Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce used to be famous for his yard parties, but in recent years he had stopped doing them after some health issues. So when his daughter Sherena informed me that he was having a yard party with live musicians on a Wednesday evening, I made arrangements to get off early from work and head to Como.
The weather was sunny when I arrived at R. L.’s house just across the railroad tracks from Como’s restored downtown area. A cool breeze was blowing, and only a few people had gathered, although the event was supposed to begin at 4 PM. Boyce, Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, and Lightnin Malcolm were on the front porch setting up their equipment, and the drummer Steve Toney was setting up his drums in the yard because there was no room for them on the porch.
When the music got under way, the atmosphere became magical, with Malcolm, Carlos and R.L. playing Hill Country blues in the kind of setting it was intended for, an outdoor house party. One of the out-of-town guests sent someone to purchase hotdogs and charcoal, and fired up Boyce’s grill, cooking hotdogs for the guests and musicians, some of whom were in Mississippi for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which was to be held on the weekend. Soon the crowd in R.L.’s front yard grew larger, with young and old, local and out-of-town folks. A few kids were playing under the trees. As the evening continued, some folks began to dance, and cars slowed down as they drove past the house, trying to see what was going on. After a number of songs from R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, there was a guest appearance from the hot new female blues singer Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones from Potts Camp, and she performed a couple of her original songs with the band. Eventually, around 8 PM, the sun went down, and with no real lighting in R.L.’s yard, things had to come to a halt. Only a handful of people remained at that point, and Sherena Boyce and I decided to head uptown to Windy City Grill for a late dinner, but we could hear R.L. still playing guitar as he sat on his porch in the dark. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.
Como, Mississippi is an historic town in far north Panola County, Mississippi on the edge of the Hill Country. Because it sits near the border between the Delta and the hills, Como has some of the ambiance of both regions, and has long been a center of blues and Black fife-and-drum music. Legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce calls it home, and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell chose it after he moved to Mississippi from West Tennessee. What was once a faded, dying town when I first saw it as a boy has had some renewal since the opening of Como Steak House some years ago, and now each year, the history and traditions of this unique Mississippi town are celebrated in October at an event called Como Day. This year’s event featured plenty of good food and vendors, classic cars and motorcycles, and several different genres of music, including performances by the Southern Soul Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and southern soul artist J-Wonn. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the screening of Shake “Em On Down, a documentary about Mississippi Fred McDowell, arguably Como’s most famous resident. Through music clips and interviews, the story of this most important Mississippi bluesman was vividly and skillfully portrayed. Altogether, hundreds of people enjoyed a full day of fun in Como.
The Home Place Plantation was founded near Como in 1869, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. From then until now, it has belonged to members of the Bartlett family, and was until recently a traditional farm raising cattle as well as cotton, soybeans and similar crops. But the youngest generation of the family has converted the Home Place from a plantation to Home Place Pastures, an organic, sustainable pig farm raising high-quality pork that is sold in regional farmer’s markets. As such they are on the cutting edge of a number of popular movements, including the locavore movement that seeks to source food from areas close to where one lives. The new vision for the Home Place also includes special events, including a live blues experience called the Home Place Throw Down, which this year was held on August 20. Because of periodic rain, the organizers decided to move the stage across the road from where it had been the previous year to a roofed pavilion on the opposite side, and moving the stage was easy, because it was a yellow school bus with its front wall cut away so as to make a stage, and it actually still runs. Despite the risk of rain, more than a hundred people turned out to hear such artists as the Rev. John Wilkins, the Home Place Blues Band (which seemed to be an alter-ego for the Como-tions), the legendary R. L. Boyce and Kenny Brown. In between acts, Sharde Thomas led her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band through the crowd, with Como musician R. L. Boyce on one of the snare drums. With a rather eerie moonlight in the east, the hypnotic drumming gathered a crowd of dancers in the twilight, reaching back before the blues to something more fundamental. Besides the great music, there was plenty of beer, as well as barbecued pork (Home Place pork of course) that was some of the best I’ve ever eaten, and although I was told that the barbecue sauce was a vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce, I surprisingly loved it, and found it to be just sweet enough for me to enjoy. After Kenny Brown’s final rousing set, Sharde Thomas and her drummers were back to lead the crowd out to the front gate to close out the evening’s festivities. It was a truly amazing blues experience in a perfect setting with great food, in a community known for its legacy of blues, Black gospel, and fife and drum music.
R. L. Boyce is really the last of the old-school Hill Country blues musicians, and was a mentor to the young South American musician Carlos Elliott Jr., who came from Colombia to Mississippi to study the traditional music of the Mississippi Hill Country. On his frequent visits back to the United States, Elliott often reconnects with Boyce and other area blues musicians, and usually performs at the Juke Joint Festival each April in Clarksdale.
Black fife and drum bands were once ubiquitous in the rural South, but time has not been kind to this style of music, a sort of precursor to the blues with heavy African influence. By 1970, only four counties in two states were known to have active fife and drum bands, and by 1980, that had dwindled to two counties in Mississippi. Most fife-and-drum activity centered around Senatobia musician Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which was later taken over by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas after his death. Other bands included a pick-up group that R. L. Boyce from Como occasionally put together and a band within the Hurt family from Sardis that played at family picnics. So when Andre Otha Evans, a relative of Othar Turner, decided to put together his own fife and drum band, I was thrilled, as his group puts the number of known active fife and drum bands up to four. Their performance at this year’s Juke Joint Festival was rousing, with an unexpected guest appearance from Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who is also an excellent fife player.
Como, Mississippi, a little town in the northern extremity of Panola County is historically a center of the Hill Country of Mississippi. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Como, as was Napoleon Strickland, and the Rev. John Wilkins’ church is in Como. Hill Country blues legend R. L. Boyce lives there. More recently, the town has won fame for a couple of great restaurants, and the gospel group The Como Mamas. But strangely, in the modern era there has been no place to hear the blues on a regular basis in Como. That changed early this year when a new juke joint opened called Li’l Poyun’s Place, or the JIC Pool Hall. With Mississippi’s juke scene so endangered, the opening of any new juke joint is to be welcomed, and Poyun’s is first-rate on the weekends when it features live music. On a recent weekend in April, the featured act was the Anthony Turner Band from Memphis, a band with more southern soul tendencies. But the guest artist was Como’s own R. L. Boyce, who played a brief set of classic Hill Country blues, and the dance floor was packed. Poyun’s is an authentic juke, and certainly not for the faint of heart. On certain Saturdays, the place is packed from wall to wall. The surroundings are anything but fancy, and the atmosphere, if electric, can be tense at times, with the occasional fight breaking out once in awhile. But it is an authentic blues experience in one of the blues’ most holy spots.
JIC Pool Hall AKA Li’l Po-Yun’s Place
West Side of Highway 51 near Compress Rd
(Hours can be erratic…may not always have live bands even when open)
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.
Since blues is one of the unique genres of music invented in America, I can think of few better ways to spend the Fourth of July than at a blues picnic. While there weren’t many public blues events in the Mid-South advertised on the Fourth, I had been invited to a private picnic in Sardis, Mississippi where R. L. Boyce from Como and Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs were performing with a band fronted by a harmonica player named Al Reed. The band was playing on a truck trailer that had been pulled into a residential yard on the west side of Sardis, and there was quite a crowd there, even a young blues fan who had come down from New York. The music was great, and kids from the neighborhood nearby were shooting off fireworks, but rains kept coming, and because the instruments were electric, the show kept getting interrupted. My friend and I decided to go to Batesville to dinner, and heading back through Como heard what sounded like a fife and drum band coming from a house near the intersection of Highway 310 and Highway 51. We pulled back around and in front of the house, but the sounds were apparently from a recording rather than an actual fife and drum band. Later, R. L. Boyce sat in with the Greg Ayers Band (Greg is apparently no kin to Little Joe) at a private event facility in Senatobia. This was more of a southern soul gig, but R. L. played a couple of Hill Country tunes, and the crowd was enthusiastic indeed.
Como, Mississippi is a town of significant importance when it comes to the Hill Country style of blues, and it is a town that has had something of a nightlife renaissance in recent years, with several regionally-acclaimed restaurants, so it is somewhat surprising that live blues is considerably rare in Como. After all, this was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the town where the Rev. Robert Wilkins and the Rev. John Wilkins preached and played their unique style of blues-inflected gospel. But aside from the occasional recording sessions at Delta Recording Service, I had never seen any live blues in Como, so when Sherena Boyce invited me to her birthday party and said that her dad, legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce would be playing, I made plans to go.
Her party was held at a little building called the Back Street Ballroom on the street immediately behind Main Street. Although the building was more of an event rental venue, it had the look of a typical Mississippi juke, particularly inside. Friends and family gathered, and a few fans of R. L. Boyce as well, and the event soon got underway, with R. L. Boyce playing the guitar, backed by a band from Potts Camp in Marshall County whose name was never mentioned. It was a versatile band, however, because its keyboard player at one point switched to drums, and its drummer also played guitar and sang. After a few songs, a female singer named Joyce Jones came up and performed several more tunes, and the floor filled up with dancers, many exhibiting the same kind of moves that I had seen the weekend before at the second-line in New Orleans. Also reminiscent of the second-line culture was the fact that at least one party-goer had brought a tambourine with them that they beat and shook in time to the band on stage. After two sets of live music from the band, the DJ picked back up with southern soul and blues music, and the party kept going strong until 2 AM.
The conventional wisdom is that there is really only one Black fife-and-drum band left in America, that of Sharde Thomas in Panola County, so it was thrilling to see a second one at this year’s Juke Joint Festival, even if it shared a member with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. R. L. Boyce, a blues musician from Como has long held yard parties at his house, and some of these have featured fife-and-drum music. At the Cat Head stage at this year’s festival, Boyce brought out a fife-and-drum band which featured Otha Turner’s nephew, Andre Otha Evans on the flute, rather than the bass drum he customarily plays with the Rising Star. Perhaps it’s a sign that the tradition has some life remaining in it, at least in Mississippi.