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.
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.
On a couple of rare instances when my jazz group played in Tupelo some years ago, my old bass player Monte Butts had recommended a dessert cafe downtown called Crave. I fell in love the first time I tried it. The place had delicious cakes and pies, as well as great coffees.
So, after rain caused an early end to my day at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic at Waterford, I made my way to Oxford and grabbed a burger at the Oxford Burger Company, and afterwards, I wanted something sweet. Checking my Yelp app on my phone, I soon saw a reference to a place called Crave in Oxford that specializes in desserts. I found myself wondering if it was a branch of the place I remembered in Tupelo.
Wonder no more. Oxford Crave is in fact a branch of Tupelo Crave. And it is located next to Lost Pizza Company, away from the hustle and bustle of the square, along College Hill Road. The atmosphere is upscale and welcoming, and the coffee and desserts are delicious. I enjoyed a slice of peanut butter-chocolate cake, which was absolutely amazing. Despite an error on Yelp with regards to hours, Crave is open most nights until at least 9 PM.
Since the death of the legendary fife and drum musician Othar Turner, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas has done stellar work in preserving that musical tradition, as well as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band which Turner started, but in addition to the annual GOAT Picnic in August which she sponsors, she has occasionally looked for other opportunities to throw festivals. The new Rising Star JuBallLee this June was held at Cherry Place, a rural complex out from Waterford, Mississippi, and the event seemed geared to the fans of the annual Fool’s Ball, a three-day music festival held every fall at the same location. The venue is a strange one, a former restaurant located in front of what appears to be a horse track and rodeo complex with a grandstand, although it is unclear to what extent the facility is used anymore. Occasional rock, country, blues and Latin events are held outdoors at the site during the warmer months, and this event was very warm indeed, coinciding with some of the hottest weather of the entire year.
The event kicked off around 6 PM with the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band playing in front of the stage, and then Memphis folk/blues/soul songster Moses Crouch appeared. He was followed by the North Mississippi blues/rock band Woodstomp, which features Kody Harrell, a guitarist who has occasionally played with Duwayne Burnside. Sharde and her drummers appeared again after Woodstomp’s performance, and then the band Solar Porch from Isola, Mississippi came on stage. But by that point, heat and fatigue had taken a toll on me. I headed back to Holly Springs and grabbed a late breakfast at the Huddle House before hitting the road back to Memphis.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
My girlfriend and I had planned on going to see Cameron Kimbrough, who we thought was playing in Helena, Arkansas, but it ultimately turned out that he was playing in Warren, Arkansas instead, which is a three-hour drive. There was no chance of making it there before he went on stage, so we had dinner at the Holiday Lodge on Sardis Lake at Harmontown and then headed to the Blues Shack for the second day of the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam. Holly Springs bluesman Little Joe Ayers was on stage when we arrived, playing to a crowd that was somewhat larger than the one on Friday night. After Joe performed, then Duwayne Burnside and Kenny Brown got on stage and performed such Hill Country classics as “All Night Long” and “Meet Me in the City.” Although we were having a great time there, we ultimately cut it short because my girlfriend wanted to catch Cedric Burnside, who was playing at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, so we left out and headed down that way.
Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best guitar players in the country, and in September each year, he sponsors the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam at the Blues Shack, which is out in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 310 and Old Oxford Road near Waterford, Mississippi. Don’t be expecting a big formal festival like the Hill Country Picnic. Instead, you pay your $10 entry fee at a gate on a gravel driveway and come to a small wooden stage in front of a mobile home. The pleasant smell of barbecue smoke from an oil drum drifts through the air, and a small crowd is mesmerized by such musicians as Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Garry Burnside and Little Joe Ayers, in a more intimate setting where the line between performers and fans is non-existent. Duwayne might come down off the stage for a break and sit at your picnic table, or he might be behind the food stand pouring beers or fixing food plates. With plenty of children running around and having fun, it feels more like being invited to a house party than a festival. And that is an experience not to be missed.
To be one of the greatest living blues guitarists, Duwayne Burnside doesn’t get booked nearly often enough, so any opportunity to see him play live should be taken advantage of. And there are few venues more conducive to the blues than Bill Hollowell’s Foxfire Ranch at Waterford, Mississippi, where, every Sunday during the warm weather months, the best blues artists from the Hill Country perform in a homey, intimate setting. There’s no backstage area, no green rooms or dressing rooms, no fence in front of the stage. Performers and their fans are free to interact, and dancers have plenty of room to jook to the music.
Duwayne is perfectly at home in this kind of setting. His friends and family often come with him, and he banters with the crowd between songs as if he’s been knowing them all his life. He is equally at home with the repertoires of his father R. L. Burnside, and the other great legend of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough, and when he launches into any blues tune, his face breaks into a smile with the sheer joy of invention and creation. On the more rocking tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line”, the open space in front of the stage fills up quickly with dancers, and Duwayne calls a few guest singers and musicians to the stage. But the night belongs to him, and when he begins to give out from fatigue, it is nearly 10 PM. The crowd begins to wander away, just as the rainstorms break out in earnest.
During the summer, Hill Country blues fans flock every Sunday evening to Foxfire Ranch near Waterford, Mississippi for weekly performances of the genre’s best musicians under the Blues Pavilion, and Sunday, August 7 was a truly special occasion featuring one of the last living legends of the Hill Country, R. L. Boyce from Como. Boyce was assisted by a number of guest musicians, including one of Junior Kimbrough’s grandsons, Cameron Kimbrough on drums and vocals, J. J. Wilburn on drums (who has played with Robert Kimbrough and Duwayne Burnside), G-Cutter on guitar, and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans of ’68 Comeback on guitar. Cameron Kimbrough’s mother Joyce Jones sang a rousing version of her song “Poor Black Man”, and Jeffrey Evans and drummer Ross Johnson performed several songs from their repertoire, including “The Roadrunner” and Jim Reeve’s “He’ll Have To Go” while R. L. Boyce took a break. Finally, before the end of the night, Robert Kimbrough came on stage to perform his song “The Girl Is Gone”. It was a memorable night of classic Hill Country blues and rock and roll.
Fans of the unique Mississippi style of blues known as Hill Country blues are of course very familiar with Marshall County, as it was the home of both Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, arguably the two most important Hill Country bluesmen. And they are probably also familiar with the Foxfire Ranch at Waterford in Marshall County, where a superb summer schedule of live blues occurs nearly every Sunday at 5 PM, under a shelter known as the Hill Country Pavilion. But this year, the Hollowell family, which owns the ranch, decided to sponsor an all-day concert of blues, and somewhat surprisingly, chose to do it in March, which is slightly earlier than the start-up of the festival season, which generally occurs in April.
Although the weather can be chilly and unpredictable in March, this year’s inaugural Foxfire Blues Festival was warm and pleasant, with plenty of sunshine. A large portable stage had been set up in the valley at the back of the large hill on which the pavilion stands, and a moderate crowd sat on blankets on the hillside, enjoying performances by Little Joe Ayers, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones, The Duwayne Burnside Band, Kenny Brown, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Lightning Malcolm. For a first-time festival, the event was fairly well-attended, it rolled smoothly, and the crowd enjoyed a beautiful day of great music.