, a really cool group of blues and roots labels, which includes subsidiary labels Birdmanophone and Sutro Park, but he once lived in Taylor, Mississippi, seven miles from the Ole Miss campus. Jane Rule, who lives in a big and historic home in Taylor, was mayor of Taylor for 12 years, and just about every year, on his birthday, she throws David Katznelson a party. But not just any kind of party- a veritable blues festival, with artists like Lightnin Malcolm, R. L. Boyce, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and Luther Dickinson.
The last time R. L. Boyce played at the party in Taylor, it was marred by endless monsoon rains, and had to be moved onto Ms. Rule’s back porch. This year, although hot, the weather was perfect for a festival, and a much larger crowd turned out. There were barbecued ribs, and chicken, and grilled corn, as well as two cakes, one yellow and one chocolate. When we arrived, Ms. Rule was giving rides to the little kids on her golf cart, and Lightnin Malcolm and R. L. Boyce were on stage.
Later in the day, there was a performance of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum band, one of the last surviving fife and drum bands in America, and their performance brought a crowd of dancers out to move to the grooves, with the guest of honor, Mr. Katznelson, at the front.
The fife and drum band was followed by Luther Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All Stars and son of the late Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson. It was Luther who produced R. L. Boyce’s first album Ain’t The Man’s Alright for Katznelson’s Sutro Park label, and he gave an enthusiastic performance on this sunny Sunday afternoon.
After some remarks in honor of the birthday guest, the party got back underway, but much of the food and drink was gone, and the sun was beginning to go down. Sherena Boyce and I decided to leave and head back toward Senatobia. Taylor Grocery restaurant was open, but we were so full from the good food at the party that we didn’t think about eating any more food. At Oxford, we stopped for a frozen yogurt on the square at Ya Ya’s, and then headed on back home.
At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.
Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.
My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.
In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.
Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.
Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.
As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.
The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.
The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.
Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.
“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.