Each year, Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of legendary fife-and-drum band leader Othar Turner, holds an annual picnic in her grandfathers’ memory at Gravel Springs, a community a few miles east of Senatobia in Tate County. But this year’s festival, the 67th annual Goat Picnic, was a struggle and almost didn’t happen. A factional dispute within the larger Turner family led to the event being exiled from Otha’s homestead, where it has always been held in the past, and even the demolition of some of the historic structures on the property. With a fence erected to keep attendees off the homestead, this year’s picnic was held in a much smaller space to the east of the former location. But this year’s festival was also a free event, after several years of admission charges, and a crowd of a few hundred gathered to enjoy such artists as Lucious Spiller and Robert Kimbrough, and of course the great fife and drum music of Sharde’s own Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which played throughout the night. On the first night, both the picnic and the Gravel Springs block party along the road outside the picnic seemed somewhat subdued this year. But there was good food, good fun, perfect weather, and lots of great fife and drum music from one of the best bands in the genre.
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).
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.
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.
I never in a million years could have imagined the Sears Building being redeveloped as anything at all. I was only in it once when it was a Sears, and most of the building was already closed then. The store closed soon afterward, and as the building sat vacant over Crosstown, I could only imagine it eventually being imploded. So the transformation of the Sears building into the Crosstown Concourse has been truly amazing and thrilling. The building features apartments, shops, the Church Health Center and some community organizations. It caps a five year period during which Crosstown has really made a comeback as a neighborhood. But when I heard that Farm Burger had opened a Memphis location in the new building, I could not wait to head down there and check it out. While not all the stores in the new building were open yet, I found that French Truck Coffee had opened a new location in the Concourse, so I stopped there and enjoyed a latte while gospel musicians were warming up on the second floor, getting ready for Saturday’s grand opening celebration. French Truck, a New Orleans-based coffee roaster, has become fairly popular in Memphis since it merged with local roastery Relevant Roasters in 2016. After my latte, I headed further back to Farm Burger, and I enjoyed a bacon and bleu-cheese burger and french fries. Farm Burger has always had delicious food, acquired from local sources as much as possible, and serves grass-fed beef where possible. The Memphis location’s food is identical to what is served at the Atlanta locations. It’s worth a visit.
French Truck Coffee
1350 Concourse Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
1350 Concourse Avenue, # 175
Memphis, TN 38104
Compared to other Southern cities, coffee is seriously under-represented in Memphis, and always has been. I can remember when Java Cabana was literally the only coffee bar in town. There wasn’t even a Starbucks in those days, so a cappuccino meant a little bit of a drive. Things have gotten better, but Memphis still lacks the variety and quantity of coffee bars that cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin offer. But occasionally, new coffee bars open here, and the latest, Edge Alley is the coffee component of a local retail mini-mall in the burgeoning Edge District just east of downtown Memphis. The first thing I noticed was the sleek, spartan, modern look of the place, with bright white walls and plenty of overhead light. Nothing at all fancy, but the environs exude simplicity and cheer. I was even more excited to learn that Edge Alley roasts its own coffee on the premises. And as for the taste-the barista prepared me an excellent breve latte, as good as any I’ve had anywhere. Unfortunately, the place closes fairly early, at 8 PM, but it is a welcome addition to our city. Because one can never really have too much coffee.
600 Monroe Avenue, Suite 101
Memphis, TN 38103
My last day in New Orleans is always a little sad, but for this Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I decided to head out to Katie’s, a restaurant in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, which somehow I had never been to. Although the place looked crowded, we were able to get right in, and I was impressed with the shady ambiance of the outdoor seating, although due to the heat, we opted to eat indoors. Katie’s is a full-service restaurant, offering a lot more than breakfast, yet breakfast is what we came for, and Katie’s is amazing. I chose a seafood omelette, asking them to exclude the green onions, which they did, and I enjoyed it very much. While we were enjoying our breakfast, the place crowded up very quickly, and there was soon an hour wait or more, so it’s a good idea to go early. I noticed that Katie’s also offers po-boys and hamburgers, so I will have to visit again when it isn’t breakfast. I don’t know how I missed this place for so long, but I won’t miss it anymore. After leaving there, we headed down to North Claiborne Avenue where there was supposed to be a coffee bar called Addiction, but it wasn’t open. Next door was a strange example of the oddities of gentrification, as the building was the old Clabon Theatre, but its current owners, who apparently didn’t know any better, painted the boarded-up front black, with a legend “The Clabon”, and then for some reason, a map of Claiborne Parish, on the opposite side of the state near Shreveport, showing the location of Homer and Haynesville and such. Of course Claiborne Parish and Claiborne Avenue and The Clabon theatre have nothing in common except having been named for the same governor of Louisiana. But apparently these millennials didn’t know that.
Katie’s Restaurant & Bar
3701 Iberville St
New Orleans, LA 70119
Later in the evening, my homebody Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band had a gig with a pick-up band of musicians from various brass bands for a birthday party at Vaso, a club on Frenchmen Street. Since the City of New Orleans had put a stop to brass bands playing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter around 2009 or so, bands often frequent Frenchmen, a funky, music street that appeals more to locals than tourists, although the police will occasionally run brass bands away from the Marigny neighborhood as well. On this occasion, the birthday girl wanted the band to parade up Frenchmen Street from Vaso to the intersection with Chartres Street and back, but at Chartres, there was another brass band playing at the entrance to a brightly-colored building that has always reminded me of the Caribbean. At least one of their musicians was wearing a shirt for the Young & Talented Brass Band, but Darren told me that the band was comprised of musicians from several different brass bands. As is often the case in New Orleans, the two bands confronted each other, although in a friendly manner, and they quickly locked in with each other on a version of the brass band standard “Tuba Fats”. The crowds of locals and tourists in the intersection near The Praline Connection were thrilled. Eventually, our band headed back down toward Vaso, leaving the other one on their corner. It was one of those serendipitous musical moments that happen frequently in the Crescent City.
Funerals in New Orleans are fairly strange. It is common for the family members to hire a brass band for the funeral, and those in attendance often seem to be celebrating rather than mourning, particularly during the processions after the service. Traditionally, the bands were hired to parade with the body from the church or funeral home to the cemetery, and then back to the church again. The band would play slow dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery, and then would play upbeat jazz on the way back. While the boisterous dancing and music on the route back from the burial has often been described as celebration, others have attributed it to a retention of African beliefs- the fear that the spirit of the deceased might attempt to follow the mourners back from the cemetery unless it was warded off by the beating of drums and blowing of horns. For whatever reason, the jazz funeral was invented in New Orleans.
Nowadays, the brass bands rarely parade all the way to the cemetery from the church. Instead, they generally accompany the coffin as it is carried by the pall bearers to the waiting hearse out in front of the church. From there, depending on the plans of the family, they may march to a nearby neighborhood or bar. On this particular morning, the TBC Brass Band was assembled outside Israelites Baptist Church while the funeral service was going on inside. The wait seemed interminable, while dark clouds gathered to the south and west, threatening serious storms. But suddenly, the service was over, and the pall bearers emerged carrying the coffin down the steps of the church. TBC began playing upbeat music, while family members, though obviously grieving, still danced exuberantly on the sidewalk outside. The band and the family members proceeded down a side street to a tiny brick building painted with music notes which turned out to be the Gladys Bar. There we encountered other friends and family members of the deceased, and the vibe was more one of celebration than mourning, with everyone dancing in the street, including young people who had come out from nearby houses and off neighborhood porches. I was especially impressed to see that one of the band members had brought a little boy with him (perhaps his son), who had a toy trumpet that he was blowing. This is the way the tradition is renewed.
Back in 2008, when I really began my love affair with New Orleans, the city was only three years past Hurricane Katrina, and signs of the devastation were everywhere. While everyone remembered the French Market, what a lot of people didn’t know is that there had once been numerous public markets in New Orleans….such as the St. Bernard Market which had become the Circle Food Store, and the St. Roch Market at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch. The obviously-historic building stood in the middle of a neutral ground on St. Roch, but the market was boarded up and abandoned. I wasn’t sure, but I imagined that it had been boarded up before Katrina….the oil bust in the 1980’s had devastated the economy of New Orleans, and the city before Katrina was one of the poorest in the United States.
So I was amazed to see the St. Roch Market beautified, restored and opened for business on my recent trip to the city. My musician friend and I visited and found that, rather than a market, it has been turned into a food court, with many different food, dessert and drink options. After a chocolate cupcake from Bittersweet Confections, I had a breve mocha latte from Coast Roast, the New Orleans branch of a Long Beach, Mississippi coffee roastery. We had only recently eaten breakfast, but there were many food options, including both Thai and Haitian cuisine. The fact is, the St. Roch Market has something for nearly every palate, as long as you’re willing to be adventurous.
St. Roch Market
2381 St. Claude Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117