Mention crawfish and most people will immediately think of Louisiana, but the “mudbug” is a popular sign of spring throughout the South, and Memphis is no exception. The Bluff City actually has two festivals in April dedicated to crawfish, and the first of these is the Overton Square Crawfish Festival, held in the city’s restored Overton Square entertainment district, mainly in the parking lot of the Bayou Bar and Grill. This year, in addition to plenty of beer and crawfish, the Overton Square festival featured a day of North Mississippi’s best blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce from Como, Robert Kimbrough and Garry Burnside from Holly Springs, and Lightning Malcolm. By the end of the afternoon, the crowd filled Madison Avenue for three straight blocks. It proved to be great food and great fun.
Como, Mississippi, a little town in the northern extremity of Panola County is historically a center of the Hill Country of Mississippi. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Como, as was Napoleon Strickland, and the Rev. John Wilkins’ church is in Como. Hill Country blues legend R. L. Boyce lives there. More recently, the town has won fame for a couple of great restaurants, and the gospel group The Como Mamas. But strangely, in the modern era there has been no place to hear the blues on a regular basis in Como. That changed early this year when a new juke joint opened called Li’l Poyun’s Place, or the JIC Pool Hall. With Mississippi’s juke scene so endangered, the opening of any new juke joint is to be welcomed, and Poyun’s is first-rate on the weekends when it features live music. On a recent weekend in April, the featured act was the Anthony Turner Band from Memphis, a band with more southern soul tendencies. But the guest artist was Como’s own R. L. Boyce, who played a brief set of classic Hill Country blues, and the dance floor was packed. Poyun’s is an authentic juke, and certainly not for the faint of heart. On certain Saturdays, the place is packed from wall to wall. The surroundings are anything but fancy, and the atmosphere, if electric, can be tense at times, with the occasional fight breaking out once in awhile. But it is an authentic blues experience in one of the blues’ most holy spots.
JIC Pool Hall AKA Li’l Po-Yun’s Place
West Side of Highway 51 near Compress Rd
(Hours can be erratic…may not always have live bands even when open)
The years have not been kind to jazz. In fact, the wonderful creative music that has been called “America’s classical music” was dubbed “the least popular form of music in America” last year, receiving that dubious honor just below its cousin, the Blues. Defenders of the art form point out that the claim of jazz’s current unpopularity was based upon the number of digital downloads broken down by genre, and claim that jazz fans are more likely to prefer vinyl or compact discs. Still, jazz clubs have been closing, too, most recently the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC and the venerable Afterthought in Little Rock, Arkansas. The situation is far grimmer in Memphis, a city where jazz never had all that much of a foothold, and that despite a legacy of producing great jazz musicians. The first great trumpet star in the pre-Louis-Armstrong era was a Memphian, Johnny Dunn. Jimmy Lunceford, Jimmie Crawford, Joe Dukes, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Lowe, Sonny Criss, Hank Crawford, Phones Newborn Jr, Donald Brown, James Williams, Jamil Nasser, Tony Reedus and Mulgrew Miller were all either born in Memphis or developed their careers as young men in the city. But from a high-water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s where jazz could be heard at The Sharecropper,Bill’s Twilight Lounge, or the Gay Hawk, or Sunbeam Mitchell’s hotel, the opportunities to hear live jazz in Memphis on a regular basis have largely dwindled down to one location: Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sunday nights. And the location is oddly appropriate, as Earnestine and Hazel’s was once a second hotel belonging to the same Sunbeam Mitchell who had his main hotel and club on Beale Street. Although Mitchell was said to detest beboppers, most of the city’s great jazz musicians played there on a regular basis. Nowadays, jazz musicians from around the city, including students from the University of Memphis and Rhodes College come down on Sunday nights to sit in, play some standards, and perhaps enjoy a beer or a famous “Soul Burger.” On a recent night in March, a special guest came through, an incredible drummer and former Memphian, Aaron Walker, who for many years was the great Abbey Lincoln’s drummer. Now resident in Wilmington, Delaware, he conducts drumming and percussion classes for young people and continues to perform in the Baltimore/Philly/DC area. Such guests come through frequently, and the jam session scene at Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sundays is not to be missed if you are traveling to Memphis.
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.