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.

Duwayne Burnside Live at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Henderson, Kentucky

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.

An Evansville Sunset at The Rooftop, and Eric Gales Live in Henderson, Kentucky

Duwayne Burnside’s biggest show of 2021 was at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Henderson, Kentucky in June, a festival which is billed as the biggest outdoor music festival in the United States. Although we were not scheduled to play until Saturday, I decided to book a hotel room in Evansville, Indiana, and drive up the day before. So after work, I headed out from Millington up Highway 51. The weather was hot and sunny, but the drive was relatively pleasant. My car gave me no problems, and I stopped at Union City for a slice of pizza and a fountain drink, and then I headed on across Kentucky and into Evansville.

I had planned on eating at an outdoor bar and grill called The Rooftop, so I could enjoy the sunset over Evansville. As it was, I arrived in the city a little later than I had intended, and the sun went down almost as soon as I was seated. The place was crowded and cheerful, with a singer-songwriter performing, and bright lights strung across the seating area. Unfortunately, I discovered that The Rooftop was more of a place to drink and listen to music than a place to eat. The food was typical bar fare, and although it was not bad, it was neither outstanding nor memorable. The main star of the show were the evening views of downtown Evansville.

After I left The Rooftop, I could not find any coffee bars still open, so I headed back across the bridge to Henderson, Kentucky and the W. C. Handy Festival. One of the reasons I had wanted to come a day early was to see the Memphis rock-and-roll/blues guitarist Eric Gales, and Duwayne Burnside and his bassist Pinkie Pulliam were already in Henderson where the festival was taking place.

Finding parking in downtown Henderson was not at all the hassle I had expected it would be, and the festival, held in a large park along the Ohio River, was easy enough to find. On the other hand, the park was so crowded that it was hard to get anywhere near the stage. Because I didn’t find any coffee in Evansville, I was amazed and thrilled to find a Java Shakes food truck directly across the street from the main festival stage. Of course the prices were not cheap, but a mocha java shake was quite refreshing, and exactly what I had been wanting. Duwayne was backstage with Eric Gales, but Pinkie and I had some difficulty in getting backstage, at least at first. Eventually we were able to get the appropriate wristbands as performers and we were able to get backstage.

Hearing Eric Gales in person was amazing indeed. Although he burst onto the scene some years ago as a rock musician, the blues is never far away from his style, and his band was interesting as well, with two drummers, one of whom was his wife. His good natured talk with the crowd and his frank discussion of his addiction and recovery caught me by surprise, and I was especially impressed with his closing speech to the crowd; he pointed out that despite race or politics, music had brought all of them together on a certain level. Eric Gales’ awesome talent is surpassed only by his deep humility. It was an honor to see him in person.

Remembering the Kimbrough Blues Legacy In Holly Springs

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.

Juke Joint Fest: Johnny Rawls at Hambone and Kent Burnside at Gentleman Lyfe

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.

Juke Joint Fest: Sean Bad Apple’s Private Backyard Party With Jimmy Duck Holmes

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.

Juke Joint Fest: “You Will Have To Meet That Man”: R. L. Boyce Closes Out The Festival Day Beside the Sunflower River

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.

Juke Joint Fest: Garry Burnside on the Wade Walton Stage

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.

Juke Joint Fest: Memphissippi Sounds’ Cameron Kimbrough Continuing His Grandfather’s Legacy

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.