The Hill Country blues season generally begins with the Juke Joint Festival in April, and ends with Como Day in Como, Mississippi, which is usually held late in October. Como in Panola County is an important town, which for many years was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sid Hemphill, and which remains the hometown of R. L. Boyce. Jessie Mae Hemphill lived nearby at Senatobia, and Glenn Faulkner lives and Otha Turner lived between Senatobia and Como at Gravel Springs.
It is a tradition in many predominantly-Black towns to have a “day,” when those who moved to other parts of the country can come home and celebrate their roots in small-town Mississippi, and Como Day is part of that tradition. But Como Day is perhaps one of the biggest of these kinds of celebrations, attracting hundreds of visitors each year to plenty of free music , good food and fun.
After two years of lockdowns and disruptions, the 2021 Como Day was extremely well-attended, with people coming out for what was one of the few public events since the onset of COVID-19. Performers included Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. As always the area near the stage was full of dancers, and the crowd was well-behaved. Como Day makes a great way to end the annual blues season.
Blues singer Beverly Davis’ family owns the only store in Chulahoma, a small town about halfway between Senatobia and Holly Springs in the Mississippi Hill Country, and in October of 2021, they allowed her to hold the first annual Chulahoma Blues Festival in a cleared field behind the store on Highway 4.
Chulahoma has a long history with the blues. Photographer and blues researcher Michael Ford visited in the early 1970s, and the rural community was home to blues legend Junior Kimbrough’s second and most famous juke joint until it burned down in April of 2000. More recently, the area has continued to be the scene of occasional blues yard parties and at least one clandestine juke joint.
October is still hot in the Mississippi Hill Country, and this particular Saturday afternoon was steaming, but a fair number of people turned out to see Beverly Davis as well as Duwayne Burnside and the Garry Burnside Band, and the weather cooled off after the sun went down. There was plenty of good food, great blues and dancing in front of the stage, and like so many Hill Country events, the feeling that we were standing on historic ground where these kinds of events have been going on for over a hundred years. The festival is intended to be an annual event.
Garry Burnside, one of the sons of legendary Hill Country bluesman R. L. Burnside moved to Ripley, Mississippi in Tippah County not long ago, and was instrumental in getting the city of Ripley to build and dedicate a wonderful Blues Alley, which commemorates the Hill Country and Mississippi blues traditions with beautiful paintings of historic artists, a guitar-shaped table and benches. In addition, in October of 2011, he planned the first Alice Mae Blues Festival, named for his mother Alice Mae Burnside, held on a grassy field beside the First Monday Trade Day grounds on Highway 15.
The weather was incredibly hot for an October day, and crowds were small at the beginning of the day, but more and more people arrived as the weather cooled in the evening. Those who attended enjoyed great blues from Garry Burnside, Kent Burnside and Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s adopted son Kenny Brown from Potts Camp, and other local area performers.
In addition to music performances, there were food vendors serving delicious foods, and even a bar cart serving alcohol. When the sun went down, both the vendors and the stage were lit up in festive lighting, and the great Hill Country blues went on until the event’s end.
Not all that long ago, the Oxford Blues Festival was a sparsely-attended hot summer festival on The Grove at the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. It always featured great blues music, but was adversely affected by the hot August weather, sudden showers or the blackout dates which the larger North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic imposed on its artists.
In 2021, Darryl Parker, the promoter who runs the festival solved both problems with a change of date to September 24th and 25th, and a change of location to Harrison’s, a relatively-new Oxford bar on the location of the old Frank and Marlee’s. Harrison’s has built a beautiful outdoor yard, with shelter, plenty of outdoor booths and lounge chairs, an outdoor bar and room for a large outdoor stage. If the Hill Country Picnic exudes rural outdoor remoteness, the Oxford Blues Fest represents a sophisticated and urbane alternative.
The line-up of performers was stellar too, including such regional artists as Lightning Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Effie Burt, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and Australia “Honey Bee” Neal, as well as bigger names including female blues artist Ghalia Volt, Nashville-based Patrick Sweany and Chicago bluesman Lurrie Bell. October also guaranteed perfect weather for the two-day event
Unfortunately, Oxford is changing from Yoknapatawpha Country to something more resembling Nashville or even Las Vegas, with tall hotels and condominiums popping up everywhere. The nature of some of these condos is that their residents could enjoy the festival from their balconies for free instead of paying, but apparently, instead of enjoying it, they chose to complain to the police about the noise. The festival was soon beset with Oxford Police officers with noise meters checking to see if the sound exceeded the decibels allowed by city ordinance, which seems a stupid and self-defeating move for a city that to some extent depends on travel and tourism. Furthermore, one wonders why anyone would move to the area of the Oxford Square if they object to noise, music, traffic or crowds of people. All the same, most visitors and musicians had a wonderful time, unmarred by bad weather, equipment problems or any other negatives. The Oxford Blues Festival is scheduled for October 6-8 in 2022, presumably in the same location.
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.
I doubt if anyone was all that happy when Bartlett, Tennessee lost its Steak N Shake location, although it had ceased being 24-hours-a-day almost two years before. Slim Chickens had entered the Memphis market earlier with a location in Southaven, but I really did not know much about the Arkansas-based chain. I recalled seeing a location in Jonesboro on a trip up there a few years ago, and recall them being a sponsor of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. But Memphis already had a lot of chicken places. How different could this one be?
As it turned out, Slim Chickens is both similar to some of its competitors, and also quite different. It is primarily a chicken finger restaurant, like Zaxby’s, Abner’s, Guthrie’s or Raising Cane, although the atmosphere is a little more upscale than those. It also sells wings, which the others don’t, and chicken and waffles, which is quite unique at this price point. Also unlike any of the other restaurants is your choice from among a whopping 18 different dipping sauces for your wings or tenders; you get a choice of two flavors with your order. And finally, the mason jar desserts are unique and delicious; I had a brownie-flavored one. They are kept cold and ready for your order, and you get to keep the mason jar afterwards.
But another unique facet of Slim Chickens is that the restaurant carries a blues theme. Not only are they a proud sponsor of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, but guitars decorate the walls, and great down-home blues plays from the overhead speakers. So eating at Slim Chickens is more than getting good food—you’re helping to support the blues as well. And it doesn’t get much better than that.
The late Junior Kimbrough on occasions called his music Cotton Patch Soul Blues, and after his passing, his legacy was carried on by three of his sons, Robert, Kinney and the late David Kimbrough III, who passed away on the Fourth of July in 2019. These men built on the foundation of their father, adding more soul influences into the music, and becoming blues stars in their own right. On July 31st, 2021, one of David’s daughters and his longtime friend Sherena Boyce threw an event at the Pavilion Building in Holly Springs, Mississippi to celebrate his legacy and achievements as a blues musician.
Only two solo albums were released by David Kimbrough during his lifetime; his first, I Got The Dog In Me was released in 1994 by the same Fat Possum record label that his dad had recorded for; the record was credited to David Malone rather than David Kimbrough. A second album was completed for Peter Redvers-Lee’s short-lived Midnight Creeper label out of Oxford, but has yet to see release. Instead, Scott Hatch released an album on David called Shell Shocked, which came out on his Lucky 13 imprint. David also appeared with his brothers on a Junior Kimbrough tribute album released in limited quantity by Justin Showah on his Hill Country Records imprint.
On this hot Saturday night, David’s legacy was recalled with a performance by the Eric Deaton Trio, featuring Kinney Kimbrough, David’s brother. A DJ, Mississippi Stud, performed between band sets, and Deaton’s trio was followed by David’s best friend Duwayne Burnside, who had played on the I Got The Dog In Me album. Although Duwayne performed a lot of his usual songs, he also closed out with a rousing version of “I Got The Dog In Me,” the second of the night. It was a fitting way to end the tribute.
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.
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.
Early on Saturday morning, June 19th, I headed to a restaurant called the Merry-Go-Round on North Fares Avenue in Evansville, Indiana. Fares was once Highway 41, and the restaurant was located in an area of several sketchy motels, but the number of cars around the building convinced me I was in the right place. Inside, the restaurant was a combination of antiques and Trump posters. I was not happy about that, but Evansville has few breakfast choices, and I saw that the customer base seemed relatively diverse, so I stayed.
The Merry-Go-Round goes back to at least World War II, and has a definite old-school vibe; the places sells burgers and ice cream, even if breakfast is the main reason people go. And a good breakfast it proved to be. Although the place was fairly crowded, the restaurant is large, and I had no problem getting a table.
My next step was to find a local coffee bar for a latte, so I drove over to the Honey Moon Coffee Company on Weibach Avenue, but as I arrived there, Duwayne Burnside called me and said that he wanted us all to soundcheck at 10 AM at the W. C. Handy Festival stage in Henderson, Kentucky, rather than at 11 AM as I had supposed. So I had to get my latte to go, and head south on Highway 41 across the bridge into Henderson. Fortunately, there was a blocked-off lot where we were allowed to park as performers.
The weather was extremely hot, and there were not a lot of people in the seats when I arrived, but then we were the first act to perform, and we did not go on stage until noon. To my amazement, they had a beautiful Nord keyboard on stage, and we had access to the food tent until it was time to soundcheck with Pinkie Pulliam, Charles Gage and Duwayne.
By the time we performed, there was a much larger crowd in the seats than when we arrived. The view from the stage over the crowd and out to the Ohio River was quite beautiful, and the show was fun to play. There were even some boats out on the river enjoying the show from the water. One of the things I was pleased with is that Duwayne Burnside gave the crowd authentic blues when so many of the other acts seemed more rock oriented.
Afterwards, I got my car and headed back across to Evansville. I grabbed a late afternoon lunch at Blu Burger Bar, the Evansville branch of an Indianapolis chain, located in the city’s old bus depot. The building has been lovingly and beautifully restored, and the food was outstanding.
My last stop before checking out of my hotel and leaving Evansville was at a store I had never seen before called Meijer. I vaguely remembered the name from trips to Cincinnati, but I had never been inside one. To my amazement, Meijer seems like a cross between Wal-Mart, target, Costco and Sam’s Club, all in one. The building was bright, mostly glass and chrome, and impeccably clean. I had intended to take some Double Cola back to Memphis, but Meijer didn’t have any in stock; however, they did have some Tchibo Coffee imported from Germany, and I bought that to take home.
Unfortunately, my car which had performed so well going up to Henderson and Evansville did not do as well going back. It started hesitating at times, and by the time I reached Dyersburg, the check engine light had come on. I stopped at a O’Reilly Auto Parts there, and learned that the fuel rail pressure sensor was going out. Despite difficulty, I managed to make it to the house.