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.
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.
This is the second year of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which celebrates the legacy of Junior Kimbrough and his sons David, Robert and Kinney, and this year’s festival, held on Mothers’ Day, was hot weather-wise, and musically as well. Rather than being held inside The Hut in Holly Springs, where the Friday night jams had taken place, the Sunday afternoon line-up was held on a large stage outside, where a crowd enjoyed a number of familiar and not-so-familiar blues artists, including the Hoodoo Men from Nashville (I had not heard of them, but was pleasantly impressed), Cameron Kimbrough, Joyce Jones, R. L. Boyce, juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce, Eric Deaton, Lucious Spiller, and of course the Kimbrough Brothers. Also of interest was a new beer called Kimbrough Cotton Patch Kolsch, named in honor of the Kimbrough family, and released by the 1817 Brewery out of Okolona, Mississippi. These folks also have something called “Hill Country IPA,” and are one of a number of new microbreweries springing up in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Since I had to work the next day, I was not able to stay until the end of the festival, which I was told came about midnight or so, but year 2 of the Kimbrough Festival was a rousing success.
Amy Verdon, the New York-based owner of the online magazine Fancy! and its record-label offshoot Go Ape Records has been quite a contributor to the cause of the Hill Country Blues, helping to record artists such as Robert Kimbrough and R. L. Boyce and helping to put on last year’s Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. This year, she put together a special exhibit of photographs intended to highlight the role of women in the blues in Mississippi. The exhibit was displayed at the Leontyne Price Library on the campus of Rust College in Holly Springs, and since I had photographs in it, I made plans to attend the opening reception, despite the extremely cold and miserable weather we were having.
Photos celebrated Hill Country musicians such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as a number of dancers. I was amazed by the schedule of the 1983 Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which proved that legendary Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin had headlined a gospel group on one of the stages. Several of the performers scheduled to play the next night at The Hut were present, including Johnny B. Sanders and Iretta and Robert Kimbrough Sr, and a few people came through to check out the photos. The exhibit will remain up through the end of February.
Willy and the Planks is a Nashville-based blues band with strong Hill Country influence, led by Bill Gibbs, whom I met through his friendship with Robert Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. When I heard they would be playing in Memphis, Sherena Boyce and I headed down to the Center for Southern Folklore to see them. The band is something of a power trio approach to the blues, but the musicianship is stellar and they are definitely worth seeing.
Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.
Benton County, Mississippi is due east of Marshall County, and was once a part of it, having been carved out of it and Tippah County by the state legislature during Reconstruction. Demographically similar to the county it was taken out of, Benton is a part of the Mississippi Hill Country, although sparsely populated and somewhat poorer than the other Hill Country counties. Although many great musicians came from Benton County, including Willie Mitchell, Syl Johnson, Joe Ayers and Nathan Beauregard, there has never been a live music scene in the county, mainly for the simple fact that Benton has always been a dry county, and remains so today. Such music as there has been has usually been held at private events such as picnics and yard parties.
However, over the last month or so, Robert Kimbrough, one of the sons of blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has been holding yard parties/jam sessions at his house just outside the Benton County seat of Ashland. The somewhat remote location is an opportunity to hear the music in a setting more like where it originated, in an era where “clubs” or even “juke joints” were still unknown. The atmosphere in the yard is easy going, with musicians taking turns going on stage and then coming off to enjoy food and drink. Musicians like J. J. Wilburn, G-Cutta, Little Joe Ayers and even Robert’s brother David Kimbrough occasionally come through and sit in. Fans bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn while the musicians play under the carport roof. It’s all a rather informal affair. However, the weekend schedule for these events is somewhat erratic, as it depends on Robert’s touring schedule, so if you want to attend, follow Robert on Facebook here so that you know when and where his events are occurring. (I won’t put his address here publicly, although he occasionally does put it on Facebook. Follow him for details on where and when to go).
Como, Mississippi is a town that sits on the border between the Mississippi Delta and a region known as the Hill Country. The styles of blues from each region are distinct, but elements of them meet in this historic location, famous for both guitar blues,Black fife and drum band music, and gospel singers and musicians. All of these influences shaped the young R. L. Boyce, who began playing drums for his uncle Othar Turner’s fife and drum band in the late 1960’s. Boyce turned 62 this year, and to celebrate his birthday, his daughter organized a large picnic in Como Park featuring barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, and a line-up of the best regional blues musicians. The evening’s festivities kicked off with an incredible gospel singer and guitarist named Slick Ballenger, who was mentored by both Othar Turner and R. L. Boyce, and as Boyce was a long-time drummer in fife and drum bands, it was appropriate that there were two fife and drum bands at the picnic, the Hurt Family from Sardis, Mississippi and Sharde Thomas’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. It was possibly the first time the Hurt Family had performed in a place other than their own family picnics near Sardis, and eventually Willie Hurt was playing the fife with Sharde’s band as well. As the evening progressed, Kody Harrell, R. L. Boyce, Duwayne Burnside, Dre Walker, Greg Ayers and Robert Kimbrough all performed on stage until things came to a halt about 11 PM. The first annual R. L. Boyce Picnic drew a crowd of about 600 people, and gave Como something it has not had in many years, a true blues festival.
Marshall County, Mississippi and its county seat of Holly Springs are ground zero when it comes to the subgenre known as Hill Country blues. After all, the style’s two greatest stars, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside were from the county, and largely pursued their music careers there for the better part of their lives. As such, there is potential for blues tourism in Holly Springs, and the powers that be there have been slowly attempting to capitalize on it, sponsoring a weekly summer event during the months of July and August on Thursday nights called Blues in the Alley. On previous years, this event has showcased a lot of local and regional talent, including R. L. Burnside’s sons Duwayne and Garry, and Junior Kimbrough’s sons David and Robert, as well as Little Joe Ayers, and other blues musicians steeped in the Hill Country style. A stage is set up on the courthouse square, and on average, several hundred people show up to dance, party and enjoy the music.
Unfortunately, this year was different. When the event kicked off on June 30, Potts Camp legend Kenny Brown was on stage, and he had invited his friend Duwayne Burnside to perform as well.A crowd of several hundred people turned out to enjoy the kickoff, which was capped by a fireworks display. A week or two later, Lightning Malcolm, also familiar to Hill Country fans was the featured artist. But sadly, that was as good as it would get this year. As the summer stretched on, it became apparent that the festival organizers did not intend to book Duwayne or Garry Burnside (Duwayne ultimately appeared at Foxfire), nor Cedric Burnside (who played at New Albany’s Park on the River on July 2), nor David or Robert Kimbrough (Robert played a Sunday evening at Foxfire later in the summer), nor Little Joe Ayers. In fact, as the festival booked unknown bands like the Around The Corner Band, and out-of-town groups like the Juke Joint Three, something even more disturbing became apparent. For the most part, this year’s Blues In The Alley was booking only white artists. In fact, by the time the festival ended on September 1 with Gerod Rayborn, as best I could determine, only two Black artists had been featured all summer, and one of them, Oxford’s Cassie Bonner, is a singer/songwriter and not a blues artist at all. Ultimately, the programming choices affected attendance, which was way down, and skewed the crowds that did show up racially, with far fewer Blacks choosing to attend the weekly event. And this was all the more noticeable, as Holly Springs and Marshall County have a large Black majority. Sadly, it seems there is no way this was coincidental. Local Marshall County artists that are world-famous were passed over in favor of unknown (but white) bands from somewhere else. Although I asked a number of my friends in Holly Springs if they had heard any reason for the drastic change in booking policy, no justification for the change was ever readily forthcoming.
Ultimately, if Holly Springs wants to capitalize on its blues legacy as Clarksdale has managed to do, it must choose to become far less race-conscious as a town. The organizers of Blues in the Alley must understand that the Kimbrough and Burnside names are known all over the world, and that these are the artists that need to be booked if the goal is to get people to visit Holly Springs from other states or other countries. There’s nothing wrong with booking highly-talented white blues artists with impeccable Hill Country credentials like Lightning Malcolm, Kenny Brown or Eric Deaton. But Holly Springs and Marshall County are predominantly-Black, and Blues in the Alley should offer something for the Black majority as well…particularly if public funds are being expended. Otherwise, there may eventually not be a Blues in the Alley at all.
During the summer, Hill Country blues fans flock every Sunday evening to Foxfire Ranch near Waterford, Mississippi for weekly performances of the genre’s best musicians under the Blues Pavilion, and Sunday, August 7 was a truly special occasion featuring one of the last living legends of the Hill Country, R. L. Boyce from Como. Boyce was assisted by a number of guest musicians, including one of Junior Kimbrough’s grandsons, Cameron Kimbrough on drums and vocals, J. J. Wilburn on drums (who has played with Robert Kimbrough and Duwayne Burnside), G-Cutter on guitar, and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans of ’68 Comeback on guitar. Cameron Kimbrough’s mother Joyce Jones sang a rousing version of her song “Poor Black Man”, and Jeffrey Evans and drummer Ross Johnson performed several songs from their repertoire, including “The Roadrunner” and Jim Reeve’s “He’ll Have To Go” while R. L. Boyce took a break. Finally, before the end of the night, Robert Kimbrough came on stage to perform his song “The Girl Is Gone”. It was a memorable night of classic Hill Country blues and rock and roll.