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.
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.
Although we had been told to expect a “modified” Juke Joint Fest due to the pandemic, the actual event proved to be not much different from ordinary years; certainly the crowds were just as large. The weather was beautiful, and one could not escape the feeling that things were slowly returning to some degree of familiarity. Perhaps there were fewer attendees from other countries, as travel between countries was still being affected by Covid-19, but there were far more people than I expected, many from out of state.
Of course there were changes, too, at least one of them sad, as Yazoo Pass restaurant and coffee bar in previous years would have been a hotbed of activity during the festival. This year, it was mostly closed, although it opened briefly in the afternoon for coffee and baked goods to go. Two new downtown lodgings had opened since last year, including the Travelers Hotel and the Auberge Hostel in the former Madidi Restaurant building. There were also many bright new murals in the alleys of downtown Clarksdale; not only did they brighten the environment, but they contained pithy slogans like “The only good border is a border collie,” and “The blues was born behind a mule.”
There did seem to be fewer vendors this year than in previous years, but the ones that were there had some very interesting artworks, hats, barbecue rubs and other items. Walking around and browsing took more than an hour. I eventually found a beautiful piece of wood art with a picture of the late fife and drum band leader Otha Turner burned into it. That I could not pass up, and at $40 it was basically a steal. By the time I got that item to my car, it was almost time for me to catch the next performers I wanted to see.
In previous Juke Joint Festivals, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art has been sort of the nerve center for the festival, but this year it seems that the organizers wanted to downplay that, perhaps due to the pandemic. Most of the artists that would usually have played at Cat Head in previous years were relocated to the Wade Walton Stage on Issaquena Avenue. An early morning exception however was Little Joe Ayers, one of the last living original Hill Country bluesmen, who opened the festival day with an awesome set in front of the store accompanied by his son Trenton, who for many years was part of a duo with Cedric Burnside.
Whereas the second generation of Hill Country bluesmen have adopted a more aggressive and electrified sound, Little Joe has remained true to the music’s rural roots, playing both traditional blues standards like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and favorite tunes from the Junior Kimbrough songbook like “Do The Rump.” There’s no better way to start a blues festival, and an enthusiastic crowd gathered despite the early hour.