Benton County, Mississippi is due east of Marshall County, and was once a part of it, having been carved out of it and Tippah County by the state legislature during Reconstruction. Demographically similar to the county it was taken out of, Benton is a part of the Mississippi Hill Country, although sparsely populated and somewhat poorer than the other Hill Country counties. Although many great musicians came from Benton County, including Willie Mitchell, Syl Johnson, Joe Ayers and Nathan Beauregard, there has never been a live music scene in the county, mainly for the simple fact that Benton has always been a dry county, and remains so today. Such music as there has been has usually been held at private events such as picnics and yard parties.
However, over the last month or so, Robert Kimbrough, one of the sons of blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has been holding yard parties/jam sessions at his house just outside the Benton County seat of Ashland. The somewhat remote location is an opportunity to hear the music in a setting more like where it originated, in an era where “clubs” or even “juke joints” were still unknown. The atmosphere in the yard is easy going, with musicians taking turns going on stage and then coming off to enjoy food and drink. Musicians like J. J. Wilburn, G-Cutta, Little Joe Ayers and even Robert’s brother David Kimbrough occasionally come through and sit in. Fans bring lawn chairs and sit in the lawn while the musicians play under the carport roof. It’s all a rather informal affair. However, the weekend schedule for these events is somewhat erratic, as it depends on Robert’s touring schedule, so if you want to attend, follow Robert on Facebook here so that you know when and where his events are occurring. (I won’t put his address here publicly, although he occasionally does put it on Facebook. Follow him for details on where and when to go).
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.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
My girlfriend and I had planned on going to see Cameron Kimbrough, who we thought was playing in Helena, Arkansas, but it ultimately turned out that he was playing in Warren, Arkansas instead, which is a three-hour drive. There was no chance of making it there before he went on stage, so we had dinner at the Holiday Lodge on Sardis Lake at Harmontown and then headed to the Blues Shack for the second day of the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam. Holly Springs bluesman Little Joe Ayers was on stage when we arrived, playing to a crowd that was somewhat larger than the one on Friday night. After Joe performed, then Duwayne Burnside and Kenny Brown got on stage and performed such Hill Country classics as “All Night Long” and “Meet Me in the City.” Although we were having a great time there, we ultimately cut it short because my girlfriend wanted to catch Cedric Burnside, who was playing at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, so we left out and headed down that way.
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.
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.
The Levitt Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting live music opportunities in America, especially outdoor performances. Well-known to Memphians as the organization that helped save the Overton Park Shell, the foundation runs shells and other outdoor stages in a number of American cities, and sets up summer concert series in many more. This year, the Levitt Foundation announced a Summer Music Series in New Albany, Mississippi, taking advantage of the city’s recently renovated Park Along The River (the river in question being the Tallahatchie). On July 2, the series brought the Hill Country blues to New Albany with performances by Oxford-based Cadillac Funk, and then the Cedric Burnside Project, featuring Trenton Ayers (son of Little Joe Ayers) on guitar. A fairly large crowd showed up for the two-hours-worth of funk and blues, with dancers filling up the space in front of the stage. As is his custom, Cedric started his set out with several acoustic guitar songs before moving to the drums and inviting Trenton Ayers to join him. In its more hardcore, electric form, the Cedric Burnside Project performs a large repertoire, from originals that feature a Hill Country edge, to many of the songs made famous by Junior Kimbrough and Cedric’s grandfather, the late R. L. Burnside, such as “Firemen Ring The Bell” and “Goin’ Down South.” All too soon, the show was over, and the crowd was left asking for more.
Fans of the unique Mississippi style of blues known as Hill Country blues are of course very familiar with Marshall County, as it was the home of both Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, arguably the two most important Hill Country bluesmen. And they are probably also familiar with the Foxfire Ranch at Waterford in Marshall County, where a superb summer schedule of live blues occurs nearly every Sunday at 5 PM, under a shelter known as the Hill Country Pavilion. But this year, the Hollowell family, which owns the ranch, decided to sponsor an all-day concert of blues, and somewhat surprisingly, chose to do it in March, which is slightly earlier than the start-up of the festival season, which generally occurs in April.
Although the weather can be chilly and unpredictable in March, this year’s inaugural Foxfire Blues Festival was warm and pleasant, with plenty of sunshine. A large portable stage had been set up in the valley at the back of the large hill on which the pavilion stands, and a moderate crowd sat on blankets on the hillside, enjoying performances by Little Joe Ayers, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones, The Duwayne Burnside Band, Kenny Brown, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Lightning Malcolm. For a first-time festival, the event was fairly well-attended, it rolled smoothly, and the crowd enjoyed a beautiful day of great music.
Just to the east of Marshall County, Mississippi is Benton County and its county seat of Ashland, which are also part of the Mississippi Hill Country. However, unlike Marshall County, Benton County is remote, and not as well-known, even though musicians like Nathan Beauregard and Willie Mitchell were originally from there. Sparsely populated indeed, Benton County has never been much of a destination, with the exception of visits from civil rights workers during the 1960’s. However, efforts are being made to preserve the history of Benton County, and toward that end, a festival called Arts, Beats & Eats was held on July 11th in Ashland, to attract people to the courthouse square, which has certainly seen better days. The Benton County Courthouse moved out of the historic structure on the square to a former manufacturing plant on Highway 370, and many businesses seem to have done the same. Worse, the extreme heat on Saturday kept crowds down to a minimum, with the exception of those who were running for office. But blues legends Little Joe Ayers and Garry Burnside were among the musicians who came out to perform with Mark “Muleman” Massey, and as the sun sank lower in the sky, the crowd increased and the temperature decreased. One of the purposes of the festival was to raise funds for the renovation and restoration of the square in Ashland, which is an extremely worthwhile goal. Here’s hoping this summer event becomes an annual thing. Blues belongs in Benton County as well as Marshall County.
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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.