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. </ahref=”https:>
During the tailgating day at the Southern Heritage Classic, the ultimate destination is the official City of Memphis party sponsored by Coors Memphis, on what is roughly the site of the old Tim McCarver Stadium. The event is technically private and invitation only, but fortunately, I have never had a problem getting inside. There’s always an appearance by Mayor A. C. Wharton, and other politicians, and a big stage with plenty of live blues and soul. This year the featured band was John Williams and the A440 Band, playing lots of great blues and soul for the crowd, and Coors had set up some really cool portable bars complete with upstairs lounges with couches and an awesome view of the entire Fairgrounds. Great food, drink, music and weather- you couldn’t ask for a better time.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
For fans of the blues in Mississippi, the summer is somewhat framed by two major events, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June, which celebrates the Hill Country blues tradition, and the Otha Turner Picnic at Gravel Springs near Senatobia, generally held in August on the weekend before Labor Day. But the latter event is all the more important because it celebrates a type of African-American music that is older than the blues, Black fife-and-drum music. Tate and Panola Counties have always been a center of the fife-and-drum style, and picnics were frequently held on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Fife master Otha Turner became famous for his pre-Labor Day picnic featuring fife and drum music and barbecued goat. Upon his death, the picnic tradition and the music tradition were continued by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who has kept the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band together and who remains an advocate for this endangered form of Black music. Under her administration, the picnic, held at the Otha Turner homestead in Gravel Springs near Senatobia, has become a two-day festival of many different artists and styles of music, including bands like Blue Mother Tupelo and the North Mississippi All-Stars, to solo artists like Dr. David Evans or Lightning Malcolm. There’s plenty of good fun and good food, and several processions of the fife and drum band across the grounds each evening. As the night progresses, the dancers become more exuberant, getting low to the ground and shaking in time with the beat of the bass drum, and the scene is reminiscent of other similar processions in African cultures, including New Orleans second-lines, and Haitian raras in Miami. On this year’s first night, there was also a brilliant full moon which threw a strange light on the proceedings. As in previous years, the festival inside the gates lead to another festival outside the gates, in which young people from the rural community parked and gathered along O. B. McClinton Road, listening to music and hanging out.
Although the Friday night shows had been harassed by storms, no such problem occurred on the Saturday of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. In fact the day was a bright sunny blue one, with fairly cool temperatures compared to what we had been having, and it was the perfect setting for a full day of Hill Country blues. The gates had opened with R. L. Boyce at 10:30 in the morning, but by the time I arrived, Joseph Burnside was on stage, with Duwayne and Garry Burnside backing him up. He was followed by Bill Abel, then Cary Hudson of the band Blue Mountain, and finally Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from the Gravel Springs community near Senatobia, one of the last Black fife and drum bands in America. Garry Burnside and his band went up on stage after that, and then I left to go to dinner at Lamar Lounge in Oxford. In addition to the live performances, there were lots of arts, crafts and clothing for sale at various tents up on the hill, and a raffle, which was being held to raise money for a gravestone for the late bluesman Robert Belfour. And the whole day’s proceedings were broadcast live by New Orleans’ superb radio station WWOZ.
Keep up with R. L. Boyce:
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Keep up with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band:
Keep up with Garry Burnside:
Keep up with the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic:
The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, sponsored annual at Waterford, Mississippi by Sarah and Kenny Brown, is arguably the most important annual event in the world of Hill Country Blues. It helps preserve the legacy of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and allows their descendants and disciples an opportunity to perform in the county where it all began, and takes on aspects of a music festival, a jam session and a family reunion all in one. But this year’s festival got off to something of a rocky start due to a series of violent thunderstorms, with lightning and hail that caused the festival grounds to become a mud-bog, and which caused a significant delay in the schedule. Fortunately, it all passed over eventually, and indie-blues/country/rock star Jimbo Mathus came out to perform with his band, followed by David Kimbrough Jr’s band, although David’s brother Kinney handled the vocal chores since David had a touch of laryngitis. And finally, Friday evening’s lineup was closed out with Duwayne Burnside fronting his newest band, which was extremely tight indeed, and which sounded great. Just as they were leaving the stage, the first flashes of lightning from a new round of storms appeared, but no rain could bring anyone down after all that great Hill Country blues.
Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was celebrating his birthday with a party and bonfire at the Blues Shack in Waterford, Mississippi, so I decided to go down. Unfortunately, it was the coldest night so far of the year, and the turnout wasn’t nearly as large as I had expected, mostly close friends and family, but Duwayne and his brother Garry Burnside were glad to see me. At previous Blues Shack events, people tended to hang out near the stage, but at this one, people kept around the bonfire for obvious reason, except for the younger kids, who were running all around. An old harmonica player was on stage, playing with one of the younger boys on drums. After awhile, I headed back to Holly Springs because Kent Kimbrough was also celebrating his birthday at Junior’s Juke Joint #2.