North MS Blues is Alive

Most people you run into at a blues festival are only familiar with the big names in the genre. They’re all familiar with Muddy, B.B., and Buddy but they get a perplexed twist on their faces when the names R.L., Junior, or Mississippi Fred are mentioned.

R.L. is R.L. Burnside, Junior is Junior Kimbrough, and Mississippi Fred is Fred McDowell. I wouldn’t characterize any of these as founders of the blues but each was a major player in a genre that is not that well-known to many festival goers.

These, and others, were the principal players in a sub-genre of blues music known as North Mississippi Hill Country Blues. It is a raunchy, earthy, guttural, and raw sound that evolved from black work songs, field chants, gatherings known as picnics, and run-down juke joints or bars.

It’s a very repetitive rhythm with a strong bass line and well suited to what some might call, “dirty dancing.” Hang around a bar where hill country blues is being played and you won’t see many people sitting quietly at their tables. Most will be on their feet swaying and moving with the beat in almost trance-like states of mind.

The three men I mentioned have passed on but it is good to know that their heirs, and others, are keeping the music alive. Two examples are Cedric Burnside and Cameron Kimbrough, both grandsons of their namesakes.

Cedric was named “Best New Artist Debut” in 2009 and “Best Blues Drummer” in 2010. For several years he performed as one half of Two-Man Wrecking Crew along side guitarist Lightin’ Malcolm. Both have since parted company and formed new bands. Ironically, though, Malcolm has now partnered with Kimbrough who is also a drummer.

On a recent CD, Buddy Guy ask the question, “Who’s gonna’ fill those shoes?” Well, maybe that was a valid question at one time in blues history but, there seems to be a growing army of young players making their way up the ladder. Cedric, Cameron and Malcolm certainly are keeping the hill country tradition alive and not all the older musicians have died off yet. T-Model Ford, in his 90s, is still venturing out as well as playing local festivals and jukes in Mississippi. The popular duo, Black Keys, recently released a CD titled Chulahoma (the MS town where Kimbrough operated a juke joint for many years) that features their take on the music of Junior Kimbrough.

LINKS to YouTube videos of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Fred McDowell.


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