During the warm months, Blues on the Porch in Holly Springs, Mississippi brings the area’s best blues performers to the front porches and yards of some of the town’s most historic and beautiful old homes, some of which predate the Civil War. The atmosphere is family-friendly and congenial, and there is usually plenty of good food.
The August Blues on the Porch occurred at the end of a beautiful Saturday which was not all that hot despite the time of year, at a mansion a few blocks south of the Court Square. The opening act was a band which included the house’s owner, but the main act was Lady Trucker, a blues and Southern Soul singer who is the wife of the great Hill Country drummer Artemas LeSeur. Trucker’s band for the evening included bluesman Lightning Malcolm, and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena came to jook and play the tambourine. With the weather so pleasant, a large crowd turned out, well over a hundred people, who enjoyed a night of food, fun and great music.
Afterwards, a friend and I headed to Marshall’s Steakhouse, arguably the county’s best restaurant for a late dinner, and they also were featuring a live band in front of their building. Our steaks were delicious, and it all made a perfect ending to an awesome day.
After an interruption caused by COVID-19, the annual Hill Country Picnic returned to Betty Davis’ Ponderosa near Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, with two days of great Hill Country music and artists. The Hill Country Blues style (or Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family calls their style of blues) is a unique form of music that originates in the Hill Country of Northeast Mississippi, and is especially prevalent in Marshall County, where well-known blues musicians like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough lived. The county is still home to prominent musicians, including Duwayne Burnside and Robert Kimbrough, as well as Joe Ayers, who was an original member of Junior Kimbrough’s Soul Blues Boys band.
Unlike many other summer blues events, the Hill Country Picnic is generally restricted to artists who are from the Hill Country region, or who were mentored by the original Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues performers. This guarantees plenty of opportunities to see the African-American originators of the tradition, which sadly is increasingly not the case at other high-profile blues festivals.
On the hot July Saturday of this year’s festival, fans got an opportunity to hear R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside, Kent Burnside and Kenny Brown, who started the festival in Potts Camp some 15 or so years ago.
Although the crowds have been smaller since the pandemic, it is good to see things beginning to return to normal, and one hopes that attendance will bounce back toward pre-pandemic numbers with each coming year.
Saturday April 23 was the main day of Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a bright and sunny day, but extremely windy. In fact, the wind was so severe that it blew down a number of the vendor tents along downtown streets. When I arrived at the Wade Walton Stage, one of the free stages throughout the daytime, Memphisippi Sounds was on stage, the duo of Cameron Kimbrough and Damian Pearson. While there are not a lot of young Mississippi Hill Country artists, this group is one of the best emerging artists from the region. They were followed by Garry Burnside and his band, and then Duwayne Burnside and his band, and finally Kenny Brown, who was mentored by Mississippi Joe Callicott and the great R. L. Burnside. Around the same time, Como bluesman R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm were on the Sunflower River stage next to Quapaw Canoe Company.
2022 brought some new openings to Clarksdale as well as some sad closings. The Riverside Hotel, famous as the the former hospital where blues great Bessie Smith died, has remained closed since it was damaged in a storm, and a fundraising effort is underway to keep it from closing permanently. Yazoo Pass, although open to a limited extent during weekdays, has closed at night, and was open only briefly on the festival day. But Sean “Bad” Apple’s new blues club in the former Club 2000 building, as well as the opening of the new Buster’s Blues Club next door show that the renaissance in Clarksdale still remains strong coming out of the pandemic.
After a dinner at the Hooker Grocery, I made my way over to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue for Duwayne Burnside’s night show. While the daytime stages are free to the public, the night shows inside the various juke joints require wristbands or paid admissions, but the shows are generally well-attended, and Duwayne’s was no exception.
As events go, the annual Juke Joint Fest has played perhaps the biggest role in making Clarksdale, Mississippi a tourist destination on the world stage, and over the years it has grown into a bigger and bigger event. Although the official festival generally takes place on a Saturday, it has come to encompass four days of live music and events, some of them official and others not. This year, the Juke Joint Fest kicked off on Friday with a parade in downtown Clarksdale, the first such parade during the festival I can recall. It was breaking up on John Lee Hooker Street just as I walked up to the Hooker Grocery, perhaps Clarksdale’s most upscale restaurant.
After dinner, I walked down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, the youth-run coffee bar which was also quite crowded. Although it usually closes early in the afternoon, Meraki extends their hours during the festival, and it is something of a hub for visitors and performers alike. The streets were full of local residents and tourists in a festive mood, and music was everywhere. Making my way back to Yazoo Avenue, I met up with Duwayne Burnside whose band was setting up to play at Bluesberry Cafe, which was packed to overflowing. After his performance, I was tempted to swing by Red’s Lounge, but as it was late and the next day was an even bigger day for the festival, I headed back to Memphis.
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.