Lightnin Malcolm was playing in Merigold at Crawdad’s, and the original plan was for me to head to Senatobia and pick Sherena Boyce up, and we were headed there, but she ultimately decided that she wanted to go to the Beale Street Caravan Blowout at the Crosstown Concourse, where her pastor the Rev. John Wilkins was supposed to perform. So, when I left the Art on the Levee event in Arkansas, I drove across the river to Crosstown, wondering if I would be able to get into the event before she got there.
As it turned out, I walked around the Concourse for awhile, and then, hearing music, walked up a flight of stairs and directly into the middle of the event. A soul band, complete with horns, whose name I never caught, was performing on stage. They played mostly cover tunes, but a lot of it was Memphis music and it was good.
The food had been provided by a number of Memphis restaurants, from Central BBQ to Jack Pirtle’s and it too was quite good. R. L. Boyce’s manager Steve Likens and his wife Dawn were manning a T-shirt table, and the place was just about standing room only.
The main attraction at the event was a silent auction, full of all kinds of things I would love to have, including a Fat Possum LP gift pack, and various blues-related instruments and books. Of course, I had no extra money to be bidding on anything, but it was all for a worthy cause.
Sherena arrived eventually, but, to our disappointment, John Wilkins didn’t get started until the auction had ended at 9 PM, and played only an extremely brief set, really only a couple of tunes. It was great, but after he came down, the party was clearly breaking up, and we were not ready to go home.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
I love catfish, and I love blues music, so when a place puts them together, like Hernando, Mississippi’s new Catfish Blues restaurant, I am intrigued, to say the least. Because in its earliest days, the restaurant was running as a buffet only, I had held off on trying it, but finally my girlfriend and I decided we could delay no longer, and we were pleasantly pleased with what we found. Catfish Blues is located east of downtown Hernando, near the railroad tracks on Commerce Street in a building meant to resemble a train depot. The room is expansive and cheerful, with plenty of blues memorabilia on the walls, including pictures of North Mississippi stars like Duwayne Burnside and the Rev. John Wilkins, and there is plenty of room for live music, which typically happens on Saturdays. On the Friday night we visited, there was no live music, but the star of the show was catfish, which comes in two ways. The traditional catfish has the usual cornmeal batter, while the “Robert Pettiway” is a New Orleans-style breading which more resembles what you would get at Middendorf’s in Louisiana or Tug’s Casual Cafe in Memphis. Its name commemorates Robert Petway, the bluesman who first recorded the song “Catfish Blues.” Altogether we found the service cheerful and the prices fairly reasonable. If it wasn’t the absolute best catfish we had ever had, it was darn good, and overall a pleasant experience. We will certainly return.
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.
I used to pass the old Loflin Safe & Lock Company on Carolina Avenue in Memphis for years, and never thought much about it, but unexpectedly a few months ago, the place was transformed into a hot new Memphis bar and grill called Loflin Yard, with a primarily-outdoor focus that resembles Austin, Texas a lot more than it does Memphis. While there are a few tables and a bar indoors, and a few more tables on a deck outside, the central emphasis is on a huge backyard, filled with plenty of chairs and fire pits, an outdoor stage and bar,a waterfall and the only visible portion of historic Gayoso Bayou, most of which has been paved over elsewhere in Memphis. The effect is something like an urban equivalent to Mississippi’s Foxfire Ranch, and the booking policies are somewhat similar as well, with Loflin Yard featuring a lot of roots music groups, from blues to bluegrass. On the day we went, the featured artist was the Rev. John Wilkins, an artist whose dad was a blues legend in the 1920’s, and whose music bridges the gap between Hill Country blues and gospel music. On a somewhat cool and pleasant day, we found the place packed to overflowing, and we could barely find outdoor seats. Wilkins, backed by two and later three female singers, performed his dad Robert Wilkin’s signature tune “Prodigal Son” AKA “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and he performed many of his best-known tunes as well, including “You Can’t Hurry God.” We had to wait until after Wilkins’ performance to find table space in order to eat. Food, by the way, is ordered from an outdoor window and then picked up to eat at one of the tables, and the menu is extremely limited. There is no traditional bar food here, only beef brisket, pork tenderloin and salads, although there has been some talk that the menu might eventually be expanded. With such an emphasis on barbecue, there is plenty of wood stacked near the kitchen, and the smell of roasting meat pervades the whole place, but we found that the food was primarily little plates, a currently popular trend, and the prices seemed steep for the quantity of the food. Altogether it was a great afternoon and evening for me and my friend, although we personally enjoyed the atmosphere and music more than the food.
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.
While registering for the Southern Entertainment Awards at Resorts Casino in Tunica, I looked on my phone and saw where a concert of Hill Country blues was taking place at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center in Oxford. The weather had gotten really bad, with high winds, thunder and lightning, but I decided to drive over that way from Tunica, stopping for dinner at the Oyster Bar in Como. The concert had already started when I got to Oxford, and Sharde Thomas was on stage with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. I learned that the event was being held for the attendees of the Southern Literary Festival, which was being held on the Ole Miss campus nearby. After the fife and drum band, Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside came on stage with his band, including David Kimbrough Jr on drums, and played a selection of traditional and modern blues songs, getting the most applause for his reading of his father’s “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line.” (The strange title of that song had always mystified me, until I read recently that rural women who were cheating on their husbands used to hang a man’s jumpsuit on their clothesline as a signal to their boyfriends that the coast was clear and they could come over). Duwayne Burnside was followed by the Rev. John Wilkins, whose style of gospel is largely based on the music of Hill Country blues, despite the religious tone of the lyrics. Although I had seen all the performers elsewhere in the past, it was an exciting and enjoyable performance.
Although Americans tend to think about music in terms of a sacred/secular divide, that difference was never a part of African culture, where the everyday tended to be considered sacred. Although the European way of thinking about these things made some inroads (for example in people calling the blues “The Devil’s Music”), there is a considerable amount of ambiguity between the sacred and the secular in Black culture, and particularly in the Hill Country blues tradition of North Mississippi. All Hill Country musicians include a certain amount of religious music in their repertoire, so it’s not out of place for R. L. Burnside to sing “I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down”, or for Mississippi Fred McDowell to sing “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, and on the other side of the coin, Hill Country gospel musicians often play their music in a style that differs little from Hill Country blues other than the lyrics. Such an artist is the Rev. John Wilkins, a pastor and musician whose dad was the bluesman Robert Wilkins, who also eventually became a preacher. Perhaps because his music differs little from the traditional North Mississippi blues aesthetic, Wilkins is immensely popular with blues fans, and his accompanying band are first-rate musicians. When he isn’t performing at concerts and festivals, he preaches Sundays at Hunter Chapel Church near Como, Mississippi, the church that Mississippi Fred McDowell and his wife were once members of.