T-Model Ford was for many years a crowd favorite at the Hill Country Picnic, but poor health has made it impossible for him to perform recently, and it has also caused a considerable amount of medical bills. To help Ford deal with that, the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic sponsored a raffle of donated items, and a group of local musicians played a set of songs in his honor, with his nephew Stud on the drums. It was a moving, heart-felt tribute.
Vicksburg native George McConnell first gained notice as a member of Oxford area bands like Beanland and Kudzu Kings. Eventually, he became a member of Widespread Panic for a period of time before putting together his current band the Nonchalants. Although blues and soul heavily influence his current work, the Nonchalants were by far the most rock-oriented act of this year’s Hill Country Picnic.
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.
After David Kimbrough came off stage, he was followed by R. L. Burnside’s son Duwayne, who was quickly joined on stage by Kenny Brown, Kinney Kimbrough and many other guests. Duwayne smiles easy and often, his face alive with the shear joy of creating, and his incredible facility on the guitar reminds us whose son he is. There was no better closing act for the first night than the Duwayne Burnside band, with a crew of little Burnside children posted up on the stage, their eyes filled with wonder. The tradition is alive, and will continue.
Fayetteville, Arkansas-based musician David Kimbrough Jr is one of the sons of the late Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough. Not surprisingly, he has continued to play in the Hill Country tradition which his father helped to popularize around the world, but what is surprising is his experiments with the dulcimer, an instrument usually associated with Anglo-American folk music in the Appalachian region or the Ozarks. Friday night at the picnic, he performed several compositions as a duo with his dulcimer and a drummer, and he makes the dulcimer’s unique sound work within the scales of his blues tradition. In addition, he played several tunes with his larger band.
Bobby Rush is a living legend of the blues, and his appearance at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic on Friday was enthusiastically received by the crowd. Performing with just his guitar, Rush told a lot of his best-known stories and sang a number of his somewhat-naughty songs before being joined on stage by Kenny Brown, the host of the festival. This was, as far as I know, Rush’s first appearance at the picnic, and it was a good one.