Rockin’ Chair: Headed For The Hills

By: Tom Speed

Kenny Brown
In the documentary film, You See Me Laughin', bluesman Kenny Brown explains how, after struggling to learn to play guitar from a chord book, he sought out his next door neighbor Joe Callicottt to learn the blues. "I started with Joe," says Brown, "and he'd just say, 'Hit it like this boy,' and he'd start playing." After that first meeting, Brown visited Callicottt before getting on the school bus nearly every morning. When Callicott died, Brown sought out R.L. Burnside, who took him under his wing. Brown became Burnside's right-hand man, guitar player and unofficial adopted son for the next several decades.

Blues, like most forms of folk music, thrives by being passed down from one person to another like this. Learning how to play, and what to play, is an intimate transfer of not just knowledge, but of feel and of soul.

In today's dizzying cloud of binary information, music has no geographical boundary. Anybody anywhere can listen to another musician's music. Videos show what notes to play when. Those ones and zeros can show the what, but not the why or the how. There is no substitute for playing alongside someone and locking into the unique communication that occurs when two people are playing music together.

Here in North Mississippi, we have our own brand of blues. It's the Hill Country blues of Joe Callicott, R.L. Burnside and Kenny Brown. While the better-known style of Delta blues was born just down the road, the Hill Country sound is less adorned but saturated with greasy groove. Its hypnotic hum wrings a single note for every last ounce of feeling. This can take hours. The one note can pulsate and grow, fed by dancers who refill that vacated space by wringing. Rinse. Repeat.

One doesn't normally think of hills when thinking of Mississippi. Images of the low, flat expanse of the delta, cotton fields, marshland, pine plantations (or these days, casinos) come to mind. But in the northeast corner of the state, green-hued hills ramble over the landscape, draped in kudzu and made of mud. Technically, it's the last remnants of the Appalachian range - the toenails of the foothills. The highest point in the state, Woodall Mountain in Tishomingo County, is just 800 feet.

North Mississippi Allstars
Today, the most famous progenitors of Hill Country blues are the North Mississippi Allstars. As much as anybody, they've spread the gospel of this area's sound around the world with their relentless touring schedule. They grew up listening to the masters of the genre, folks like Burnside, Otha Turner and Junior Kimbrough. The music was passed to them as it has been passed down for generations. They learned it because people played all the time - on the front porch, in the living room, at picnics and house parties. Otha Turner's picnics were the most legendary. Hundreds of people would gather together to play and listen to music, eat, drink and dance. This could take hours.

Now that these patriarchs have gone on to the great juke joint in the sky the tradition is kept alive by Kenny Brown. For the third year in a row, he's hosted his own picnic. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic takes place around the 4th of July (the 4th and 5th this year) in Potts Camp, Mississippi, just down the road from the site of Junior Kimbrough's infamous juke joint. On the weekend of this year's picnic, the Mississippi Blues Commission will place an historical marker at that site in honor of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The non-profit organization that hosts the picnic has been instrumental in this effort, along with the Holly Springs Tourism and Recreation Bureau.

North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic 2007
"The Picnic," as it's already come to be called, is a comforting respite from today's heavily promoted, corporate-sponsored mega-fests. The picnic is in a cow pasture. You can bring your own beer. The local boy scouts pass out free slices of watermelon. The fragrant smell of cut grass mingles with that of beer and barbecue, sweat, and yes, a faint tinge of dung. The morning dew glistens in the flat field. Hay bales and tractor tires take the place of barricades. Honeysuckle vines line the path to the creek, which is cool and clear and just right for wading. It's more party than festival, and you're made to feel more like family than a walking target market.

One of the many acts that will appear at The Picnic this year is a collective known as Afrissippi. Mississippi is known as the home of the blues, but can't truly lay claim to it. It was handed down from person to person, tweaked and turned along the way from African roots. Many artists over many albums and many years have explored those roots. Ali Farke Toure and Ry Cooder's Talking Timbuktu, Corey Harris' Mississippi to Mali among them. The connection with the Hill Country was made with Otha Turner's From Senegal To Senatobia. There are many more.

But, the lineage has perhaps never been explored so directly as with Afrissippi. The genesis of the group dates back to when Senegalese musician Guelel Kumba traveled to Oxford, Mississippi in 2002. He was struck by the similarities of the songs of Junior Kimbrough and the traditional tunes of his native land. Some of the melodies were almost identical. "One day I was playing an old African tune called 'Nduumandi,' and my friend Eric Deaton told me it sounded like Junior Kimbrough," says Kumba. "He made me listen to the record and I realized they were the same."

R.L. Burnside
As a griot of the Fulani people, Kumba is skilled as an oral historian. His people are nomadic, and keeping history alive through song is a defining characteristic of their culture. So, Kumba hooked up with a group of Hill Country blues musicians to explore this tradition and tell his tale with the album Fulani Journey. Those musicians included guitarist Eric Deaton - who had moved to Mississippi to learn under the tutelage of Junior Kimbrough himself – and Junior's son Kinney Kimbrough on drums and bassist Justin Showah rounded out the core group. Guests included Cedric Burnside, Jimbo Mathus, Herman Green and poet John Sinclair. Fulani Journey enjoyed wide critical acclaim for its fusing of these two not disparate styles that share a common origin. It also included a version of "Nduumandi" interspersed with "Hands Off That Girl," the Kimbrough song that Deaton had played for Kumba. The fact that the album was comprised of original Kumba tunes and traditional West African songs but sounded like the hill country only underscores the ancient correlation.

The band's follow-up, the aptly named Alliance, further explores the connection. The songs of Alliance, all written by Kumba, are rapt with passion and intensity. The selections range from heavy hill country drone to percussion-laden tunes that feature call-and-response vocals, and even an a capella track. Kumba sings in his native tongue, Pulaar, but the language here is the music, passed on for decades and centuries and across continents and rekindled here. Ancient blues, revitalized and kept alive from one person to the next.

Like every year so far, The Picnic's lineup also consists of many people named Kimbrough and Burnside. After all, it's a family affair. Participants include Duwayne, Cedric and Garry Burnside in various incarnations. Junior's son David Kimbrough is on the bill, along with the Otha Turner's progeny in the Rising Star Drum & Fife Band. T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart are back. Local rock bands Blue Mountain and Rocket 88 are also part of the fun. And of course, Kenny Brown will close out the festivities with his now-traditional closing set and all-star jam.

It's good fun and a good party, but this year's picnic provides a unique opportunity that, like the picnic itself, formalizes a long held tradition. On July 3rd, there will be a workshop where budding musicians can learn from and play with the current keepers of the flame. Kenny Brown, Cedric, Duwayne and Garry Burnside and Dave and Kinney Kimbrough will all serve as workshop instructors. From person to person, the music remains vital and alive.

So, in all probability, out there in the July heat of a Mississippi cow pasture, with the sun beating down and sweat beading on foreheads, Kenny Brown or Garry Burnside or David Kimbrough will turn to a ten-year old struggling to hold his guitar up, and say, "Hit it like this, boy!"

R. L. Burnside - "Rollin and Tumblin":

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[Published on: 6/25/08]

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lewiscipher starstarstarstarstar Wed 6/25/2008 04:20PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Just one more, if not the most important reason, why Mississippi is the greatest state in the Union! I'm just sayin'...

Ching starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/26/2008 12:05AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Damn right lewis!!!

patchworkslave Thu 6/26/2008 05:56AM
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i concur. Mississippi is the best.

jwgregory starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/26/2008 09:21AM
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I live and play music in Oxford, and let me tell ya I've never heard of a smaller town with a better music scene. Right now you can see high quality hill country blues, experimental jazz, electronic jam, bluegrass, and straight up rock and roll... and all on the same night if you're lucky. That's not to mention out-of-town acts, it's a good place to be right now.

Ching starstarstarstarstar Thu 6/26/2008 09:35AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

well Oxford is a college town but far as music scene its nothing better than Hattiesburg (where the first rock n roll chords/music was ever recorded). Ive always thought and known that Hattiesburg was very underrated when it comes to the music scene. Oxford is a great lil town though no doubt. Oh and MS has the MOST beautiful women!

manlejo Thu 6/26/2008 05:02PM
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I'll give y'all second best- Wisconsin just can't be beat!

youarenotasian Sun 6/29/2008 09:48PM
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Woodall Mt. is 802 ft. Give us some credit!

cjcuster Thu 7/10/2008 03:09PM
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haha Ching I agree totally MS does have the world's most beautiful women. Who can beat that...great music and gorgeous women...sounds like a pretty damn good party to me.