Hill Country bluesman Little Joe Ayers performs with drummer Calvin Jackson at the First National Bank/Cat Head stage in Clarksdale at the Juke Joint Festival 2013
Little Joe Ayres decided to become a musician after noticing the enthusiasm that Marshall County, Mississippi residents had for bluesmen like Louis Boga and Junior Kimbrough. After teaching himself to play the guitar, Ayres began to learn from Kimbrough, and ended up becoming a member of Kimbrough’s band, the Soul Blues Boys. After many years of performing as a sideman and a solo artist, Little Joe Ayres has released his debut album Backatchya, a welcome collection of Kimbrough standards, hill country standards, and other familiar blues tunes that are adapted to the unique hill country style. Like all Devil Down Records releases, the album captures both a moment in time and a unique sense of place. Ayres’ guitar and vocals, as well as his spoken comments, were captured not in a recording studio, but on the front porch of fellow hill country bluesman Kenny Brown’s home. The resulting album has an intimacy that makes the listener feel as if he has spent a day with Little Joe Ayres rather than just listening to a record. Backatchya is a welcome documentation of one of Mississippi’s living blues legends, and is hopefully the first of many albums to come.
Kenny Brown’s childhood in Nesbit, Mississippi took a radically different turn when an elderly man moved next door to the family’s house, for the man was Mississippi Joe Callicutt, a somewhat-forgotten blues legend. His influence set Brown on a blues journey that led to his “adoption” by hill country blues legend R. L. Burnside and his organizing of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in Marshall County. All of the varied facets of this remarkable man’s music are in evidence on Brown’s new Devil Down Records release “Can’t Stay Long”, a double compact disc consisting of two albums, “Money Maker”, featuring the live 2010 Hill Country Picnic set of Brown with his band, and “Porch Songs”, the more intimate and introspective solo guitar set that indeed sounds as if it could have been recorded on Brown’s porch.
Brown’s band in 2010 included Luther Dickinson and Duwayne Burnside, and is a romping, electrified performance of hill country blues, which manages to be rock-and-roll in the best sense of the term. The set includes standards such as “Shake Your Money Maker”, Joe Callicutt songs like “Laughin to Keep From Cryin”, R. L. Burnside anthems like “Jumper on the Line” and Brown’s own hits like “Back to Mississippi” which was originally on his debut album. A couple of final tunes “Let’s Work Together” and “If Walls Could Talk” spring from a later R & B tradition.
“Porch Songs” is far more somber, with themes of religion and death prominent. “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Prodigal Son” and “Denomination Blues” all deal with gospel themes, and indirectly so does the tragic “Wreck on the Highway”, originally a gospel polemic against the evils of alcohol. “Shake Em” makes a frequent appearance on Kenny Brown’s live gig lists, and “Skinny Woman” exists here in an acoustic version, and is the only song to appear on both discs.
Altogether, “Can’t Stay Long” exhibits the artist as a man in transition from old blues to new blues, from the old audiences of Burnside’s generation to the young college kids from Oxford cheering for him as he plays with his band. A consummate portrait of a bluesman who is a rightful heir of the hill country blues tradition.
The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic is an annual two-day outdoor concert at which most if not all of the living hill country blues performers appear, as well as many younger artists from the hill country of Mississippi, many of whom play styles of music influenced heavily by the hill country tradition. But unfortunately, not everyone has the time or money to travel to Marshall County, Mississippi in June for the picnic, so it is fortunate that Devil Down Records has issued a North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic Volume 2 sampler, which amounts to an aural record of the 2010 picnic. There is gospel here by artists like Rev. John Wilkins and Duff Dorough. There is music on the thin line between alternative rock and country, such as “Little Hand, Big Gun” by Jimbo Mathus, or “Midnight in Mississippi” by Blue Mountain. There are aggressive, rock-influenced readings of hill country blues by artists such as Eric Deaton, Duwayne Burnside, Hill Country Revue and North Mississippi All Stars, and there are traditional blues performances by Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour. Of course, no recording can perfectly capture the thrill of being present at such a history-making concert, but this sampler satisfies with consistently-good music throughout. A hidden final track is R. L. Burnside telling a joke from many years ago, like a reminder of his spiritual presence giving approval to the picnic, and this recording.
Mississippi Fred McDowell, of course, is a legend. He was one of the first country bluesmen to be rediscovered and recorded by scholars, and toward the end of his life toured across the country and overseas. Although he would claim “I don’t play no rock-and-roll music”, songs he performed like “Get Right Church” were covered by the Rolling Stones, and he guest appeared on an album with Don Nix. So for the fan of Mississippi traditional blues, the first commercial issue of these field recordings made by the eminent blues scholar Bill Ferris is a welcome discovery. McDowell’s home community of Como is stuck just where the hill country meets the Delta, and likewise, McDowell’s blues style seems to cross-breed the hill country and Delta styles. There are familiar standards here, of course, like “John Henry” and “Little Red Rooster”, but also unusual original compositions like “Dream I Went to the U.N.” where the lyrics say he went to “set the nation right.” There are also gospel tunes, including “Get Right Church”, “I Got Religion”, “You Gonna Meet King Jesus” and McDowell’s take on “Where Could I Go?” a tune that springs from the white country gospel tradition. On various tunes, McDowell is joined by his wife Annie Mae, and his friend Napoleon Strickland on harmonica. On the final track is an excerpt of an interview with Bill Ferris regarding these recordings. Extensive liner notes and photos increase the value of this lovingly-conceived issue of recordings that resurrect a voice from the grave. To listen to “Come and Found You Gone” is almost like spending an afternoon with Mississippi Fred McDowell on his front porch.