Blues in the Alley in Holly Springs

Each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi in Marshall County usually has a series of blues concerts on or near the town square. The town and county are in the dead center of the region of Mississippi known as the Hill Country, and are famous for the Burnside and Kimbrough families of blues musicians. But in both 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the city’s ability to have large events. Several weeks were cancelled, and so at the end of August, a final Bike Night was scheduled, neither on the square nor in the historic area known as The Alley, but rather in the large city park north of the square. The previous city administration had built a brand new pavilion complete with electricity in the park, but the newly-elected mayor and town officials felt that the pavilion was unstable and unsafe, so they had it roped off, and the musicians had to perform on a flatbed trailer in front of the new mural in honor of the Kimbrough family.

Originally, the night was supposed to be dedicated to Duwayne Burnside, but the organizers made a decision to let acts whose weeks had been cancelled earlier make up their missed performances, which led to a degree of argument over which acts would go first. Into that confusion came the new mayor, threatening to shut down the entire park because nobody was wearing a mask. After warning people from the microphone that she would have the police clear the park unless everyone put on a mask, the mayor left, and it was decided that Lady Trucker would go first, then Dre Walker and the Mississippi Boys, with Duwayne Burnside closing out the evening. Since I had time, I walked over to the Rodeo Cafe to get a bacon cheeseburger and to take a break from the heat.

The park was filled to overflowing with folks when I returned. Although there were not a lot of motorcycles, there were a lot of slingshots, the car/bike hybrids with three wheels, and a number of them were done up in neon. Lady Trucker gave a long performance to open the event; in walking around the park, I ran into both Robert Kimbrough and Little Joe Ayers amongst the crowd. But then Dre Walker came on with his band. Dre is more of an R & B singer than a blues performer, and he does almost exclusively cover songs, but he is a consummate showman, and has a way with crowds, especially women. After his performance, I had to go on stage to perform with Duwayne Burnside. Unfortunately, by then it was quite dark, and the city had not made any arrangements for lighting. Instead a few of the slingshots rode up through the crowd to the stage and shined their lights at us, which was better than nothing.

Only at the end of the night, after Duwayne had paid me and I was in my car with the air conditioning running did I realize that I didn’t have my white Kangol on my head which I had been wearing. I had apparently left it in the Rodeo Cafe which was by then closed. I never saw it again.

The Mason Family Reunion: Great Weather, Good Food, Fun and Fellowship, But No Musicians

Predominantly-African-American towns in Mississippi have a tradition of annual “days,” named for the towns, in which there are live performances, and in which people from those towns return from the North and West and other places where they have relocated for a sort of town reunion. The dynamic does not seem to occur in Tennessee, perhaps because there are few Black-majority towns. One exception is the town of Mason in Tipton County, located in the center of Tennessee’s Delta region, bordering both Fayette and Haywood Counties, and only about 25 miles from Shelby County. Since 2019, the Southern Soul artist Terry Wright has sponsored a Mason Family Reunion at the Zodiac ballpark north of town (although the event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).

This year, posters went up announcing the event in the Spring, setting the date as the 4th of July. New improvements had also been made to the Zodiac A’s park, including a new snack bar with covered tables and chairs, and a small permanent stage with a DJ booth. At a time when so many Black ballfields have been abandoned or have disappeared, it is encouraging to see this investment in keeping Zodiac Park up to date and viable. Tickets to the event were $30, yet there was already a significant crowd present when I arrived.

Because the small stage would have been inadequate for the expected crowds, the organizers had brought in a larger stage pointed away from the snack bar and toward the outfield. There was no large tent with cafeteria seating as there had been in 2019, and the outfield was mostly people’s personal tents and chairs. Up on the hill were a number of vendors, selling just about anything a person might want to eat or drink. At one of the stands, I recognized Myles Wilson, the former Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, who was also once an owner of legendary Club Tay-May and who had consulted me on my masters thesis about Black fife and drum bands in Tennessee.

In 2019, there were ongoing problems with the power supply to the stage, and that situation continued this year. Early performers had their performances interrupted due to sudden power failures; worse, at least for me, was that I did not see any drums, amps or guitars. I began to wonder if anyone was going to perform with musicians. Eventually I ran into Terry Wright’s keyboard player, who told me that it was going to be strictly a track show. Karen Wolfe was on stage at the time, struggling with intermittent power. I suppose the limited power issue made using live instruments impracticable.

Disappointed, I spent the remainder of my time catching up with people I knew from Mason, which is actually what a lot of people seemed to do. The weather was beautiful even if it was hot, and a lot of people turned out; there was plenty of fellowship, and no fighting. But a blues and Southern Soul show without musicians just seems and feels wrong.

Celebrating the Music of the Hill Country at Waterford, Mississippi

One of the best things about our slow return to normalcy has been the reappearance of the festivals we missed in 2020. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa each year at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County was founded by blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah to commemorate and preserve the Hill Country blues traditions, and especially the legacies of the Kimbrough and Burnside families. Held over two nights, the festival generally attracts several hundred people from all over the world; sadly, this year, most of the international visitors were unable to attend, due to ongoing travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Still, several hundred people attended on Friday night, seeing performances by Jimbo Mathus and Kent Burnside, and Duwayne Burnside with his band. Lots of musicians were backstage, including Little Joe Ayers, and there were great charcoal-grilled hamburgers for the performers.

An even bigger crowd attended on Saturday, when artists like Memphisippi Sounds, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band performed.

A Friday Evening in Jackson, Tennessee

I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Brownsville, so I headed out Highway 70 from Bartlett, and stopped in Mason, Tennessee to see if there were any announcements about upcoming events now that the pandemic seemed to be waning. To my surprise, there were several events coming up, including a retirement party for the Zodiac A’s, the local softball team in Mason for 35 years, and a community gospel concert at Fredonia Missionary Baptist Church. The biggest event coming was the July 4 Mason Community Family Reunion sponsored by the southern soul artist Terry Wright, for which I had already pre-purchased tickets.

However, in Brownsville, I could not reach my friend on the phone, and after driving around the town for a half hour or so, I headed on to Jackson, Tennessee. First, I drove by Reggie’s Bar-B-Que to pick up some bags of their pork rinds, which are unique and unlike any other brand, and then I headed from the east end of town toward downtown. Along Whitehall Street, I came to an old and seemingly-abandoned motel which seemed frozen in time. I decided to stop and photograph it, and to my surprise, an elderly couple came out of one of the rooms, so apparently the motel wasn’t quite as abandoned as it seemed.

Downtown, I pulled up to the Blacksmith Bar and Grill, and, faced with the prospect of eating dinner by myself, I posted a message to any of my Jackson friends on Facebook to meet me up at the restaurant. To my surprise, one of my friends from Huntsville responded, Codie G, who was in town doing contract work for the U.S. Army. We had a decent time catching up with one another over dinner, and then, resisting the temptation to run by Green Frog Coffee, I hit the road back to Bartlett.

Duwayne Burnside and Ms. Nikki at a Really Big Backyard Party in Holly Springs

One week after the earlier graduation party, there was an even bigger outdoor backyard party in Holly Springs, this one at a large house north of town, said to be sponsored by a law enforcement officer for his wife. No expense had been spared; the type of large stage used by cities for their outdoor festivals had been rented, and two bands had been hired, Duwayne Burnside and his band from Marshall County, and the southern soul artist Ms. Nikki and her band from Memphis (although apparently Ms. Nikki is originally from Holly Springs as well). A mechanical bull had been rented, and a DJ hired, and a building in back of the house which looked like a garage had been decked out like a club, with tables and chairs for at last a hundred folks, and a full bar. Inside was a buffet table, with pulled pork, grilled burgers, hot dogs and grilled corn on the cob. The pulled pork shoulder was just about the best I have ever eaten.

Outside, almost 300 people enjoyed great blues music and southern soul, despite an unexpected late cold snap. People danced and partied, and it was almost more like a large festival than a private backyard party, with cars filling the front yard of the house all the way to the road. Holly Springs knows how to party.

Hill Country Blues at a Graduation Party in Holly Springs

Marshall County, Mississippi is one of those out-of-the-way places in the South where old traditions and ways have retained a foothold. The county is the epicenter of the Hill Country Blues style, and the related Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of the Kimbrough family, and blues is often the soundtrack for picnics and family gatherings.

On May 22, a family graduation party turned into a virtual music festival in Holly Springs, as the family had booked Hill Country greats Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside to perform in their front yard. They also had a DJ and plenty of good barbecue, and a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered, with cars up and down old Highway 4. Although it was quite hot, it didn’t deter the party-goers, and after the sun went down, things cooled off some. It was actually a big night for Hill Country blues in Holly Springs, as Kenny Brown was also performing at a historic home on Salem Avenue for the first of the summer Blues on the Porch performances. Blues is still the soundtrack of summer in Marshall County.

Juke Joint Fest: Two Breakfasts and a Welcome Return to Normalcy

Although the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale typically fills up all hotel rooms in Coahoma County, sometimes something will open up in the last day or two before the festival as people cancel their trips, and so after weeks of fruitless searching, I had been able to eventually get a hotel room at the Quality Inn in Clarksdale, and therefore didn’t have to make the drive back and forth from Memphis. But I woke up early, and decided to head downtown in search of breakfast.

In a normal year, Yazoo Pass would have been my choice for breakfast, but they had been severely affected by the pandemic, and were not open on the morning of the festival. So the only option was Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, a decent restaurant whose staff was harried by the flood of customers. I was fortunate, because I managed to get in just before the crowd swooped in, and already had a table before things got truly gridlocked. Although it had been expected that crowds would be down this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds seemed about what would be expected for a Juke Joint Festival day, and there were few masks and not much social distancing. With many people getting vaccinated and case loads declining, a lot of people and places were beginning to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life.

I leisurely sipped a cup of strong coffee and enjoyed my bacon-and-cheese omelette, hashbrowns, biscuit and pancakes, while blues fans from all over the country filled up every other available seat in the house. It was fun, and delicious.

Heading down toward Cat Head, I ran into DJ Hustleman from Neshoba County out in front of the old Club Vegas. He had not eaten yet and wanted to get caught up with me, so I led him down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, where I knew we could get right in and enjoy at least breakfast biscuits. In that regard, I was not disappointed. I opted for a pour-over coffee, and a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, which was delicious. Hustleman and I sat at a back table and spent some time getting each other up to date, and then I headed up to Delta Avenue to check out vendors and get ready for the first acts of the festival day. The only impact that the pandemic seemed to have was that there were fewer vendors. Even so, I found a very beautiful piece of etched wood-art in honor of the late fife-and-drum-band leader Othar Turner from Gravel Springs, outside Senatobia, and as the price was reasonable enough, I purchased it. Hustleman moved his car and then began playing his guitar on the sidewalk in front of Club Vegas. It was a great beginning to the day.

Great Blues and Barbecue in Coldwater, Mississippi

Memphis is known for great barbecue, but strangely, barbecue is rarer in Mississippi, so when a new place appeared in the town of Coldwater, in Tate County, advertising itself as “blues and barbecue,” my interest was piqued, to say the least.

Coldwater is an interesting town in its own right, having been founded by the Federal government in 1942, to replace an older town of Coldwater that was flooded by the construction of Arkabutla Dam and Lake. The old town had been something of a prosaic railroad town with a traditional grid pattern of streets, but the new town was designed by an urban planner in Memphis, with curved streets typical of subdivisions. Highway 51 was four-laned and given service roads on either side, and a long, rectangular square was developed instead of the traditional four-square parks that older Southern towns were built around. Many of the old town’s houses and businesses were disassembled and trucked to the new site prior to the lake bed being filled.

But Coldwater has not been a place for eating out, or for live music, as a rule. Part of the problem was that until a few years ago, Tate County did not permit any alcohol sales, which pushed restaurants, clubs and live music to the neighboring county of Panola, where Como developed a sort of rural equivalent of Beale Street along its Main Street. So I was curious to check out this new restaurant and see what it was about.

Red’s Coldwater BBQ and Blues, despite the name, has no connection to the famous Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale. The latter is primarily a blues venue, the former a restaurant. But the decor of the new Coldwater restaurant does emphasize blues and music, with a piano, saxophone and other instruments on the walls, and cheerful bright colors and lights everywhere. The back room has a fairly small stage, which is used for bands on nights when the place has live music. Despite the name, the emphasis currently seems more on country music than blues, but Red’s features a weekly jam session on Thursdays, and karaoke on Fridays. The large, circular kitchen out back resembles a grain silo, and behind it is an old, historic smokehouse that was full of smoking meat when it was shown to me. It smelled delicious. There is apparently ample room for outdoor music events in warmer weather.

As for the food—delicious, but some words of caution are in order, as things are done a little differently at Red’s. The menu is quite simple, as there are basically two choices: three meats and two sides for $15, or one sandwich and one side for $10. Ordering is done buffet style; the meat choices are pork shoulder, brisket and pulled chicken, and the sides include potato hash (which has onions and peppers) and homemade macaroni and cheese. Drinks are from cold cans. It’s hard to get decent brisket outside of Texas, but Red’s has decent brisket, and in fact all the meats were really good. As for the sides, I was especially impressed with the macaroni and cheese, which had a dark golden color and sharp cheese flavor.

The owner indicates that he intends to add blues to the live entertainment mix in coming weeks, so I look forward to that. Live music opportunities are seriously lacking in Tate and Panola Counties.

Red’s Coldwater BBQ & Blues

646 B E Service Dr

Coldwater, MS 38618

(601) 667-8041

A Beautiful Late-Summer Evening in Brunswick, Tennessee

Here at The Delta Review, we have discussed the excellent Brunswick Kitchen restaurant before, and it is enough here to restate that it is a great and fun getaway from Memphis for a Friday evening dinner of catfish or pulled pork barbecue, in an old general store building which makes for a fun and pleasant setting.

But on this particular Friday night, there was a mysterious golden glow in the sky, after a day that had seen pop-up showers. Not only did the sunlight seem to make all the colors of buildings and trees more brilliant, but for the first time I noticed that the old abandoned house in the block north of the restaurant was situated in the middle of a pecan orchard. I had never noticed the perfectly straight rows of trees until that precise moment. It was a gorgeous sight to go along with a great meal.

A Great Dinner and Fun at Barretville’s General Store

Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.

Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.

Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.

But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.

As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.

Barretville General Store

9053 Barret Rd

Millington, TN 38053

(901) 829-0124