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.
After a year’s hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival returned to Holly Springs, Mississippi in May of 2021, with a few differences. The event was held totally outside this year, with The Hut being closed as a precaution against spread of the virus, and of course, with travel restrictions from foreign countries still in place, overseas visitors who usually attend were not able to come.
All the same, on Saturday night attendees got to hear the workshop performers play, along with their mentors Duwayne Burnside, Robert Kimbrough Sr. and Joe Ayers, and on Sunday, a somewhat larger crowd saw even more artists, including Joe Ayers’ son Trenton, Lightning Malcolm and R. L. Boyce, in addition to those who had performed the night before. This was also the first Kimbrough festival since the death of David Kimbrough Jr. in 2019, and Robert made a point of performing several of his brother’s songs during his performance. It was altogether a good time, and another sign that things seem to be returning to some degree of normalcy.
Duwayne Burnside is one of the sons of the late R. L. Burnside, and is a living legend of the Hill Country blues tradition in North Mississippi, but peculiarly, he has not frequently played in Memphis in recent years. That changed this summer, with a weekly residence at the outdoor Railgarten venue in Midtown, which got under way on May 7th after a couple of cancellations due to weather.
A number of Memphis blues aficionados and musicians came out, including the legendary Stax Records drummer Willie Hall, who sat in with the band on a tune. Actually, Railgarten makes a nice venue for blues, with its massive array of outdoor tables and bars. In pleasant weather, it’s perhaps the best venue in the city. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused modifications in its operations, and things are not entirely back to normal yet. The diner, which once featured a more adventurous culinary menu, is closed, as is the ice cream parlor, and currently only bar food is available. But there seem to be renovations going on at the diner, and hopefully it will be reopening in the future.
After Sherena Boyce and myself attended the Jimmy “Duck” Holmes party behind Sean “Bad” Apple’s juke joint in Clarksdale, we went different directions. She wanted to go to Kent Burnside’s performance at a new club called Gentleman Lyfe, which usually hosts more of a hip-hop crowd, but I wanted to catch Johnny Rawls’ performance at Hambone.
However, when I got to Hambone, I was somewhat disappointed. Rawls typically has a large band with horns on his albums, but at Hambone, he had a stripped-down trio band instead. Worse, the place was so crowded that I could not get anywhere near the stage. So I left there and headed around the corner to Gentleman Lyfe for Kent Burnside’s performance. Sherena got there about an hour after I did, but although Kent gave some rousing performances of Hill Country standards, the long day had taken a toll on me, and I was running on fumes. Ultimately, I left to head back to the hotel and to bed.
Although the scheduled outdoor shows ended at 5 PM, Sean “Bad” Apple, who recently converted the old Club 2000 on Issaquena Avenue into the Bad Apple Blues Club, had a private invitation-only Jimmy “Duck” Holmes performance in the backyard of his club, which my friend Sherena was able to talk our way into since she knew Jimmy. The performance before a small crowd sitting on the ground was intimate, in Homes’ usual way, and was intended to highlight his new CD release. Sherena managed to buy copies of the disc and a T-shirt as well.
Getting dinner in Clarksdale can be difficult during Juke Joint Festival, so this year I called ahead and made reservations at Levon’s so my friend and I would not have to wait for a table. But one of the cooler (and most mysterious) things about Clarksdale is the way poetic and inspirational slogans appear on the walls of abandoned buildings and walls around the town. This year, there was a new one across from the shuttered Delta Theatre, which read “Strength Lies Within,” a good slogan for my friend, and I photographed her beside it accordingly.
Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce is one of the last living musicians of the first generation of the Hill Country, and on Juke Joint Festival Saturday, he closed out the day of free outdoor performances with a rousing appearance at the Quapaw Canoe Company Stage with one of his disciples, Lightning Malcolm.
Boyce’s music exemplifies the trance-inducing repetition that Hill Country blues shares with the music of the Senegambian region of West Africa. His composition “You Will Have To Meet That Man,” also known as “River Jordan,” seemed to aurally complement the slowly flowing Sunflower River in the late afternoon sun. An enthusiastic crowd gathered around the fountain and covered almost all available ground, other than the stairs down to the river itself behind the stage, where a young man and his girlfriend were talking. It was a fitting end to the day performances, with the indoor night concerts in clubs still to come.
Blues musician Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, recently moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County, and put together a new band with a young drummer from Ripley, along with old familiar faces like Andrea Staten. Garry took the Wade Walton Stage in the slot before his brother Duwayne, and captivated the significant and growing crowd. Duwayne came on after him, but as I was playing keyboards for Duwayne this year, I could not document his performance. Duwayne was followed by Kenny Brown, whom R. L. considered an ‘adopted son,” but Kenny’s performance overlapped with that of R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm at the Quapaw Canoe Company stage, so I made me way down to the Sunflower River to catch’s Boyce’s performance, the last one of the day.
The blues of the Hill Country region centers largely around two families, the Kimbroughs (who call their music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues”) and the Burnsides, and although the patriarchs of the two families, Junior and Rural, have passed, the legacy is continuing now into the third generation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the music of the band Memphissippi Sounds, whose drummer Cameron Kimbrough is the son of Kinney Kimbrough, who is himself a son of the late Junior Kimbrough. Like Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R. L. Burnside, Cameron is both a drummer and a guitarist, and he has a unique skill at composing new material that fits firmly into the Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of blues. His sidekick, Damian Pearson is an incredible harmonica player and equally talented guitarist. They often appear as a duo, but at the Wade Walton Stage at this year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, they had a third member playing bass.
Although these young men infuse the music with a youthful vitality, the music of Memphissippi Sounds remains true to the legacy of northeast Mississippi, and guarantees that the musical traditions of that region are in good hands for many years to come.
This was the first year at Juke Joint Fest with the new Traveler’s Hotel in downtown Clarksdale, and for the first time, there was a new performance tent across the street from the hotel in a parking lot. I had not paid a lot of attention to the location earlier, but when I walked back that way later in the morning, the Southern Soul Band was playing there. I recalled them from Como Day in 2018, when they had been a crowd-pleaser. There was a classic car show in the intersection nearby, and the crowd seemed pleased with what they were hearing. I enjoyed them as well as I headed around the corner and into the Blue Cotton Bake Shop for some coffee and baked goods.