I had seen that Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, would be playing at The Dirty Crow Inn on Saturday night, but I had a gig of my own on the University of Memphis campus, so our decision to go to Cam’s gig was something of a spur-of-the-moment thing after my gig was over. Little did we know that we were in for an amazing blues experience in the little funky dive bar in South Memphis.
Of course, Cameron Kimbrough has been getting attention for several years as a powerful new voice in the blues, and his mother, Joyce Jones, who is an excellent blues singer, has been working on her debut album. But I was surprised to see the venue so packed with blues fans, particularly as it is a venue that doesn’t usually book blues, and it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way location.Cam was performing on drums when we arrived, joined by some local guitarists including Moses Crouch, a really-young harmonica player from North Memphis, and his mother Joyce Jones. They were set up on the enclosed deck, and there was hardly a table available, the crowd a combination of blues fans and basketball fans in town for the sweet sixteen tournament at the Fed Ex Forum. Unlike a lot of blues shows, much of Cam’s set was jamming, with songs being improvised extemporaneously on the spot, Joyce Jones adding vocal riffs that occasionally became something like song titles, perhaps.
When Moses Crouch came back on stage for the second set, the style was a little more orthodox, with familiar Hill Country tunes like “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line” and “Coal Black Mattie”, which Cam played on the guitar. But he also followed the traditional blues song with an original called “I’m Still Standing”, which highlights Cam’s unique ability to craft new material that still belongs firmly to the Hill Country tradition. As midnight approached, the crowd began to dwindle, but the music remained as strong as ever, powerful, relentless. We left, feeling that something of real importance had just happened in a hole-in-the-wall in South Memphis. It just might be possible that Cameron Kimbrough is the future of the Hill Country blues. (You can buy Cam’s debut EP Head For The Hillshere and can listen to Cam’s earlier recordings here).
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
When I saw that a place called the Dirty Crow Inn had opened in a former convenience store on Kentucky Street at Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I was initially wary, as the menu out front was short on choices, with wings the most prominent feature (and I am not a huge fan of wings). But after reading a positive review of the burger there, I decided to make a special trip down on a Sunday evening to see what the fuss was about.
The Dirty Crow Inn is a “new” dive bar, if there can indeed be such a thing. It’s fairly small inside, with a quaint and homey feel, and posters all across the ceiling. There is also an outdoor deck with more tables and chairs, and a place for occasional live music. The primary difference from more traditional dive bars is the gourmet-leaning menu, with such things as soy-ginger wings and poutine fries. The rather simple burger is still a thing of beauty, with the buns toasted and buttered, and bacon and cheese added. If it isn’t the best in Memphis, it’s got to be in the top five, and the french fries that came with it were equally tasty. There are occasional special food features as well, of which the bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp was the most outstanding, and while there is no dessert menu, the Dirty Crow Inn has cupcakes from the nearby Pink Diva bakery. As if all that wasn’t cool enough, the kitchen stays open until 2 AM, so it is a perfect destination after the club, the theatre or the show. Here’s hoping that the Dirty Crow Inn will become another one of Memphis’ legendary hangouts.
The Dirty Crow Inn
855 Kentucky Street (at Crump Boulevard across from Budweiser)
Memphis, TN 38106
Dr. Alfred Brown’s club called The Plexx in an old decrepit shopping center on E. H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis is one of the few places in the city where authentic old-school live blues and soul can be heard, but on the Friday night before Halloween, things took a slightly different turn, as veteran blues singer Jewel Jones was backed by the 4 Soul Band, consisting of some of Memphis’ best young musicians, including Lloyd Anderson on bass and drummer Otis Logan. While it’s common to think of there being something of a musical divide between young and old, the consummate talents of these young musicians enabled them to fit in perfectly with the older blues and soul offerings of Ms. Jones. Veteran Memphis drummer Willie Hall was in the crowd as well, and it was a great night of Memphis music off the beaten path and away from the tourist crowd
When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.
A few days after the Tate Street Block Party, the anti-violence group Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives (FFUN) sponsored a youth rally at Foote Homes, the only remaining public housing project in Memphis. Toys were distributed to the younger children, hot dogs and chips were given out, and horseback rides were given to young people. A DJ provided the music for the occasion, and of course some politicians showed up as well.
Tate Street, like all east-west streets in Memphis, is really an avenue, but it has always been called Tate Street by those who live there and in the vicinity. On the first Saturday of June every year, it becomes the location of the annual Tate Street Block Party, an event sponsored by Memphis rapper Lionheart. Food, fun and music are the order of the day, but the purpose of it all is to help steer South Memphis young people away from violence, and toward that end, a full evening of entertainment is staged on the outdoor stage. This year, young people enjoyed performances from Big Mota, JMoney Trulla, Money Man Melvo, the Trap Mob, Treyhaitian and Chicago rapper Joe Rodeo. As always, for the older young men, the event became something of a reunion for residents of the former Cleaborn Homes housing project as well, and noted Memphis producer Drumma Boy and veteran rap artist GK were among those who made an appearance.
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I don’t ever recall any June in Memphis being this wet, but one of the upsides to the extensive rain (besides the cooler temperatures) has been the frequency of rainbows in and around Memphis. This one appeared over the Booker T. Washington High School area of South Memphis as I was heading down to Beale Street to see my homeboys in the C3 Band perform at the Rum Boogie Cafe.
Each year Memphis rap artist Lionheart sponsors a block party on Tate Avenue in South Memphis, featuring live rap performances and free barbecue. The purpose of the Tate Street Block Party is both to encourage youth against violence and also to promote and showcase local music talent. This year, the high points included a young rapper named Tve Bandz (pronounced “Tae Bandz”) who performed along with his even younger sister Breeze, as well as an appearance from the group AirBorn Academy from South Memphis. But there were also a number of newer artists, including one young man called This Some Major. The afternoon was full of music, food and fun, with no incidents whatsoever.
Every summer in June, the Memphis rapper Blac Youngsta sponsors a South Memphis Block Party on McMillan Street in honor of a neighborhood youth named King Craddy that was killed a few years ago. It usually is a fun time for the kids, with a bounce house, and there is usually a DJ, plenty of good food and lots of dancing. This year, things took a turn for the worse when out of nowhere, a young man pulled out a gun and began shooting. I hadn’t even heard any arguing or confrontation leading up to it. We ended up having to get down, run to the back of the houses and then struggle through the underbrush and out the chain link fence on the other side on Ely Street. The gunshots continued from over on the other street before we finally heard the sirens of the police coming. We soon learned that a 3-year-old boy had been shot. There is absolutely nothing that can justify shooting into a crowd including women and children during a neighborhood block party. Nothing whatsoever.