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. 

Celebrating The Legacy of Otha Turner at Coldwater

Back in 1950, Othar Turner, of Gravel Springs, a few miles east of Senatobia in Mississippi’s Hill Country region, decided to hold a picnic for his friends and neighbors in the community. He killed and barbecued goats, and he and his friends ate, drank and danced to fife and drum music, a rural pre-blues form of Black music that had once been found across the South. By the time musicologists like David Evans visited Tate County in 1970, the event had been going on for 20 years, and eight years later, the famed musicologist and documentarian Alan Lomax visited the Turner Family Picnic as well. Othar, whose friends called him “Otha”, went on to make two full-length record albums, and contribute a song to the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York , and by the time of his death on February 27, 2003, he had passed the tradition of his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on to his granddaughter Sharde Thomas.

Unfortunately, last year, a family dispute within the larger Turner family led to the eviction of the annual picnic from Otha’s old homestead, as well as the demolition of most of the structures that had been used for the event. While there was something different about this year’s picnic due to the necessity of relocating it from Gravel Springs, it is also true that Sharde Thomas chose a location in Coldwater that greatly resembled the old location, with a number of old wooden structures. Attendance was somewhat light at the beginning, as the weather had been quite hot on the Friday of the first night, but the crowds soon grew larger, as bands like blues-rockers 78 (named for a major highway in the Hill Country) and artists like Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones and Robert Kimbrough Sr performed on the stage under a tent. The Thomas family’s stand was selling catfish and goat sandwiches, and RC’s Soul Food Restaurant from Como had a stand as well. A large, full moon (some said a “blue moon”) shown overhead. But the high point of the evening, at least for me, were the interludes between stage acts when Sharde Thomas, alternately playing djembe or fife, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, marching across the picnic grounds. Occasionally, these processions developed into djembe vs. bass drum battles between Sharde and Chris Mallory, one of her drummers, and on other occasions, dancers came and got down low to the ground to the rhythms of the bass drum. Despite the new location, the 68th Annual GOAT Picnic was a success.

Celebrating R. L. Boyce’s Birthday at Como, Mississippi

Last year marked the first time we had organized a large outdoor birthday party for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, and that first picnic, with limited promotion and budget, attracted an amazing crowd of 500 people. This year, with the involvement of Amy Verdon of Fancy Magazine and Go Ape Records, we were able to plan the event on a slightly bigger level, and despite the threat of rain all around, we enjoyed great weather and a larger attendance. 

The event, held on Friday August 17 to avoid conflict with the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic which was being held on Saturday, began with an exhibit opening of photography by Como artist Yancey Allison, who has been documenting the Hill Country blues for many years. Live music began in nearby Como Park at 6 PM, with the performers being documented this year by the Memphis-based Beale Street Caravan radio show. A crowd of around 600 braved the threat of rain to enjoy fife and drum bands like The Hurt Family and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and blues and soul artists such as Andrea Staten, Kody Harrell, Joyce “She-Wolf”  Jones, Cameron Kimbrough, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, Willy and the Planks, Dee Walker and Duwayne Burnside. Several times, the guest of honor, R. L. Boyce made his way to the stage to perform, and on one of those occasions the crowd joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him. 

In addition to the five hours of some of the best Hill Country blues and soul, attendees also enjoyed free hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked sausages until they were gone. 

It appears that the R. L. Boyce Picnic will be a major event in Como, Mississippi for many years to come. 

Hill Country Traditions at the Hulette Picnic in Senatobia

Although it was the weekend of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena had mentioned something about a large birthday picnic and party near Senatobia, Mississippi that was supposed to feature live blues and fife and drum music, so on Saturday evening, despite the heat and occasional storms, we headed down to a small village of trailer homes along the LRL Road south of Senatobia, where a birthday party was being held for a woman named Carolyn Hulette. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage, and a hundred people or so were gathered at tables and chairs under the trees, enjoying barbecue and live music. Fife musician Willie Hurt was playing when we arrived, and the musicologist Carl Vermilyea was backing him up on the snare drum. Later, Willie called me over to meet Ms. Hulette, who explained to me that she used to “follow the drums” but that she was now “too young” for that. Many Hulette family members had come from Virginia and from the West Coast, and some were camping in tents on the hill south of the stage area. There was a DJ as well, lots of dancing, a birthday cake and lemonade, and then Ms. Hulette’s son Tracy and grandson Travis came on stage with a drummer to play some blues. Sherena explained to me that Travis had been playing with R. L. before he had moved to Nashville. He proved to be a talented, gifted Hill Country-style guitarist, and he played several standard blues tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” and “Going Down South.” After they performed, the proceedings were turned back over to the DJ, and as it was after 11 PM, we headed back to Senatobia. 

Joyce She-Wolf Jones’ Authentic Hill Country Blues Picnic at Potts Camp

Joyce She-Wolf Jones is the mother of up-and-coming blues guitarist and drummer Cameron Kimbrough, but she is also a talented vocalist and song-writer in her own right, and each August, she puts on a traditional Hill Country blues picnic in the front yard of her home near Bethlehem, Mississippi, a wide spot in the road south of the Marshall County town of Potts Camp. 

August is typically a hot month, and there had been strong thunderstorms at Holly Springs when I came through, but the weather was quite pleasant when I arrive at Joyce’s modest home along the rural highway. The smell of barbecue was in the air, and former Soul Blues Boy Little Joe Ayers was on stage. Everybody was having a good time, despite the ominous flashes of lightning to the north. Joe soon launched into a skillful version of Willie Cobbs’ classic “You Don’t Love Me,” a standard blues that doesn’t get heard all that often in the Hill Country. The crowd was loving it. 

As the night progressed, we got to hear Cameron on drums, Lightnin Malcolm, Duwayne Burnside and R. L. Boyce, as well as Cam’s cousin Kelly Payson on vocals, and of course, our hostess Joyce She-Wolf Jones herself, who sang a couple of her original songs.

With good food, plenty to drink, great music, and the rain staying away, it was a perfect evening in Mississippi’s Hill Country. 

Brunch on Full Blast and Murals in the Bywater

Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I headed over to yet another new breakfast spot in New Orleans, this one in a familiar location, 139 South Cortez in Mid-City which was the original location of the Ruby Slipper, now a fairly-popular breakfast chain in New Orleans. The chain had let their original location go as they opened new locations closer to the tourist areas, but I was surprised to see that it had reopened in June as a new restaurant called Fullblast Brunch. Opening a breakfast restaurant in New Orleans would seem to be a foolhardy proposition, as the city seems to have more of them than any other place I have been, and yet, with few exceptions, they seem to fare well despite the obvious level of competition. One must conclude that New Orleanians absolutely love to eat breakfast out rather than at home. One of the things I find so special about the city as well is its tendency to have great restaurants on street corners in otherwise residential neighborhoods, a dynamic that is certainly true of the building where Fullblast is located. The restaurant is still relatively new, and to our surprise, we had no trouble getting a table at all. Both the food and the coffee were great, and although we enjoyed standard breakfast fare, we heard others rave about the crab cakes. 

After breakfast, I wanted to head out along St. Claude Avenue to get some pictures of the neighborhood murals, which are another unique facet of New Orleans life. Every time I visit, it seems that new murals have appeared along the major thoroughfares, celebrating local hip-hop artists, Black history icons like Harriet Tubman, or the musicians and social aid and pleasure clubs of the 9th Ward. The latter mural particularly interested Darren, as it included a painting of TBC’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin, who was from the 9th Ward, but I was somewhat shocked by a building on which seemed to have been painted the slogan “Support Murder.” I am well aware of the problems in America today, but I wasn’t expecting to see so stark and violent a message. But as it turned out, a crucial letter was hidden behind a telephone pole, and when we got closer, the slogan actually read “Support C-Murder,” the former No Limit Records rap artist,  a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly. 

Darren and TBC Brass Band were getting ready for a performance at some beer and barbecue festival at Wollenberg Park along the Mississippi River, but I had to get on the road and head back to Memphis. Leaving New Orleans is never easy for me, and it typical leaves me rather sad. However, I was able to stop at a Rouses in Ponchatoula, and load up on French Market and Mello Joy coffee capsules for my Keurig machine at home. I also picked up a pound of beans from a Baton Rouge coffee roaster called River Road Coffee Roasters, and was quite pleased with the results when I got home. 

Spending A Day with the TBC Brass Band in New Orleans

There are no second-lines during the summer, at least not the large, official ones sponsored by social aid and pleasure clubs, but that doesn’t mean that brass band activity dies down during the summer. If anything, the bands are busier than ever, due to weddings, birthdays and family reunions, as well as club dates and outdoor music festivals, so I usually try to make it to New Orleans at least once during the summer to hang out with my friends in To Be Continued Brass Band, and this year was no exception, as I made my way down on July 20th, stopping in Covington, Louisiana for a dinner at The Chimes, an excellent seafood restaurant along the scenic Tchefuncte River. But it was after midnight when I arrived in New Orleans, and my TBC Brass Band friends were gathered outside of a place called Jokers Wyld and Mickey’s Playhouse (the former Ooh Pooh Pa Dooh) where they were supposed to be playing for some sort of party. After I parked and pulled around the corner, I found them engaged in a friendly but vigorous band argument of some sort, which is often the case in New Orleans, as band is a competitive sport in that musical city. Unfortunately, the man who had engaged the band “went off to get the money” and never returned, so they didn’t play, and I instead grabbed a cafe-au-lait and some beignets and made my way to the West Bank and to bed. 

The next morning, my homeboy Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, his two young daughters and I headed into the Bywater neighborhood to have breakfast at a bright and cheerful new spot on St. Claude Avenue called Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which had not been there when I was last in the city at Mardi Gras. In one sense, Polly’s takes a page from other typical New Orleans breakfast spots, with local artwork on the walls, and a bright color scheme, and cheerful, sun-catching windows and decor. But we greatly appreciated the private parking lot (a rarity in New Orleans), the pleasant, efficient service, and the extremely high-quality food. Thoroughly satisfied, we were soon on our way to a recording studio in Mid-City, where TBC was to record a commercial with the legendary Kermit Ruffins. 

After the studio session, it was largely gigs all day, with the first one being a wedding reception at an event venue in Jefferson Parish. From there I ran Darren by Guitar Center so he could buy a new cymbal for his bass drum, and then we headed to Legacy Kitchen, a new local chain of restaurants that I had been eager to try. We found the food excellent (I had the chicken and waffles), and we liked the upbeat vibe of the place, although prices were fairly steep. From there we had to head to the arena on the Xavier University campus, where a family reunion was taking place. Like the earlier wedding reception, the organizers had hired both the TBC Brass Band and some of the Zulus to be there in costume, and the attendees seemed to enjoy it. 

The next stop was another wedding reception, this one at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Algiers, right at the border with Gretna, and at that particular location, the crowd had gotten rather rowdy, and some men were trying to calm down a man who was obviously intoxicated. But the performance went well, and the crowd seemed to enjoy TBC greatly, and again, there were members of the Zulus in costume there as well, which apparently is the current trend in New Orleans events.

Our final destination was a birthday party in the Seventeenth Ward at a place called the Broadway Bar, where a large crowd was gathered out in the street, at tables and chairs in front of the club, and inside. The place was so crowded that it was hard for TBC to get into the club, but the Broadway is the type of hood club where the band and the crowd feed off of each other, and their performance was the hypest of the whole day. After TBC came back out of the truly tiny club, the band and members of the crowd began a sort of second-line around the neighborhood, and were not ready to break up when we made it back around to the club entrance. So TBC played for another twenty minutes or so while the man whose birthday it was, and his father danced in the street, along with some other people from the crowd. Finally, about 1 in the morning or so, we finally left the area. After one of these serendipitous New Orleans moments, the mood is usually exhaustion but exhilaration too, and this night was no different.