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.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
Midtown Memphis’ massive Railgarten complex is one of several elaborate, trendy live music venues that have opened here recently, many of them that resemble something from Austin or New Orleans more than Memphis. But as summertime venues go, Railgarten is probably the best, with something for everyone, including outdoor volleyball and an large outdoor yard and stage area, as well as a diner, ice cream parlor, ping pong lounge and upstairs deck overlooking the back yard and stage area. It’s not exactly like a beach, but it has a beachy sort of vibe to it. Even so, while lots of local and regional artists have performed at Railgarten, hip-hop is rare there, so when I saw that Al Kapone was sponsoring a cook-out and show to kick off the July 4th holiday, I wanted to make sure to be there. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, if hot, and when I arrived the place was already crowded indeed. The event was a free show, so there were already a hundred or more people in the back outdoor stage area, with more coming all the time. The opening act was a spectacular local reggae band called Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, which has been wowing crowds in Memphis for several years now. They were followed by several local rappers, including Tune C, Memphis rap veteran Tom Skeemask and Uriah Mitchell. Then Al Kapone came on stage, performing with a live band, the singer Ashton Riker, a dancer or two, some fire-twirlers, and the rapper Frayser Boy, with a show that combined some of his newer material with classic anthems like “Whoop That Trick” and “lyrical Drive-By.” As Al wrapped himself in an American-flag-themed blanket, I looked at the crowd around me and thought about how appropriate his show was for the holiday. Surrounding me was a crowd of many different races, backgrounds and cultures, all united by their love of Al Kapone, Memphis and hip-hop, and there was not one fight or argument to mar the good vibes.
My last stop of the evening was to see Lightnin Malcolm at the Juke Joint ChapelJuke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn complex at Hopson Plantation, just outside of Clarksdale. But the venue is always crowded, and it isn’t always easy to get a good view of the stage unless you get there early. Also, by the time I arrived out there, I was exhausted, so I caught Malcolm’s first set of songs, and then I headed back to Memphis. All in all, despite the rain, wind and power outages, it was a great Juke Joint Festival this year.
Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
The annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi has grown into one of the largest music festivals in Mississippi, with four days of live performances, many of them free. Blues musicians from the Delta, the Hill Country, South Mississippi, other states and even other countries come to Clarksdale each April to perform, and hotel rooms are hard to come by.
This year we kicked off our Juke Joint Fest weekend by heading to Bluesberry Cafe on Friday night, where the Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was performing with his band. Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best blues guitarists in America today, and the little cafe with a stage was filled to overflowing with blues fans and fellow musicians. Burnside’s performance was followed by an appearance of R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi, sharing the stage with Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who has taken the Hill Country style of blues back to his home country in South America, and has even brought Hill Country musicians to Colombia. Although the weather outside was nasty indeed, inside Bluesberry was good times and good feelings. It was a great way to start Clarksdale’s biggest weekend of the year.
This year’s premiere Oxford Bourbon Festival in Oxford, Mississippi consisted two nights of tasting at the historic Lyric Theatre and a night of live blues and more bourbon at the Oxford location of New Albany’s Tallahatchie Gourmet, which, the last time I was there, was a cool coffee bar called The Shelter on Van Buren, where Duwayne Burnside had been performing on a New Year’s Eve. As Tallahatchie Gourmet, the place seems brighter and sharper, but it still retains its homey, comfortable vibe. The music of the evening was Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce, who was playing with fellow blues musician Lightnin Malcolm, and Boyce’s daughter Sherena, a well-known juke joint dancer in the Hill Country region. The crowd was somewhat sparse, but full of people who knew the musicians and yelled their enthusiasm from the audience. Although I didn’t eat, I have to add that the Tallahatchie Gourmet menu leans toward New Orleans cuisine and looks worth checking out.
Robert Kimbrough Sr. is one of three musician sons of the legendary bluesman Junior Kimbrough, and in recent years he has been the most prolific and ambitious of the three, releasing several albums, performing frequently with his band the Blues Connection, and helping to organize an annual Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival each May in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Recently, on a Friday evening, he brought out his new band to Rooster’s Blues House on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, for a night of what he terms “cotton patch soul blues.” Although Kimbrough can play his father’s hits, and usually obliges the crowd’s desire for the seminal “All Night Long”, much of his shows are given to his original compositions, which straddle the fence between the style that many musicologists call “hill country blues” and a more modern southern soul. Songs such as “Battlefield” are typical, with a strong driving beat provided by drummer J. J. Wilburn, formerly of the band Old Grey Mule. The club was filled to the rafters, despite the chilly and foggy weather outside, and the sizable crowd enjoyed themselves immensely, until the early closing time, that apparently was precipitated by it being spring break week. On the other hand, the utter desolation of the square after the clubs closed was remarkable and unexpected. We were told it was due to the students being out of school for the break.
In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill