Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.
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.
To be one of the greatest living blues guitarists, Duwayne Burnside doesn’t get booked nearly often enough, so any opportunity to see him play live should be taken advantage of. And there are few venues more conducive to the blues than Bill Hollowell’s Foxfire Ranch at Waterford, Mississippi, where, every Sunday during the warm weather months, the best blues artists from the Hill Country perform in a homey, intimate setting. There’s no backstage area, no green rooms or dressing rooms, no fence in front of the stage. Performers and their fans are free to interact, and dancers have plenty of room to jook to the music.
Duwayne is perfectly at home in this kind of setting. His friends and family often come with him, and he banters with the crowd between songs as if he’s been knowing them all his life. He is equally at home with the repertoires of his father R. L. Burnside, and the other great legend of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough, and when he launches into any blues tune, his face breaks into a smile with the sheer joy of invention and creation. On the more rocking tunes, such as “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line”, the open space in front of the stage fills up quickly with dancers, and Duwayne calls a few guest singers and musicians to the stage. But the night belongs to him, and when he begins to give out from fatigue, it is nearly 10 PM. The crowd begins to wander away, just as the rainstorms break out in earnest.
Clarksdale has become justifiably famous as the destination to hear authentic Delta blues, but Holly Springs, to the east in the Hill Country region of Mississippi, is the center of the lesser-known Hill Country style of blues. Despite some antebellum homes, Holly Springs has not had tourism to the same extent as Clarksdale, but fans of the late Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside know about the place and occasionally make their way there for a Hill Country blues experience. Toward that end, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly concert on the courthouse square called Blues In The Alley, which is held every Thursday night from 7-10 PM from July through September. The “Alley” referred to is the Black business district along North Center Street leading northward from the Square toward the Rust College campus. Each week features great blues and soul, plenty of food trucks and lots of fun. On the first event of the year, the featured artist was the Kenny Brown Band, featuring blues legend Duwayne Burnside as a special guest. After several sets of great blues, there was a fireworks display to celebrate the upcoming 4th of July.
This year’s Juke Joint Fest culminated with a late Saturday evening show at the Delta Theatre featuring Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayers. Both these young men come from families with a long history of involvement in the Hill Country blues. Cedric is a grandson of the late R. L. Burnside, and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, who played in the Sound Machine Band, and Trenton Ayers is the son of Holly Springs bluesman Little Joe Ayers. Their performance on this occasion was outstanding, culminating in a near-perfect reading of the late Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In The City.” It was a great way to close out this year’s festival.
Although Clarksdale is in the Delta, visitors to the Juke Joint Fest love some Hill Country blues as well, and the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band is popular with the fans. Robert is one of the sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, who together with R. L. Burnside helped define the style known as Hill Country blues. Besides annual appearances at Juke Joint Fest, Robert Kimbrough performs frequently in and around Holly Springs in Marshall County.
Think of Mississippi Blues and you are likely to think of the Delta. The long highways and crossroads, the endless flat land, broken only by the occasional bayou, small towns, juke joints and Robert Johnson. But there was also blues in Northeast Mississippi, the Hill Country, particularly in Marshall County, and the style of blues in that region was an especially primitive and basic form of the music that perhaps has more in common with the music of West Africa than any other African-American music form. Hill Country blues is based around guitar drones and repetitive patterns that seem to almost induce trance. Unlike the Delta blues, Hill Country blues remained largely unknown until the late 1960’s, with some awareness coming through the rediscovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como. The efforts of George Mitchell and Dr. David Evans to make field recordings led directly to the discovery of the two great figures of Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, both from Marshall County, whose records in the 1990’s made Hill County blues familiar to people all over their world. Since their deaths, their children have endeavored to continue the tradition, and so there is a growing interest in Holly Springs for blues tourism. Every Thursday night, from July through the end of September, there is live blues on an outdoor stage on the Marshall County Courthouse square. It is usually well-attended each week, but all the more so when one of the county’s favorite sons is appearing, such as guitarist Duwayne Burnside. On this particular night, Duwayne was joined by his brother Garry Burnside on bass, and by his nephew Cedric Burnside on the drums, and they proceeded to give the audience a musical history of the blues, venturing into any number of different styles, and covers from as diverse a collective as R. L. Burnside, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, B. B. King and Tyrone Davis. Duwayne has always been one of the great living blues guitarists, but over the last two months or so, he seems to be hitting a new stride, playing some of the best music of his life. And to watch his face while on stage is to see the sheer joy of creation in progress.
Going the Old Hudsonville Road from Hudsonville to Holly Springs proved to be a mistake, because more than half the distance between the two communities was gravel, but the road did take me into a neighborhood of Holly Springs that I had never seen before, an area to the east of the Rust College campus where there were several churches, a Roman Catholic school and a juke joint called Cu-Man’s. But for some reason, the crowd on the square on this particular Thursday was far less than it had been the last time I went a couple of weeks before. Through an error, the people in charge of the weekly event had booked two different bands for the same time slot, so the Oxford All-Stars opened up the evening, playing a lot of Motown and Memphis classics, and a couple of blues, and then they were followed by Hill Country veteran Kenny Brown, with Cameron Kimbrough (son of Kinney Kimbrough and grandson of Junior) on drums, and Garry Burnside ( son of R. L.) on bass. After a few songs, they were joined on stage by Garry’s brother Duwayne Burnside, who did several of the Hill Country classics with the band. As the temperatures cooled off, the crowd around the square grew larger, and the final song featured Cameron’s dad Kent “Kinney” Kimbrough on drums.
Although the Delta of Mississippi is known as “The Land Where Blues Began”, the area to the east known as the Hill Country produced a unique style of blues that has become famous around the world. This subgenre of blues was especially prevalent in Marshall and Benton Counties, so it’s not surprising that Holly Springs, the county seat of Marshall County, is a town that emphasizes its blues heritage. The county was home to Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, and each Thursday night during the summer, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly live music concert called Blues in the Alley, which is held directly on the courthouse square. On July 9, the featured artist was the Cassie Bonner Band, a group from Oxford that I was not familiar with. Cassie Bonner proved to be a keyboard player and a singer, and while the group’s style was more neb-soul than blues, I was quite impressed with them, particularly the young drummer. There were also food vendors and a DJ, and a crowd of several hundred people, as well as a number of motorcyclists, and a camera crew filming a documentary about Holly Springs and David Caldwell, the owner of Aikei Pro’s Record Shop. I also ran into Hill Country Blues legend Little Joe Ayers on the square as well.