Sad Days & Lonely Nights

The search for Junior Kimbrough and the North Mississippi hill country blues.

by Mark Jordan

ell, Junior doesn't have a phone," says the voice at the other end of the line. "You'll just have to go find him."

The "Junior" in question is Mississippi bluesman David "Junior" Kimbrough, and the voice on the phone belongs to Bruce Watson, a recording engineer for the small Oxford, Mississippi, blues label Fat Possum, who also co-produced Junior's latest release, Most Things Haven't Worked Out, for the label.

It makes sense that Junior wouldn't be so easy to find. After all, this is the man who has for years confounded adventurous tourists who, seeking a "real" taste of the blues, have braved the obscure backroads of Marshall County, Mississippi. But Junior can't stay hidden forever, especially as more and more people come looking for him.

Junior Kimbrough is at the head of the North Mississippi class of blues school. Along with his compatriot R.L. Burnside, he is hailed as one of the last of the true Mississippi bluesmen, one of the remaining few to have learned at the feet of masters like Muddy Waters and "Mississippi" Fred McDowell.

And as such, Junior's funky, raw version of the blues is becoming more and more popular, and the anonymity he has grown accustomed to over the years is disappearing. These days his legendary juke joint, once thought safely hidden from interlopers along tiny Highway 4 in Marshall County, now regularly attracts busloads of tourists.

But despite all the notoriety, the actual man remains elusive.

"You'll just have to go find him."

IT IS A BRIGHT, SUNNY DAY IN rural Mississippi and two men are walking down a dirt road. One is decked out all in black with jet black, greasy hair, a goatee, and sunglasses; he is rock star Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who is funding a documentary on his secret passion the blues of the deep South. His companion who, with his long, graying hair and thick eyeglasses, dressed more unassumingly in jeans and a shirt, looks the nerdy alter-ego to Stewart's rock hipster is musician/writer Robert Palmer, a native of Arkansas, frequent resident of Mississippi and Tennessee, and a longtime scholar of the South's music, particularly the blues. Palmer and Stewart are filming musicians for Stewart's documentary, Deep Blues, which was inspired, partly, by Palmer's book of the same name, a classic meditation on the blues.

As the camera dollies before them, Palmer turns to Stewart and begins to speak:

"This is North Mississippi hill country up in here," Palmer says. "There were never any big plantations here at any time. It's always been small farms, a lot of them black-owned, a lot of counties here almost entirely black. And the music up here hasn't changed as much as the music in the Delta. It's really stayed pretty much the same for generation after generation, and there's whole families of music-makers here that go back three or four generations."

For many, this is how they first found Junior Kimbrough. With those words, first spoken on film just five years ago, a whole new world of people was introduced to a whole new world of music, the North Mississippi hill country blues. To be sure, the blues have been around for about a hundred years now, and the particular brand of the music known as North Mississippi, or hill country, or cottonpatch blues has, as Palmer says, flourished in the Mississippi hills for generations. But until Palmer took a film crew down into Marshall County to document it, this rocking, quasi-mystical style of music was a mystery to people outside the area.

Until recently, Marshall County must really have seemed like an undiscovered world remote and untouched. With no railroads or riverports, the only way to get around the county was along its small network of two-lane roads, which weave through the area's low, rolling hills matted with trees and kudzu, almost commanding time and the modern world: Keep out.

Even in the county seat of Holly Springs, the town's best-known characteristic the dozens of antebellum homes boasted about on highway signs that beckon tourists is an anachronism, a deliberate evocation of a time long gone.

Today, however, Holly Springs and Marshall County are becoming much more modern. Improved roads, air travel, television, and other technologies have strengthened the area's connection with the outside. And in a welcome sign of change, Holly Springs elected its first black mayor 10 years ago, even before Memphis did.

As much as North Mississippi is learning about the world, however, the world is learning just as much about North Mississippi through its music. Because of its geographical isolation, the blues of this region went largely undiscovered during the first wave of blues "discoveries' in the 1930s, when white folklore archivists like the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax combed the rural South recording indigenous music. It wasn't until 1959 that Alan Lomax found his way to the area. On that trip Lomax "discovered" 55-year-old "Mississippi" Fred McDowell in Como, Mississippi. McDowell would go on (despite his stated antipathy toward rock-and-roll) to become an influential artist among the blues-rock set of the '60s and '70s, covered and revered by rock stars like Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones.

But McDowell was also a major influence on a group of musicians who, despite McDowell's success, would remain "hidden" just miles to the north for decades.

DAVID EVANS FIRST HEARD JUNIOR Kimbrough in 1979 in a tiny juke joint called Ethel's in Holly Springs. "It was a weekend and the place was packed," says Evans. "He was always and still is quite popular locally."

A professor of music at the University of Memphis, Evans was immediately floored by Junior. He had heard the hypnotic, riff-based blues indigenous to the region before. But here was a performer who imbued the music with such individual style that it took on entirely different dimensions. "I thought it was the most interesting development in the blues I had heard in years," Evans says. "It's interesting that it has taken such a long time for performers like Junior to catch on."

Evans was impressed enough with Kimbrough to invite him and other North Mississippi blues players like R.L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill to Memphis to record their music. Those tracks, recorded for the U of M's Highwater label, went largely ignored for more than 15 years, regarded as the interesting, scholarly documentation of an obscure strain of blues. Until now.

Evans is currently preparing 20 CDs worth of material from the Highwater vaults, much of it featuring the North Mississippi musicians, for reissue on the Hightone blues label. Why, after almost 20 years in the vault, are these recording being reissued now? Because Kimbrough and the other North Mississippi bluesmen are suddenly the biggest things on the blues horizon, despite being known at home for decades.

In fact, Junior is very well known around Marshall County. Born in Hudsonville, Mississippi, on July 28, 1930, he has lived almost his entire life there.

When he was 8 years old, Junior had his first drink of whiskey and picked up his first guitar. Both habits have stuck with him. At first, he learned guitar by sneaking his father's and older brother's instruments out of their hiding places when the older men went off to work. Junior learned his music at the feet of masters like "Mississippi" Fred McDowell and local legend Eli Green, an "evil man" who is rumored to have had voodoo powers.

When he was 24, Junior ventured for the first time outside the Mississippi hill country. Like many other bluesmen, including the great Muddy Waters, he followed the African-American post-war exodus north. He landed first in Chicago in 1954 and then, in 1958, in Memphis, where he recorded his first songs for Sam Phillips' father. But by 1959, around the time Lomax was recording McDowell in Como, Junior had moved back home to Marshall County.

For the next 30 years or so, Junior worked around the area as a sharecropper, a mechanic, and, some say, a moonshiner. But his best-known occupation these many years has been that of juke-joint proprietor. Through a succession of locations, Junior's juke has been one of the most popular spots in Marshall County, famous for the long summer-night parties and the lazy Sunday-afternoon jams.

"Junior seems to be the one guy in Marshall County who has really kept the blues going in a live sense," says Evans.

Over time, word of the man, the music, and the place has spread into the surrounding country. For years, blues fans, the hip, and the curious have searched the backroads of North Mississippi looking for Junior and his juke. Rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers found them; so did the late Memphis musician Lee Baker. Both men cited Junior as an influence.

But by the time Robert Palmer and Dave Stewart pulled up outside Junior's juke joint during one of those famous Sunday-afternoon jams, to most people outside the immediate area Junior's was still just a rumor.

Junior's hypnotic performances in Deep Blues, together with those of his contemporaries R.L. Burnside, Jesse Mae Hemphill, and Othar Turner, created a hunger for this exotic, "new" style of blues, which was rawer and darker and thus seemed more "real" than the safe, generic blues that had dominated the popular market for so long.

"I think the stuff that's coming out of Mississippi is the most exciting thing to happen to the blues in a long time," says producer Jim Dickinson, who has known Junior and his fellow musicians for decades. "One of the things I find interesting is that a lot of "blues fans" don't perceive it [North Mississippi blues] as the blues at all. That's because, unfortunately, to a lot of people the blues has become a fat, greasy white guy from Boston."

Another of those fed up with the current state of the popular blues genre is Fat Possum co-founder Matthew Johnson. In 1991, Johnson was living in Oxford, working at the publication Living Blues, and "trying to get back into Ole Miss or going back to Ole Miss, I can't remember." While working at Living Blues, Johnson and a co-worker named Peter Lee were dismayed with the number of bad blues recordings coming to them in the mail. "We'd get these wanna-be Buddy Guy clones from Los Angeles or, worse, Iceland. That'd be the problem."

Their solution was to start their own label, Fat Possum, dedicated to recording some of the much more genuine blues artists who still toil in anonymity at the weekend fish fries and in the juke joints of Mississippi.

Soon after the release of Deep Blues in 1992, Fat Possum signed Kimbrough to his first record deal. In 1993, after more than 40 years of playing music, Junior released his first record, the critically acclaimed All Night Long. "That record really put us on the map," says Johnson.

Another Kimbrough disc, Sad Days, Lonely Nights, followed in 1993, and since then Fat Possum has become the outlet for North Mississippi blues, issuing albums by such artists as the late CeDell Davis, Paul "Wine" Jones, Dave Thompson, and Junior's own son David Kimbrough Jr., recording under the last name Malone. But by far the most popular Fat Possum artist is R.L. Burnside. Four years older than Junior, R.L. has managed to build a larger following through constant touring and his high-profile collaborations with New York art rocker Jon Spencer.

But though Junior hasn't reached the same level of success as his friend Burnside, no North Mississippi bluesman is held in higher regard than he, even by Burnside's collaborators. "Although I've done some recording with R.L., I was more into Junior at first," Spencer recently told Option magazine. "His stuff was a little weirder. Junior is the man, as far as that scene goes."

"YOU CAN FIND JUNIOR MOST days down at Aikei Pro's Record Shop in Holly Springs," says Fat Possum's Watson.

Located in an alley just off the town square, Aikei Pro's Record Shop is not just that; it is also an appliance repair store, information center, and unofficial community center. The back alleys surrounding the Holly Springs town square are traditionally where the area's African Americans have congregated. In the past, the alleyways would have been lined with cafes and juke joints selling the only liquor allowed in the otherwise dry county, but today Aikei Pro's remains about the only gathering spot amd a tame one at that.

Reigning over Aikei Pro's is a man everyone calls Mr. Caldwell, a 70-year-old army veteran who dispenses wisdom and 15-cent cigarettes to the many people, young and old, who roost around his shop to listen to music, talk, and play cards. Caldwell, who was born in Nebraska, moved to Holly Springs in the '50s. "I came here to make a change of what was going on," Caldwell says.

Caldwell, who is considered homework for Southern Studies students from Ole Miss just down Highway 7, is a font of local history. History is very important to Caldwell. He understands that the past, atrocities and all, is the key to the future and understanding. And in a community like Holly Springs, Caldwell says, a people's music is the key to their history. "For a long time we didn't have nothing but our music," he says. "We didn't have education. The white folks wouldn't let us, but we had the blues."

We are supposed to be meeting Junior at Aikei Pro's at 10 a.m., but as 10:30 rolls by and Caldwell's stories roll on, Junior hasn't shown up. We ask Caldwell to take us to Junior.

We follow Caldwell to a modest apartment complex just east of the town square. There, in one of the ground-floor apartments, stirring himself up into a sitting position on the couch as we walk in, is the man who stares out at you from all those album covers, his shirt off, wearing blue slacks and one shoe, the right one. His exposed foot is swollen with a round scar on the top of it. "I dropped some hot oil on my foot," Junior explains as he settles himself on the couch.

No sooner are we in the door than Caldwell excuses himself; he has to get back to the store and get some work done. I take a seat in a metal folding chair across from Junior and next to the television, which is showing America's Funniest Home Videos, a program that apparently interests Junior a lot more than I do.

For more than an hour we talk about his family: "I got 36 children, not by the same woman though."

about the road: "I ain't never like to stay on the road too long. It just wears you out."

about songwriting: "I can be laying down at night, and a song will come to my head. If I get up and play it I'll remember it, but if I don't it'll just go away."

about hanging out at Aikei Pro's: I don't go up there so much anymore. They work me too hard up there, talking and everything."

about his health: "I had me a stroke a few years back. Now, I've got high blood pressure and heart problems."

about his juke joint: "I don't play there so often anymore. I given it over mostly to my sons, [guitarist] David and [drummer] Kinney."

about his approach to music: "When I first started I played other people's music, but then I started playing my own music. Now I just sing my own way, my own style."

and about fame: "I've done that. I've been on TV. It's not no big thing to me."

Can we get some pictures of you with your guitar? Kimbrough reaches for a leather case in the corner and brings out a baby-blue acoustic-electric Les Paul with gold fittings, which he says he won in a contest. "They only made 100 of these guitars. Me, Buddy Guy, and a couple of others are all that have them," he says, obviously proud.

He tunes the guitar and starts to play, and a smile stretches across his face. If he was paying us any mind before, he's not now.

As we get up to leave. I shake his hand and tell him I'm looking forward to seeing him play when he comes to town this week.

"Yeah," he says. "I'm going to try and make it. I never know these days. I hope I'll make it."

In Oxford the same day, I am in the offices of Fat Possum talking to Johnson. "So, you met Junior," he says. "What'd you think?"

I tell him about our short interview, during which I'm pretty sure I spoke more than he did.

"Yeah, Junior's got a good poker face," Johnson says. "He doesn't give much away except his music."

Sui Generis Southern

The third annual Dixie Fried Festival mixes the best of old blues and new rock.

by Jim Hanas

FIRST IT WAS TWO DAYS AT BAR-risters downtown. Then it was three days at Barristers in Midtown. This year, it'll be two days and won't be at Barristers at all, but at the Center for Southern Folklore on Beale Street, which -- one way or another -- might just be where it belongs.
Since the Dixie Fried Festival came into its own last year as a sort of cross-cultural microcosm of Memphis music, it's good to have it in a place where some lucky tourists just might stumble in and get a little of what they don't print in the guidebooks.
In its first year at Barristers downtown, the Dixie Fried was dominated, not by the blues, but by blues exploders -- young bands mixing blues and rockabilly influences with a generous dose of punk rock. Last year, however, was when it took a turn toward being the unique event that will hopefully be with us for years to come. The three-day festival at Barristers' temporary Midtown location included performances by Big Lucky Carter, Cordell Jackson, Impala, Lorette Velvette, R.L. Burnside, and the Oblivians, among others. And while the festival has been abbreviated to two days this year, a look at the lineup suggests that the extra day was cut without any loss of vision. This year's festival is just more compact.
Here's what it looks like. The order of performances is entirely speculative, so just get there early and you shouldn't miss a thing.
Friday night features a couple of blues acts and a couple of bands that rock the blues way up -- in other words, a perfect balance.
The Oblivians' appearance will be a rare one these days, since they've been doing some extensive touring in support of their latest record Popular Favorites, released last year by Crypt Records. The last time they came back from touring, their live shows were untouchable, introducing just enough finesse into garage-rock to make it a legitimate thing of beauty.
Jeff Evans, the onetime Jon Spencer collaborator and sole constant of '68 Comeback, has been working the same trashy vein for years, before the Oblivians, and before Jon Spencer for that matter. If blues-induced garage-rock can have a guru, anybody can tell you that Evans is it.
On the blues side, Wilroy Sanders will venture out of Green's Lounge for the event. Since he owns and runs the place, he probably doesn't get to do that often, but the longtime member of the Fieldstones is already hitting a wider audience, with a recent single on Shangri-La Records featuring two tracks recorded live at Green's.
Friday will likely end with Frank Frost and Sam Carr. Carr, blues drummer and son of legendary slide guitarist Robert
Nighthawk, and Frost, who learned to blow the harp while backing Sonny Boy Williamson, are best known for their collaboration with Big Jack Johnson in the Jelly Roll Kings. Friday, they'll be joined by Luther Dickinson of DDT on bottleneck slide, who's been gigging with them since Easter.
Saturday, things get under way early with a matinee show by duck-walking bluesman Robert "Bilbo" Walker, followed by what could be called the Center for Southern Folklore House Band featuring boogie piano player Mose Vinson, drummer L.T. Lewis, and jazz saxaphonist Frank Ford.
With nightfall comes a performance by twangy chanteuse Lorette Velvette, who's hard at work on a new full-length record and who recently returned from performances with ex-Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker and the Kropotkins in New York.
After that, Saturday night is a virtual replay of the finale of last year's Dixie Fried. Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band will lead the processional right up to the performance of the North Mississippi All Stars, one of the many moods of DDT. Saturday night, the All Stars will include -- in addition to papa Jim and Luther and Cody Dickinson -- soul diva Kelley Hurt, who recently returned from New York, and gospel bassist Chris Chew, who recently joined the DDT fold when Paul Taylor left for Big Ass Truck. And then the evening closes out with a bang as Holly Springs bluesman Junior Kimbrough takes the stage.
There you have it: an event that actually reflects the much-ballyhooed diversity and eclecticism of Memphis music. But, please, be kind to the tourists. They need to see this too.

Dixie Fried Festival

Center for Southern Folklore
Friday, June 20th
(music starts at 9 p.m.)
The Oblivians, '68 Comeback, Wilroy Sanders.
Saturday, June 21st (music starts at 3 p.m.) Robert "Bilbo" Walker; Mose Vinson, L.T. Lewis, Fred Ford & Friends; Lorette Velvette; Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band; The North Mississippi All Stars; Junior Kimbrough.
Tickets: $10 each night, $15 for both (available at the Center and Shangri-La Records).

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