Helena, Arkansas is a town that the years have been cruel to. As Arkansas’ only Mississippi River port in the modern era, it should have been a successful city, and was once home to large industries such as Chicago Mill and Lumber and Mohawk Tire. But industries began to leave in the 1970’s, and the population of Helena and its neighbor to the west, West Helena both declined precipitously. By the time the two cities merged, they barely had 10,000 people together, and the community largely looked desolate. Crime and blight were the rule rather than the exception, and Helena’s large downtown was mostly vacant. A casino across the river in Mississippi did not halt the slide, nor did Clarksdale’s tourist renaissance that followed the opening of Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But for one week each October, Helena becomes the most important city in the world for blues, as the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes over the downtown area near the river. The crowds that pour into the city come from all over the world, and the festival tends to bring attention to neighborhoods that are usually forgotten. As official parking fills up, blues fans head further south, into a old and struggling neighborhood called Beautiful Zion. Like so many African-American neighborhoods in the Delta regions along the Mississippi River, this community takes its name from a church in the area, and the church has been actively involved in efforts to rehabilitate the community, which sits in the shadow of an old cotton compress. On the Friday night of King Biscuit week, the community was in a festive mood, with a lot of people outdoors in the warm weather, and members of the church out selling food plates to festival goers. A woman called my attention to the church’s After School Program in a neighborhood building, and asked me to take a picture of it, which I did. But a block to the north, along Missouri Street, was a string of abandoned buildings that seemed to have once contained night clubs and/or restaurants. Some of the buildings had roofs that were caving in, and I was amazed at the extent of the devastation and lack of preservation effort. Despite a long history of blues music in Helena, the city has just not seen the kind of renewal that is occurring in Clarksdale, Mississippi, some 30 miles to the southeast.
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.
Saturday is generally the biggest day of the Otha Turner Picnic each year, and this year was no exception, with a bigger crowd inside the gates, and a much bigger crowd at the informal block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as well. Although the police were stopping all cars coming and going on Highway 310 near the picnic, I was eventually able to make it to the grounds, arriving just before R. L. Boyce went on stage. Several other acts performed, including a decent blues/rock band called Mississippi Shakedown, with whom I was not familiar at all. But as always, Sharde Thomas and her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band were the stars of the show, marching through the crowd motivating a number of dancers, and even playing across the fence to the young people at the block party along the road. All too soon, the picnic came to an end for another year, but the block party was still in full swing along the road outside.
Marshall County, Mississippi and its county seat of Holly Springs are ground zero when it comes to the subgenre known as Hill Country blues. After all, the style’s two greatest stars, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside were from the county, and largely pursued their music careers there for the better part of their lives. As such, there is potential for blues tourism in Holly Springs, and the powers that be there have been slowly attempting to capitalize on it, sponsoring a weekly summer event during the months of July and August on Thursday nights called Blues in the Alley. On previous years, this event has showcased a lot of local and regional talent, including R. L. Burnside’s sons Duwayne and Garry, and Junior Kimbrough’s sons David and Robert, as well as Little Joe Ayers, and other blues musicians steeped in the Hill Country style. A stage is set up on the courthouse square, and on average, several hundred people show up to dance, party and enjoy the music.
Unfortunately, this year was different. When the event kicked off on June 30, Potts Camp legend Kenny Brown was on stage, and he had invited his friend Duwayne Burnside to perform as well.A crowd of several hundred people turned out to enjoy the kickoff, which was capped by a fireworks display. A week or two later, Lightning Malcolm, also familiar to Hill Country fans was the featured artist. But sadly, that was as good as it would get this year. As the summer stretched on, it became apparent that the festival organizers did not intend to book Duwayne or Garry Burnside (Duwayne ultimately appeared at Foxfire), nor Cedric Burnside (who played at New Albany’s Park on the River on July 2), nor David or Robert Kimbrough (Robert played a Sunday evening at Foxfire later in the summer), nor Little Joe Ayers. In fact, as the festival booked unknown bands like the Around The Corner Band, and out-of-town groups like the Juke Joint Three, something even more disturbing became apparent. For the most part, this year’s Blues In The Alley was booking only white artists. In fact, by the time the festival ended on September 1 with Gerod Rayborn, as best I could determine, only two Black artists had been featured all summer, and one of them, Oxford’s Cassie Bonner, is a singer/songwriter and not a blues artist at all. Ultimately, the programming choices affected attendance, which was way down, and skewed the crowds that did show up racially, with far fewer Blacks choosing to attend the weekly event. And this was all the more noticeable, as Holly Springs and Marshall County have a large Black majority. Sadly, it seems there is no way this was coincidental. Local Marshall County artists that are world-famous were passed over in favor of unknown (but white) bands from somewhere else. Although I asked a number of my friends in Holly Springs if they had heard any reason for the drastic change in booking policy, no justification for the change was ever readily forthcoming.
Ultimately, if Holly Springs wants to capitalize on its blues legacy as Clarksdale has managed to do, it must choose to become far less race-conscious as a town. The organizers of Blues in the Alley must understand that the Kimbrough and Burnside names are known all over the world, and that these are the artists that need to be booked if the goal is to get people to visit Holly Springs from other states or other countries. There’s nothing wrong with booking highly-talented white blues artists with impeccable Hill Country credentials like Lightning Malcolm, Kenny Brown or Eric Deaton. But Holly Springs and Marshall County are predominantly-Black, and Blues in the Alley should offer something for the Black majority as well…particularly if public funds are being expended. Otherwise, there may eventually not be a Blues in the Alley at all.
Although this year’s Blues In The Alley line-up of performers was largely disappointing, to say the least, the weekly summer concert series in Holly Springs ended on a high note last Thursday night with Memphis southern soul artist Gerod Rayborn, who is also president of the Beale Street Corvette Club. Needless to say, many of his club members came to the square in Holly Springs with their beautiful cars, and a significantly larger crowd showed up than what I had seen on previous weeks. The crowd was also more exuberant, with a lot more dancing and jooking, and it almost seemed like the vibe from previous years of the event. After a brief intermission, then another blues band from Memphis took the stage, Fuzzy Jeffries and the Kings of Memphis, and the crowd partied long past the usual ending time of 10 PM. Here’s hoping that the event organizers will book more of these kind of artists next year.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
My homeboy Darren Towns plays bass drum for the TBC Brass Band, which in my opinion is New Orleans’ greatest brass band. They don’t play a lot of gigs in night clubs these days, but they get called for a lot of birthday parties, wedding receptions, funerals, and second-lines, so when I heard that they were playing over in the 9th Ward, I couldn’t wait to get out there to see them. Any TBC performance is an experience, and in the Crescent City, even a birthday party is a really big deal.
Usually people don’t celebrate their birthdays by working, but that is what Hill Country guitarist Eric Deaton did at The Crawdad Hole in Water Valley in May. Billed as a birthday party for Eric Deaton at the venerable restaurant that is owned by another great musician and record label owner, Justin Showah, my friend and I were astounded to find that Eric was performing himself with his band. We had figured that he would be chilling and enjoying other musicians playing, but his band sounded great and we had a lot of fun. It was equally fun to reconnect with Justin, and to enjoy some of the best steamed shrimp within a hundred miles of Memphis. His restaurant occasionally books live music, and I assume he still occasionally does things with his superb small record label, Hill Country Records.
Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer celebrated the Halloween holiday with an all-star Heaven and Hell bash at the legendary Earnestine and Hazel’s downtown. Music for the night included The Sheiks, Jack Oblivian and Memphis’ rap godfather Al Kapone. By the end of the night, so many people had entered the building that it was nearly impossible to move! It was an epic evening indeed.
Since nobody seemed to know where in Mason Big Don Valentine would be performing, I sent him a text on Facebook to ask about the location. and he responded back with an address. I had assumed that the show was a public event since he had sent me the information, but when I arrived at the location, it was actually the backyard of a private house in a Fayette County community known as Fredonia. My coming to the event, called “September in Fredonia”, was rather awkward, to say the least, but I was taken to meet the woman who was putting on the event and she graciously allowed me to come and enjoy the performance. I sat at the table with Big Don Valentine and his band members, and he told me that the woman had been sponsoring these events for many years, and that she usually hired him and his band to perform. I looked around and saw that probably a couple of hundred people were present, seated at any number of tables. There was a gigantic spread of food as well, but of course I had eaten at Bozo’s only a short time before. The weather was cool, but not chilly, and when Big Don got on stage with his band to perform, the crowd got into it immediately. After a few songs, blues singer Booker Brown also came on stage, and it didn’t take long for a small crowd of dancers to appear. The party-goers were even more exuberant during the band’s second set, and a few people from the crowd, relatives of the woman who gave the party, came on stage to perform with the band. Several of them were actually decent singers, and of course were greatly encouraged by people in the audience. The group of people dancing in the grass near the field grew, and the general atmosphere was like a Tennessee version of the Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Despite my initial embarrassment and discomfort at crashing someone’s private party, I ended up having a great time.
Keep up with Big Don Valentine and the All-Stars: