Beginning in July each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi sponsors Thursday night blues concerts on the courthouse lawn in the town square. While the events do attract tourists, it’s not just a tourist-oriented event, as Marshall County is an important place in Mississippi blues history. Two of the greatest Hill County bluesmen, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, were from Marshall County, and made their careers and reputations in the area. The county is also home to the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, held each summer in Waterford, and the county seat of Holly Springs is the location of Akei Pro’s Record Shop, a virtual blues-lover’s paradise, full of old vinyl records and some compact discs, as well as bluesman Duwayne Burnside’s local club, Alice Mae’s Cafe.
On September 25, I headed down to Holly Springs for the soft opening of a new juke joint, Junior’s Juke Joint #2, being opened north of town by David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough. The opening date was chosen to correspond to the final Thursday night event of the year on the square, so I headed there first, and found a large crowd listening, dancing and enjoying the music of blues singer Brown Sugar and her band. After her performance, I ran across and grabbed a dinner at JB’s on the Square (good food) and then made it back in time to see indie singer Shannon McNally, who was performing with a band that included Garry Burnside (another son of R. L.’s) on guitar. North Center Street was also in a festive mood, with a large crowd outdoors, and good Southern Soul records playing in Alice Mae’s Cafe. In a large parking lot north of Akei Pro’s, there was a crowd of people hanging out and grilling food. After Shannon’s last song, there was a procession of Corvettes that came through the square, and the final Thursday night Blues on the Square event for 2014 came to a close.
Sharde Thomas is the granddaughter of Otha Turner, and leads her grandfathers’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from Gravel Springs,in Tate County, Mississippi, which would seem to be the last African-American fife-and-drum band in the country. They are frequently featured at festivals in North Mississippi, and are always a crowd favorite.
Garry Burnside Band-Goin Down South-Live at Hill Country Picnic 2013
Garry Burnside Band-All Night Long-Live at Hill Country Picnic 2013
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.
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.
Duwayne Burnside plays with his band and special guests Kinny Kimbrough and Kenny Brown on the first night of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in Waterford, Mississippi, 6/28/13