The Curmudgeon: New and Old Masters of the Mississippi Blues

Music Features North Mississippi Allstars
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The Curmudgeon: New and Old Masters of the Mississippi Blues

The North Mississippi Allstars (from left: Sharde Thomas, Luther Dickinson, Carl Dufresne and Cody Dickinson)

Driving through northern Mississippi, one is immediately struck by how empty and how poor the area is. One can drive for miles along the state highways and see only a handful of small houses and farms amid the tall walls of pine trees. And yet from this underpopulated, underemployed corner of the American South came a version of the blues that sparked much of the nation’s most original music. And recent albums from the North Mississippi Allstars and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes proves this music is still throwing off sparks today.

The blues popped up everywhere in the South that enslaved Africans and their descendants gathered in any numbers. But nowhere did the blues remain as close to its old-world origins—to the sounds that one can still hear in rural West Africa—as it did in North Mississippi. Because segregation was so profound in this region, the African character of the music was less changed and survives in a purer state.

When we say this form of the blues is more African, we mean it makes fewer concessions to European harmony and less compromises with American sentimentality. This music rarely uses the I-IV-V pattern of the blues, because it believes three chords are one too many. The North Mississippi blues taps into something elemental from a time before African and European music made contact.

This music’s muscular rhythmic drive is restrained by its lack of chordal movement, and the resulting tension mirrors the conflict at the heart of human nature: the immensity of desire and the equal enormity of frustration. The isometric strain of these colliding forces creates the most powerful push-and-pull in music. That taut pressure becomes all the more disorienting when the musicians throw time signatures and bar lines out the window, allowing the downbeat to fall wherever it feels good.

The Mississippi Delta gets all the publicity, but the best examples of this phenomenon can be found just northeast of the Delta in the Mississippi Hill Country and just southeast of the Delta in Yazoo County. These areas were too hilly and too unproductive for the kind of giant plantations established on the Delta flatlands, so the small farms owned and/or worked by black families were ignored and allowed to practice their own culture.

In the early 1960s, when folklorists began visiting these areas in search of overlooked gems, they found Skip James in Yazoo County’s Bentonia, singing in a haunting falsetto and playing guitar in an open E-minor tuning in an eerie echo of African griots as filtered through Bahamian islanders.

They found Mississippi Fred McDowell and his protégé R.L. Burnside playing push-and-pull one-chord vamps surprisingly similar to the Malian kora players discovered a little later. Most astonishing of all, they found Othar “Otha” Turner cutting sugar-cane stalks into wind instruments and using them as the basis for call-and-response fife-and-drum bands that echoed African village ceremonies.

Listen to “Mississippi” Fred McDowell perform at the Newport Folk Festival:

The North Mississippi Allstars’ terrific new album, Up and Rolling, features singer/guitarist Luther Dickinson, who apprenticed himself to Turner and Burnside at the beginning of his career, and singer/percussionist Cody Dickinson—Luther’s brother, co-producer and longtime bandmate. Their father was legendary Memphis blues-rocker Jim Dickinson, who moved his family to a farm in Woodville, Miss., to get closer to the music’s roots.

Contributing to the album’s impact are Sharde Thomas (Turner’s granddaughter and current Allstar), Cedric Burnside (R.L.’s grandson and his longtime drummer), Garry Burnside (R.L.’s son and Junior Kimbrough’s bassist), Duane Betts (Dickie Betts’ son), Mavis Staples (daughter of North Mississippi guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples), Charles Hodges (the Hi Rhythm Section’s keyboardist) and Jason Isbell (north Alabama guitarist).

Luther explains all these connections and the history behind them in a long, lively essay that comes in a 24-page booklet accompanying the new album. Illustrating the story are some striking black-and-white shots of North Mississippi musicians by Texas photographer Wyatt McSpadden—10 of them from 1996 (when Luther was 23 and Otha was 89) and 10 from the making of this record in 2019. Here’s one more example of the rewards of owning physical copies of albums.

The most impressive thing about these family and regional links, however, is the music contained within the album’s packaging. You can hear the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next on the opening track, “Call That Gone,” an old Otha Turner chant that the four core Allstars open up into a psychedelic extravaganza without ever once betraying the tune’s original spirit.

Luther and Sharde recreate the original call-and-response from the days when her grandfather would lead the song at one of his famous picnics. But as the rhythm section of Cody and bassist Carl Dufresne push the beat ever forward, Luther’s electric slide guitar and Sharde’s sugarcane fife lift the call-and-response into wild tangents of improvisation.

Watch North Mississippi Allstars perform at The Paste Studio in New York:

Cody stirs up the funk with help from Charles Hodges’ B-3 organ on Thomas Dorsey’s old hymn “What You Gonna Do,’ famously sung by Pops Staples in 1965 and here reprised by his daughter. While Mavis sings, Luther refashions her father’s pointillistic Mississippi guitar work for a new century.

On R.L.’s “Out on the Road,” the uptempo, two-chord blues boogie is sung as a raucous duet by Luther and Cedric, while Cody’s aggressive drumming knocks the groove out of one shape and into another. On Junior Kimbrough’s “Lonesome in My Home,” the harrowing depression of this slow blues is emphasized by the distant echo in Luther’s lead vocal and in the string-pushing quarter tones of his guitar parts. Another Dorsey hymn with another Luther/Cedric duet, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” proves how bluesy even gospel music can sound in North Mississippi.

Balancing these new arrangements of old songs are four new Luther compositions that demonstrate how the Hill Country blues continues to evolve out of its origins. If you are tempted to look at this music as a quaint historic relic, listen to Luther and Sharde singing how they “grew up on Mississippi hippie tripping LSD” with a swirling guitar riff to prove their point. The Allstars are the center of a vigorous scene of North Mississippi musicians under the age of 50 finding new uses for old sounds.

Many of R.L.’s children and grandchildren are trying to carry on the family business as professional musicians. Duwayne Burnside was a member of the Allstars for two albums and has also worked with his brother Garry as the Burnside Exploration duo. But the most successful of the younger generation has been Cedric. He has absorbed his grandfather’s feel for the Hill Country groove, handling it so naturally that he never messes it up with hype or flash. He also has R.L’s work ethic, consistently delivering solid shows every time he takes the stage.

He did it again at the Newport Folk Festival this summer in a strong set with his current duomate, guitarist Brian Jay. Cedric, tall and bald behind his drum kit, locked into the groove with Jay as if it were the early days of the Black Keys. The two musicians provided plenty of sound for songs such as Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long,” first establishing the groove and then taking turns at short but effective bursts of aggressive improvisation.

Cedric’s latest album is last year’s Benton County Relic, which makes the duo sound like a classic Hill Country blues act. It’s no surprise that Cedric is a fine drummer, because he displayed those chops for years behind his grandfather. But his baritone voice is a marvel, crisply clear and strong enough to cut through a nightclub’s ambient noise. He can pull off a party song, but he’s at his best on a song like “Hard To Stay Cool,” where he can evoke both the temptation of anger and the effort to control oneself.

Watch Cedric Burnside perform at the Paste Studio in Austin, Texas:

One grandmaster of the Mississippi blues is not only alive but still in full command of his powers. That’s Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the wiry, irascible, 72-year-old heir to the Bentonia blues tradition of Skip James, Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens. Holmes is not only a spellbinding singer and guitarist but also a remarkable songwriter who reaches beyond the usual swagger of the blues to the doubts and dread at its core.

Holmes has never received the status his immense talent deserves, even though he’s released nine albums, appeared in three different film documentaries (2015’s I Am the Blues, 2012’s We Juke Up in Here and 2008’s M for Mississippi) and attracted plenty of advocates, including this magazine.

But Holmes has never had an advocate as influential as the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who acted as producer and second guitarist on Holmes’ new album, Cypress Grove, released on Auerbach’s own label, Easy Eye Sound. Never has Holmes’ music sounded so crisp and clear coming off a recording.

The album begins with an unaccompanied Holmes performing “Hard Times” by Skip James, the patron saint of Yazoo County. Holmes’ unhurried guitar part and anguished tenor reinforce the desolation of the poverty described in the lyrics. Bassist Eric Deaton and drummer Sam Bacco join Holmes on the album’s title track, another James composition.

Auerbach’s guitar makes it a quartet on “Catfish Blues” by Yazoo County’s Robert Petway. When Holmes asks a woman, “Can I go home with you?” his longing and desire burn in the back of his throat, and Auerbach makes it sting with a modern-rock guitar solo.

Most of the album features this quartet, and most of the tracks are devoted to covers of songs by Mississippi natives James, Petway, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Only three of Holmes’ own compositions are featured, including the title tracks from his 2012 album All Night Long and his 2008 masterpiece Gonna Get Old Someday. Seldom has a song acknowledged and faced down the decline that confronts us all with such bracing honesty as that one.

The cover of that 2008 recording is a photo of the distinctive blue-and-white façade of the Blue Front Café in downtown Bentonia. Holmes inherited the eatery from his parents and has kept it open as a nerve center of Yazoo County blues ever since. When I visited the café in 2017, I was surprised by how small and scruffy the concrete-floor interior was. But when Holmes sat down in a folding chair to play a handful of tunes, suddenly the place seemed a palace of the blues.

It’s like that in north Mississippi. The buildings and vehicles bear the wear and scars of scarce money and scarcer opportunity. But out of those humble facilities and those “Hard Times,” as Skip James put it, has come some of the greatest art this nation has ever produced. It’s not always obvious where to find the key locations, but if you ask around you can find them.

That’s how I made it to Junior’s Place, Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi, in 1996, the same year the ramshackle building was captured in the photo that now appears on the cover of Up and Rolling. A small sign hand-scrawled on the front door announced, “2.00 admission. No dope allowed in or on grounds.” Inside, a new pool table stood at one end of the concrete floor and an old oil-barrel stove at the other.

Along the high ceiling in the middle were hand-painted portraits of Oprah Winfrey, Diana Ross and other good-looking black women. Behind the wooden pillars supporting the low ceiling on each side were old armchairs and sofas and a young woman selling beer out of a cooler. Someone had thrown gold glitter into the blue paint when it was still wet and the whole room sparkled.

R.L. Burnside, wearing a blue concrete-factory baseball cap and a plaid shirt, settled into a metal folding chair in front of a hand-painted mural of a tropical beach. His son Garry plugged in his bass and grandson Cedric plopped down behind the drums. R.L. hit a hard chordal riff on his old Stratocaster and while it still rang, he added a strangled single-note phrase.

As the rhythm section fell in behind him, R.L. repeated this syncopated combination again and again with the subtlest of variations until it became a hypnotic drone so ancient and so raw that it reminded one more of long-dead bluesmen like Robert Pete Williams and Bukka White and West Africans such as Ali Farka Toure and Dembo Konte than anyone else in contemporary blues.

Junior died in 1998, and two years later his juke joint burned to the ground. Otha died in 2003, R.L. in 2005, and Jim Dickinson in 2009. Holmes is the last in that generation of giants, but a new generation has come along to keep a bit of African creativity alive in America’s forgotten corner.

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