Thacker Mountain Radio At the Neshoba County Fair

Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.

While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.

But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.

Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.

R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).

A Splash of Brilliant Color On Yazoo City’s Main Street

While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.

The Rev. John Wilkins at Beale Street Caravan’s Big Night

Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.

As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.

The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.

The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.

Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.

An Evening of Art at Arkansas’s Waverly Plantation

Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.

What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.

While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.

At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.

In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.

Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.

Catfish’s Big Day in Belzoni

I had no phone service at all while I was at Swiftown, but as I approached Belzoni, my phone started ringing. Blues musician Duwayne Burnside, for whom I play keyboards, was calling frantically from the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni because we were about to go on stage in less than a half-hour. Getting to Belzoni was no big deal, because I was only about five miles away. But what I hadn’t counted on was how gridlocked everything was because of the festival. Hayden Street, the main street of the town, was blocked off in the downtown area, and it was only with great difficulty that I was able to find a way to drive behind the stage area. Fortunately, Duwayne had talked to the festival people and I was allowed to park in the sheriff’s department parking lot at the Courthouse.

A blues artist named Mississippi Marshall was performing a solo acoustic set on the Humphreys County Courthouse steps as we unloaded our equipment. The weather was grey and overcast, but the rain had held off, and it was warm, so there was a fairly large crowd on the courthouse grounds, and even more along the downtown streets where vendors had set up tents. Marshall’s performance was followed by a Miss Catfish Pageant, and then we got to go on stage, set up our instruments and perform. As for food, there was, of course, catfish. And pretty good catfish it was too, provided by Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena, some 30 miles up the road.

As the Blackwater Trio went up on stage next, I took the time to walk down Hayden Street, looking at the various stores and vendors. Belzoni, like all Delta towns, had suffered hard times in the modern era, but they had experienced something of a renaissance with the advent of aquaculture, specifically farm-raised catfish. As a result, the downtown area was dotted with various catfish statues, painted in brilliant colors. But even the catfish industry had grown old in Belzoni now. Many of the statues were located in front of vacant, decaying storefronts. Even the posh digs of the Catfish Institute proved to be vacant- the institute relocated to the “big city” of Jackson some years ago. A few clothing shops were having “Catfish Festival sales” but otherwise, the downtown area seemed to be in poor shape, despite the crowds of people walking around.

Around the corner on Jackson Street, things seemed a little livelier, because of a place called Belzoni Sports Bar & Grill, which was actually the club we were scheduled to play at later in the evening. The place was a sports bar, restaurant and pool hall, and already had some people inside. A man was passing out flyers on the street for Duwayne Burnside’s performance there later in the evening.

Down the next street, which led back toward the courthouse and the main stage, I came upon a beautiful brick building, with the Coca-Cola logo worked into its facade on two sides. Although it was now being used as a daycare, I imagine that it had once been the Coca-Cola bottling plant for Belzoni.

When I returned to the courthouse, I managed to get my equipment loaded into the car, and then drove around through the neighborhood behind the courthouse along George Lee Street (the name commemorates a Black man who was murdered in Belzoni in 1955 for organizing a voter registration drive) and around to Jackson Street, where we were to play. But now the rain had begun to fall, and by the time I began to load into the club, it was pouring down.

Despite the rain outside, the little sports bar was soon jam-packed as we played. Their posters announced several upcoming blues shows, and it seems as if they are going to try to keep the live music going in Belzoni, which is a good thing. Afterwards, I got quite wet putting my instrument and amp back into the car, but I was soon on my way through the storm up Highway 7 toward Itta Bena, Greenwood, and hopefully dinner.

From Funk to Crunk at Railgarten for the Holidays

If Memphis rap were a nation, Al Kapone would be the unanimous choice for an ambassador’s position. One of the earliest Memphis rappers, he has in more recent years become a Memphis icon, popular with constituencies that don’t necessarily get enthused by rap music on a daily basis.

For the same reason, Kapone fits neatly onto the kind of Midtown shows where other rap artists might be awkward. For example, this pre-holiday lineup at the amazing Railgarten venue was kicked off by the nostalgic Memphis soul band The City Champs featuring Joe Restivo, whose fan base probably doesn’t listen to a lot of rap. But everyone knows Al Kapone. Anyone who has ever been to a Grizzlies game or watched the movie Hustle and Flow knows him.

By the time the band launched into their third song, there were at least a hundred people in the club, with more arriving all the time. After they finished their nearly hour-long set, they were followed by up-and-coming Memphis rapper Tune C. performing his song “Naturally” and R & B singer Kameron Whalum performing his new single. After Uriah Mitchell performed a couple of songs, Al Kapone came on stage, performing a number of his more recent hits with a live band. On occasions, he introduced local rappers onto the stage to perform specific songs, including Muck Sticky and Lil Wyte, who also recently released a new album.

Despite the dismal weather outside, the standing room only crowd was full of holiday cheer, and a good time was had by all.

This Is Memphis: Celebrating The Young Talent of a Musical City In An Historic Place

Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure. 

Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered. 

The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere. 

After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia. 

Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians. 

Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release. 

Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America. 

This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes. 

Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike. 

Together We Stand: Como, Mississippi Celebrates Its Vibrant Legacy

“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.

Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks. 

But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce.  Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago. 

Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system. 

Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening.  Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors. 

Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather. 

Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town. 

The Blues Has A Future

Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends. 

An Even Bigger Saturday at Coldwater’s GOAT Picnic

Although Saturday, August 25, 2018 was even hotter than the day before, the crowd that gathered in the late afternoon in Coldwater for the second day of the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was even larger than the one from the day before. The surprise of the early evening was an R & B singer from Coldwater named Felita Jacole, who had a band of talented musicians backing her up, and who, to my surprise, did some original material, including a song called “Weekend.” 

She was followed by the legendary R. L. Boyce, the last of the original Hill Country bluesmen, who performed with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums, and his daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and dancing. 

Later in the evening came exciting sets by Nashville-based Blue Mother Tupelo, and Mississippi bluesman Mark “Muleman” Massey, but as it was the previous night, the most excitement in my opinion was the raw and exuberant processions of Sharde Thomas and her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band between the performances on stage. After dark, the interplay between djembe, bass drum and dancers became truly uninhibited, and the crowd gathered around to watch. 

Confronted with the challenges caused by moving to a new town and venue, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic managed to rise to the occasion. The weather was perfect both days, with the grounds after dark illuminated by a beautiful full moon overhead, and a crowd of several hundred people in front of the stage.