Clarksdale has become justifiably famous as the destination to hear authentic Delta blues, but Holly Springs, to the east in the Hill Country region of Mississippi, is the center of the lesser-known Hill Country style of blues. Despite some antebellum homes, Holly Springs has not had tourism to the same extent as Clarksdale, but fans of the late Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside know about the place and occasionally make their way there for a Hill Country blues experience. Toward that end, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly concert on the courthouse square called Blues In The Alley, which is held every Thursday night from 7-10 PM from July through September. The “Alley” referred to is the Black business district along North Center Street leading northward from the Square toward the Rust College campus. Each week features great blues and soul, plenty of food trucks and lots of fun. On the first event of the year, the featured artist was the Kenny Brown Band, featuring blues legend Duwayne Burnside as a special guest. After several sets of great blues, there was a fireworks display to celebrate the upcoming 4th of July.
When I saw that a place called the Dirty Crow Inn had opened in a former convenience store on Kentucky Street at Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I was initially wary, as the menu out front was short on choices, with wings the most prominent feature (and I am not a huge fan of wings). But after reading a positive review of the burger there, I decided to make a special trip down on a Sunday evening to see what the fuss was about.
The Dirty Crow Inn is a “new” dive bar, if there can indeed be such a thing. It’s fairly small inside, with a quaint and homey feel, and posters all across the ceiling. There is also an outdoor deck with more tables and chairs, and a place for occasional live music. The primary difference from more traditional dive bars is the gourmet-leaning menu, with such things as soy-ginger wings and poutine fries. The rather simple burger is still a thing of beauty, with the buns toasted and buttered, and bacon and cheese added. If it isn’t the best in Memphis, it’s got to be in the top five, and the french fries that came with it were equally tasty. There are occasional special food features as well, of which the bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp was the most outstanding, and while there is no dessert menu, the Dirty Crow Inn has cupcakes from the nearby Pink Diva bakery. As if all that wasn’t cool enough, the kitchen stays open until 2 AM, so it is a perfect destination after the club, the theatre or the show. Here’s hoping that the Dirty Crow Inn will become another one of Memphis’ legendary hangouts.
When visiting the Southaven Towne Center on a recent Sunday, I was somewhat surprised to see a shop called Baseball Rich Clothing. The name suggested an urban clothing store, and Southaven, Mississippi wasn’t exactly the place I would expect to find one. To my surprise, Baseball Rich Clothing turned out not to be merely an urban clothing store, but rather a locally-based urban clothing line, with a considerable number of designs and color schemes. The name springs from the fact that the owner was briefly a minor league baseball player, and the line is one of several new Memphis-based clothing lines that are popping up nowadays (Millionaire Grind and Memphis Mane are two others. Full reviews of them will be forthcoming). I was thrilled with nearly everything I saw, and the only real difficulty was settling on one shirt to purchase, as they had a seemingly-endless variety of designs and color schemes. Their headquarters store is open to the public at the Southaven Towne Center and worth a visit.
Despite the importance of Hill Country blues on Memphis music, and despite the short distance between Memphis and Holly Springs, it is rare to hear Hill Country blues in Memphis, sadly. So on the rare occasions when Hill Country artists perform in Memphis, I try to be there. Overton Square’s venerable Lafayette’s Music Room is fairly good about booking Hill Country blues artists, and has featured Duwayne Burnside on at least two occasions. His June appearance this summer was preceded by an acoustic set featuring blues scholar and musician Dr. David Evans, and then Duwayne played more than two hours of the best blues. Of particular interest was his unique reading of the standard “Stormy Monday”, and his cover of the Willie Cobbs Memphis blues classic “You Don’t Love Me.” Although he is firmly rooted in the style of his hometown, Burnside has incorporated more modern blues styles as well, and shows amazing versatility. Before the evening was over, dancers had filled up the narrow space in front of the stage.
Arkansas doesn’t have quite the blues scene that Mississippi has, and an Irish bar in Jonesboro wouldn’t exactly be the place one would expect to hear blues either. But in early June, Cregeen’s in Jonesboro hosted a performance by Hill Country bluesman Lightning Malcolm with T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on drums, and this performance was interesting, in that Malcolm did a number of different tunes than the ones he usually plays at his shows. Despite the small upstairs stage and the lateness of the hour, the crowd was quite enthusiastic, and Cregeen’s also deserves a commendation for the excellent food on their late-night menu.
Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.
I used to pass the old Loflin Safe & Lock Company on Carolina Avenue in Memphis for years, and never thought much about it, but unexpectedly a few months ago, the place was transformed into a hot new Memphis bar and grill called Loflin Yard, with a primarily-outdoor focus that resembles Austin, Texas a lot more than it does Memphis. While there are a few tables and a bar indoors, and a few more tables on a deck outside, the central emphasis is on a huge backyard, filled with plenty of chairs and fire pits, an outdoor stage and bar,a waterfall and the only visible portion of historic Gayoso Bayou, most of which has been paved over elsewhere in Memphis. The effect is something like an urban equivalent to Mississippi’s Foxfire Ranch, and the booking policies are somewhat similar as well, with Loflin Yard featuring a lot of roots music groups, from blues to bluegrass. On the day we went, the featured artist was the Rev. John Wilkins, an artist whose dad was a blues legend in the 1920’s, and whose music bridges the gap between Hill Country blues and gospel music. On a somewhat cool and pleasant day, we found the place packed to overflowing, and we could barely find outdoor seats. Wilkins, backed by two and later three female singers, performed his dad Robert Wilkin’s signature tune “Prodigal Son” AKA “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and he performed many of his best-known tunes as well, including “You Can’t Hurry God.” We had to wait until after Wilkins’ performance to find table space in order to eat. Food, by the way, is ordered from an outdoor window and then picked up to eat at one of the tables, and the menu is extremely limited. There is no traditional bar food here, only beef brisket, pork tenderloin and salads, although there has been some talk that the menu might eventually be expanded. With such an emphasis on barbecue, there is plenty of wood stacked near the kitchen, and the smell of roasting meat pervades the whole place, but we found that the food was primarily little plates, a currently popular trend, and the prices seemed steep for the quantity of the food. Altogether it was a great afternoon and evening for me and my friend, although we personally enjoyed the atmosphere and music more than the food.
My homeboy Otis Logan is one of Memphis’ best young drummers, so when he told me he would be playing for a singer named Bigg Smith at The African Place, I was intrigued, as I didn’t know the singer or the venue, but I made plans to attend. As it turned out, The African Place is the former Cafe 581 which had an extremely brief run about four years ago, and it is not usually a music venue, but rather more of a shop/gallery for imported African goods. All the same, the place was packed to overflowing, with a very small space for the band. The show opened with a few songs from an R & B singer named Lamar, but Bigg Smith proved to be an amazingly talented singer, with a warm voice that exudes confidence, and the backing band was first-rate as well. Smith’s repertoire included some originals, as well as covers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Jeffrey Osborne. All too soon it was over, but it was a Friday evening well-spent.
The good folks at Ponderosa Stomp, otherwise known as the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, don’t stop at putting on a wonderful roots music festival each year, but they also sponsor occasional events throughout the year. This May, they arranged for Mississippi Hill Country blues artist R. L. Boyce to appear at the new Three Keys NOLA lounge at the Ace Hotel. Boyce is one of the last of his generation to play the Hill Country style a blues, a music with strong residual influence of West African music, and his performance was augmented by his daughter Sherena Boyce, a juke joint dancer who was a part of the scene at Junior Kimbrough’s old juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi. The standing-room-only crowd was thrilled.
New Orleans might be America’s music capital, but it’s not the place we think of much when it comes to blues. We revel in its differences as a city…its European style, its African tendencies, its Caribbean joy…and then we forget that it is still an American city, perhaps the quintessential one. So while we think of blues being music that came from other places, New Orleans has produced some great blues musicians, and perhaps one of the best current ones is Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, a musician whose style incorporates elements of Louisiana swamp pop and swamp blues as well as the traditional blues. When the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau/Ponderosa Stomp folks decided to sponsor a blues event at the all-new Three Keys Lounge at the Ace Hotel New Orleans, they invited Guitar Lightnin’ Lee to be the opening act, and a worthy choice it was indeed. Lee’s selections ran the gamut from traditional blues to such swamp pop classics as “Mathilda”, and before his set was through, revellers had filled the dance floor to overflowing. I must add that the Three Keys Lounge is an awesome venue for music, and will be welcomed.