If anyone is familiar with Chulahoma, Mississippi at all, it is probably as the location of the late blues great Junior Kimbrough’s long lost juke joint, which burned in the 1990s. True, the small crossroads has an annual blues festival, sponsored by singer and entrepreneur Beverly Davis, whose family owns the community grocery store and gas station. But aside from that, Chulahoma is basically just a four-way with a convenience store and an old former store across the road, and a Dollar General on the opposite corner. Near the border of Tate and Panola Counties in the Mississippi Hill Country, it is deep in an area known for blues, Black gospel, picnics and fife and drum music.
The annual Chulahoma Blues Festival is held in October, but in September of 2022, some promoters decided to try a new event called the Cigar and Wine Festival at Columbus Park, a large and spacious park south of Chulahoma just off the Tyro Road. The event featured a number of vendors, plenty of food trucks, motorcycle clubs, live music and a DJ. What it did not have, at least at first, was very many attendees, which was all the stranger since the weather was absolutely gorgeous. One of the three acts scheduled to perform had cancelled at the last minute, and Hill Country bluesman Garry Burnside was called as a replacement. Garry is well-known in Marshall County and in Oxford, and if he had been advertised on the event flyers and posters, there might have been a larger turnout. As it was, a singer named Cassandra the Soulchild from Memphis opened up the stage with her band, and Garry Burnside and his band followed, before Courtney Little from Memphis came on with his band, by which time there was at last a good-sized crowd, line-dancing in front of the stage.
Altogether, it was great food, great fun, a wonderful family atmosphere, and great weather. Here’s hoping the Cigar and Wine Fest returns for many more years.
The Hill Country blues scene has always been a music of juke joints. Although the music is occasionally heard at large festivals and big city clubs, its home is the rural Northeast Mississippi hole-in-the-walls and picnics. For many years, the nerve center of the music (in the related form of Cotton Patch Soul Blues, as the Kimbrough family called it) was the rural juke on Highway 4 in Chulahoma which the late Junior Kimbrough owned. After it burned, there have been a succession of attempts to replace it in the Marshall County area, from a Burnside Blues Cafe out on Highway 310 in 2011 to David Kimbrough’s Junior’s Juke Joint No. 2 in 2015 in Holly Springs on Highway 7.
In early 2022, R. L. Burnside’s son Duwayne acquired the building in which David ran his juke joint and began converting it into the Burnside Bar and Grill. After a soft opening in April, the place has become a gathering point for barbecue and great live blues on an almost weekly basis. Not only has Duwayne Burnside performed there himself with his band, but also such great musicians as Garry Burnside, Kinney Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Memphis Gold and Robert Kimbrough have graced its stage. Like most jukes, the ambiance is generally informal. People walk in and out. Sometimes there is an admission charge, often there is not. Sometimes there is free food, sometimes food is available for a price per plate. There is no DJ as such, just a cell phone hooked to speakers playing good blues. But then, one doesn’t expect a juke joint to be formal. Burnside Bar and Grill is a must-experience destination in Holly Springs, especially for all fans of the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul blues styles.
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.
I was in Little Rock on a Saturday morning for a gig with Hill Country bluesman Garry Burnside, and it was downright chilly after my previous weekend in New Orleans. I am the kind of person that cannot start the day without breakfast and coffee, so I had scouted out a place online called At The Corner Diner, which is located right at the entrance to the President Clinton Avenue/River Market area downtown, but I feared it would be outrageously crowded. It did prove to be somewhat crowded, and yet, I was able to get a table fairly quickly, and I was impressed with the modern, stylized decor, the cheerful touches of red throughout the interior, and the general festive atmosphere.
At The Corner calls itself a “modern” diner, and I am not sure what that entails, but like a similar establishment called the 24-Hour Cafe in Austin, it seems to mean diner food with a bit of a gourmet accent. Prices are not as cheap as an old-fashioned traditional diner, but they are fairly reasonable, and there are plenty of familiar comfort foods on the menu. I chose an Arkansas Breakfast Sampler, which is a typical bacon and eggs and biscuit breakfast, but even here there was a neat gourmet twist, a cup of fresh fruit; I’m not always the biggest fan of fruit but the fruit in the cup was so fresh and so sweet that it made a pleasant addition to the meal. As any breakfast establishment should, The Corner had several coffee options as well, and as cold as it was, people were definitely taking advantage of it.
For those not in the mood for breakfast, At The Corner also has a fairly diverse selection of hamburgers, other sandwiches, and salads. When in Little Rock, it is definitely worth a visit.
When Garry Burnside told me where we were playing on a Sunday night, I was confused. The place was almost to Highway 4 along Highway 309 near Wyatt and Chulahoma, but I didn’t see anything but houses. He had said there would be a lot of cars parked beside a house, and when I found that, I turned in. Although there were no signs, there was a sort of rough juke joint behind a house, and that turned out to be the spot.
Roosevelt’s Place is the name of the semi-secret spot; no signs will lead you there, and there is no logic to when or if they have a live band; it’s basically a two-room shack. The larger front area contains the small bar and pool table, and the much narrower, smaller back room barely has space for the band and perhaps ten or so patrons. But this is the environment in which Hill Country blues thrives, and must be somewhat similar to the vibe at Junior Kimbrough’s old juke along Highway 4 before it burned.
Whether Roosevelt’s is open to the public as such is also unclear; it certainly draws a crowd from people who live in the area and know about it, although I expect that many nights there is just a DJ and not a band. Visitors should enquire in the area to see if a band is playing.
Roosevelt’s Place is behind a house on the east side of Highway 309 about a mile north of Highway 4.
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.
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 COVID pandemic has had a drastic and devastating effect on the Hill Country and Cotton Patch Soul Blues scenes in North Mississippi, with almost all festivals and events cancelled this year, or reconceived as virtual events streamed online rather than events in the real world for fans to attend. One bright exception has been Foxfire Ranch, the rural blues and event center at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County, which, because of its outdoor nature and rural setting, felt confident in continuing to host events and book artists.
In August, Foxfire booked Duwayne Burnside and his band, which included his brother Garry Burnside. The weather was beautiful, although hot, and a surprisingly large crowd of fans attended. With great blues coming from the stage, and dancers on the floor in front, for a few sunny hours it was possible to imagine life without the pandemic at all.
Foxfire has continued to book blues-related events as weather permits, including a camp this summer that featured Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis, two of the hottest young Black blues artists in America today. Having so many events cancelled helps us appreciate the few that we have left.
Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.