During the 1990s, a legendary but crumbling juke joint in the northern Mississippi hills kept the ‘dirty blues’ of Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Fred McDowell alive. It was run by a Memphis bluesman named David “Junior” Kimbrough. After hearing tales of the music being produced there, Bob Pomeroy, though he lived in Pittsburgh, was desperate to see the place. In the winter of 1993, he and some friends drove down. He reports on what he saw and heard on that trip for PKM.
By Bob Pomeroy
Roughly fifty miles from Memphis, in the hills of northern Mississippi, State Highway 4 rolls over a minor bump in the road, otherwise known as the town of Chulahoma. Here, among the dense kudzu vine and lazy stray dogs was the approximate location of bluesman David “Junior” Kimbrough’s fabled juke joint where, for most of the 1990’s, he held his regular Sunday night house parties.
To see the place one might assume that this dilapidated firetrap had existed for decades, a survivor from the days when legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Mississippi Fred McDowell still walked the earth. That may have been true for the building itself, believed to have previously been a church, another of the many country meeting houses frequently found on the backroads of Mississippi. However, Junior Kimbrough didn’t occupy it until 1991, which is fairly recent on the blues timeline. Here, Kimbrough made it home to the “dirty blues”—of the kind they don’t make any more—where they would miraculously thrive until the end of the 20th century.
Junior’s Place – Junior Kimbrough
I first heard about Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint not too long after it opened, via a short write-up in Eric Friedl’s Wipeout magazine. Before helping to found the Memphis blooze-punk outfit the Oblivians, Friedl, AKA Eric Oblivian, cranked out several issues of this excellent ‘zine devoted to his three main musical obsessions at the time: Japanese noise, Bay Area garage rock from the Mummies, Supercharger, Phantom Surfers, et. al., and to the goings-on in his hometown of Memphis. These interests were pretty close to my own, so, as things went in the bygone days of zine-dom, I dropped a couple of bucks in the mail and soon found myself perusing Friedl’s live show reviews. Among them was a report from one of Junior’s house parties.
“Jr. Kimbrough, live at Jr’s Jook Joint, Holly Springs, MS, June 19, 1991… in the kudzu covered black hills outside of Holly Springs lies Jr. K’s jook joint, not much more than a large shack held together by Mr. K’s irrepressible blues and the funk of the crowd gathered there to get down.”
Reading that review was all it took for me, and I vowed to one day go to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. And the sooner the better, because, you know, such magic never lasts. No matter that I lived 800 miles away in Pittsburgh, PA. Come the winter of 1993, I piled into a car with a couple of friends headed to New Orleans to escape the freezing February weather and, along the way, I wheeled and dealed until I convinced them to make a stopover in Memphis. And I had to sell it too! Unlike me, these guys hadn’t been combing the pages of Wipeout. They weren’t hooked on the Gibson Brothers’ Memphis Sol Today LP. They were into indie-rock. But on that tip, one was a fan of Memphis indie-rockers The Grifters, whose label Shangri-La Records, operated from the famous Memphis record store by the same name. So Shangri-La Records was our first stop when we rolled into town on a Sunday afternoon.
A young woman with a strong Southern accent was working there alone when we dropped by. She immediately sized us up for out-of-towners and struck up a friendly chat, asking “What do y’all plan to do in Memphis?”
I vowed to one day go to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. And the sooner the better, because, you know, such magic never lasts.
So I tossed it out there; I’d hoped to check out Junior Kimbrough’s house party, really assuming when I said it that I’d already missed my chance, as it was Sunday. Surely such wild goings on must have been reserved for Saturday nights. But I was mistaken, still not realizing that Sundays were exactly when the parties took place (I suppose if I had gone back on a calendar and checked the dates in Friedl’s review I would have sorted all of this out in advance, but who did such things?).
“I get off work at 7:00,” she said. “Come back then and pick me up. I’ll take y’all to Junior’s.”
And just like that, a few hours later, we were pulling into that dirt parking lot in Chulahoma beneath a sky full of stars, house party in full swing, and the plywood walls of Junior’s juke joint throbbing.
Before we entered the building, the record store girl—who, it turned out, was Andria Lisle, longtime Memphis underground mover and shaker, writer, record label operator, field recorder and collaborator with Jim and Luther Dickinson—offered a caveat.
“If you feel like dancing, go ahead,” she said. “Just be sure not to cross your feet when you do. It’s considered bad juju around here and will offend some people.”
“I get off work at 7:00,” she said. “Come back then and pick me up. I’ll take y’all to Junior’s.”
Sure enough, the cramped dance floor was crowded with folks moving, jumping, and shuffling to the tight rhythmic patterns played by a trio led by an older gentleman whose silver sideburns spilled out from under a rumpled cap. He stared bleary-eyed from between those chops, and wore a crooked smile while he peeled off repetitive and hypnotic riffs on his electric guitar. I did not recognize this guy. He was not the man I’d read about, but he was fantastic.
“He’s great!” I told our guide. “Who is this guy?”
“R.L. Burnside,” Andria answered politely, her face displaying tolerant forbearance for my ignorance.
R.L. Burnside – Jumper On The Line
Such was my introduction to the music of R.L. Burnside. By some stroke of dumb luck, I’d bumbled my way into a room in backwoods Mississippi to behold his greatness on his home turf, in a period just before he would break to a larger, mostly underground rock audience in the U.S. and Europe. There he sat, just a few feet away, playing barehanded guitar and wearing the quizzical smile of a seasoned, charmed troublemaker, alternating sets with the mighty Junior Kimbrough.
The four main stars of their style of blues—a style particular to this area of Northwest Mississippi, a style which some of have dubiously labeled “Hill Country Blues”—would, of course, be Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Lesser known but no less brilliant figures were Ranie Burnette and Joe Callicot, and still carrying on in this vein today, R.L. Boyce. McDowell, the elder statesman, was first recorded in the field in 1959 by now legendary and problematic folklorist/ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax. Lomax’s “discovery” of McDowell led to larger audiences for the bluesman, arguably one of the greatest bottleneck players to ever handle a slide. McDowell was booked extensively on the ‘60s folk circuit in the U.S. and Europe, cut records for Arhoolie and other labels, and eventually had his tune “You Got To Move” covered by the Rolling Stones.
R.L. Burnside was likewise first recorded in the field, by George Mitchell during Mitchell’s now famous field recording trip in the summer of 1967. This trip is detailed in Mitchell’s books Blow My Blues Away (1971, Louisiana State University Press) and Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 (2013, University Press of Mississippi). Junior Kimbrough cut his first sides under the name “Junior Kimbell” for Sam Phillips’ Philwood label in 1968. One of these tracks was a raw, funked-up take on the Lowell Fulson soul blues hit “Tramp”, recorded at the Select-O-Hits studio in Memphis. Kimbrough likely made it onto the Philwood label on the recommendation of his friend, original Sun rockabilly Charlie Feathers, who also cut some “comeback” sides for the label around the same time.
Fred McDowell died in 1973, his funeral attended by everyone who was anyone on the longhair Memphis Rock ‘n’ Roll scene, including Jim Dickinson. On this last matter, Andria Lisle, the Shangri-La Records employee, offered an anecdote. Dickinson was accompanied to McDowell’s funeral by his wife, Mary, then pregnant with their first son, Luther, who would eventually make a name for himself with his band the North Mississippi All Stars, which, prior to becoming a sort of blues jam band, essentially began as a Fred McDowell cover band. Lisle seemed to offer the story to suggest that perhaps some sort of mystical transmigration of slide guitar mojo might have occurred at the cemetery that day.
Junior and R.L. would not record again until ethno-musicologist and erstwhile editor of Living Blues Magazine, Dr. David Evans, in association with Memphis State University and funded largely by NEA grants, launched High Water Records to release a series of singles. High Water released Jessie Mae Hemphill’s first record “Jessie’s Boogie” b/w “Standing in My Doorway Crying” (High Water 409), R.L.’s great “Bad Luck City” b/w “Jumper Hanging on the Line” (High Water 410), and Ranie Burnette’s “Coal Black Mattie” b/w “Hunger Spell” (High Water 411) all in 1979, and Junior’s “Keep Your Hands Off of Her” b/w “I Feel Good, Little Girl” (High Water 418) in 1982.
On these High Water 45’s both R.L. and Junior are backed by some of the musicians with whom they would play for the rest of their careers, namely Calvin Jackson on drums, and R.L.’s sons, Joseph and Daniel, on guitar and bass, respectively. If the scene at Junior’s joint came to have a real downhome feel, that was due in no small part to the fact the large extended family of musicians there were, for the most part, all related. But an even more important influence on the sound than filial ties, perhaps, was its close connection to another local tradition, fife and drum music. Originating back in what writer Nick Tosches would call the “mists of musical miscegenation,” in the vast and mysterious period before recorded music, Southern black fife and drum music is likely where the shave-and-a-shine-six-bits Bo Diddley beat came from. It has everything to do with the tight, truncated rhythmic structure of both R.L.’s and Junior’s music where the main song idea is delivered often in just two or four bars and then repeated for hypnotic effect. Fife and drum music, loomed over by the spirits of its master practitioners Othar Turner and Napolean Strickland, has for generations been the perennially preferred party music for North Mississippi country picnics and barbecues. Calvin Jackson is a veteran of the form, as was Jessie Mae Hemphill, whose grandfather, Sid Hemphill, first recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942, also led a fife and drum band whose lineage reached back to the 19th Century. It might be possible to boil things down enough to say that it’s because of Calvin Jackson, and his close ties to this local tradition, that R.L. and Junior always sounded best on their home turf.
Nevertheless, yet another decade would pass after the High Water recordings before R.L. and Junior would cut any more records, that is, not until the Fat Possum label was launched in 1991, the same year that Junior’s joint opened. Originally founded by University of Mississippi students Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, Fat Possum was based in Oxford, just down the road from Chulahoma. Johnson, something of a chancer himself, quickly developed a reputation for scouring the region for talent, drawn to the raw vitality and chaos of the music and personal lives of R.L., Junior, T-Model Ford, Paul “Wine” Jones, Cedell Davis, Aisie Payton, and others.
“I knew I had to record these guys as soon as I saw them,” Johnson has said. On the effect of Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, Johnson explained, “Just going into that place changed everything for me. I saw these old guys 55, 60, that were just rocking. The energy and the rawness of it stopped me in my tracks and I was like, ‘These are the kind of people I want to spend my time with.’”
One aspect of Fat Possum’s handling of the blues was the fact Johnson held academic blues purists in disdain, and rather intended to make the label’s releases appeal to a younger, rock ‘n’ roll audience. At this he ultimately succeeded, thanks to collaborations with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Case in point regarding the appeal among ‘90s underground rockers: Eric Oblivian’s review in Wipeout. It seems worth noting that Friedl described Junior Kimbrough’s music not in the terms of a bluesologist, but rather by comparing it to underground rock ‘n’ roll.
“His music brings the longer early Velvet Underground songs lazily to mind, or how the Spacemen 3 would sound if they played dirty Delta Blues instead of European space-nod rock.”
Matthew Johnson’s and Fat Possum’s approach to making blues records more resembled an updated version of what Ralph Peer did for pre-war labels like Victor, Okeh, Columbia, and others, than that of the ethno-musicologists like Alan Lomax, George Mitchell, or David Evans. Fat Possum, however, seemed to do right by their artists, helping to secure them more income than they’d previously ever known, and rescuing their music from almost certain oblivion. A full color story of Fat Possum and its early roster of stars is told in the 2002 documentary film You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen, directed by Mandy Stein, daughter of Sire Records impresario Seymour Stein. Amazingly, novelist Jay McInerny also wrote a highly entertaining profile of his friend Johnson and the early days of the label for The New Yorker titled “White Man at the Door: One Man’s Mission to Record the ‘Dirty Blues’—Before Everyone Dies” (The New Yorker, February 4, 2002).
Introduction to You See Me Laughin – The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen. Directed by Mandy Stein
The Fat Possum roster kicked off with Junior Kimbrough’s first full-length release, the now classic All Night Long, from 1992. Rightly hailed as one of the best things to happen to the blues for many years, All Night Long brought Junior critical acclaim and an eventual major label deal with Capricorn/Fat Possum. R.L. Burnside’s superb LP Too Bad Jim followed in 1994. Both records were produced by former New York Times music editor and author of Deep Blues, Robert Palmer (also the guy responsible for bringing that Eurythmics dude to R.L.’s doorstep), and were recorded at Junior’s juke joint. Palmer also penned the liner notes for Too Bad Jim. For someone who professed contempt for blues purists, Johnson sure picked a pretty major bluesologist for a collaborator. In his notes, Palmer attempts to define so-called Hill Country Blues, crediting the region’s relative isolation, agricultural economy, and the fife and drum tradition for helping to cultivate and preserve the music’s distinct sound.
“Back up in those wooded hills,” Palmer writes. “Communities still experience an isolation no longer encountered in the Delta.” Here Palmer also asserts that these Hill Country Blues issue from an old and well-established tradition, and that “the slashing, droning trance blues which Mississippi Fred passed on to R.L. apparently owes very little to any other blues tradition.”
However, if you go looking for a deep tradition of Hill Country Blues, you’ll quickly discover that it’s not really there. Most consider Fred McDowell to be the original bossman of the style, but he was “discovered” by Alan Lomax in 1959, by which time the big names of the blues, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williams and a hundred others, were all pretty well known. As to who might have taught Mississippi Fred, McDowell did mention an “Uncle Gene” (Gene Shields) as the one who showed him how to craft a slide from an old steak bone. But good luck finding documentation of any previous Hill Country Blues guitar players. In fact, McDowell cited Charley Patton, King of the Delta Blues (and, yes, there’s a difference), whom he often heard play, as a major influence. And in Patton’s “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”, for example, you hear the same single chord hypnotic repetition that the so-called Hill Country Blues is known for. The same could be said of the churning “breakdowns” played by Dr. Isaiah Ross, of Detroit by way of Tunica, MS, as well as the droning slide guitar stylings of Bukka White.
Mississippi Fred McDowell plays “Louise”
What’s more, R.L. Burnside didn’t just hang around on the farm until George Mitchell came along to record him. R.L. had lived in Chicago for a few years before returning to Mississippi, and had even hung out at Muddy Waters’ house, since a cousin of his had married the Hootchie Cootchie Man himself, and this at a time in the late 1940s when Waters was helping to create Chicago Blues. Also worth noting, Too Bad Jim features two Lightnin’ Hopkins songs on it, and R.L. credits him and John Lee Hooker among his influences.
Of any of the Hill Country Blues stars, Junior Kimbrough came closest to adhering to this notion that his music had developed in isolation. Until fame came knocking on his door, he’d hardly ever left the state of Mississippi. Junior claimed to have been an entirely self-taught guitarist, and his singular playing, which combines equal parts drone effect and searing, melodic lines that match his wailing vocals, attests to that. He also claimed to only play his own, original music, and, for the most part, his recorded output confirms this. Still, as mentioned earlier, there’s that Lowell Fulson cover he did. So the notion of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough having been isolated up in the hills starts to crumble. Eventually one begins to see that a term like “Hill Country Blues” is just another category fabricated by the bluesologists, the ethno-musicologists, and academics.
“I’m probably responsible, in a way,” Dr. David Evans said, in a 2018 video interview conducted by Amy Verdon. “Just in pointing out that the [Hill Country] blues style is less varied, in a sense more limited in its style. People use the term ‘Hill Country Blues’ they’re talking about three or four artists.”
Apparently, the name stuck.
Jessie Mae Hemphill
Junior Kimbrough kept playing his own house parties and occasionally touring until his death in 1998. R.L. Burnside toured the world extensively, playing to ever increasing audiences and commanding bigger fees until his death in 2005. Meanwhile the Fat Possum roster grew to include T Model Ford, Paul “Wine” Jones, Hasil Adkins, and more. By the mid-1990s Junior’s juke joint was on the radar of any number of touring rock bands that passed through the Memphis area, and it was not uncommon to see well known bigwigs in the crowd. Iggy Pop would even cut a version of Junior’s song “You Better Run”. Fat Possum’s desired audience had eventually come to them seeking the pure shit.
Junior Kimbrough – Bellinzonia Blues Festival 1993
R.L. Burnside performs “Miss Maybelle” on Late Night – Nov. 2000. Kenny Brown on guitar, grandson Cedric Burnside on drums.
And, as notoriety grows, so comes the inevitable kiss of death: BONO appears to say a few words in the documentary film about your scene.
I last went to Junior’s juke joint on New Year’s Eve 1994-95. That night, as before, both Junior and R.L. played, but I arrived just as R.L. wrapped up his set and didn’t get to see much of it. Afterward he told us that would be all from him that night as he had to take off to play some other party. Too Bad Jim. In the crowd that night was indie rock warbler befuddler Will Oldham, and a white blues player, unknown to me, who stood stock still before the bandstand, holding his guitar case, waiting for a chance to jam.
While waiting for Junior to start his set, I felt some massive hand splat down onto my shoulder. The hand belonged to The Man himself, who braced his unsteady walking on my skinny frame. That gave me a chance to shake his hand and receive some good mojo for the new year, better than all your black-eyed peas or pork loin and sauerkraut. He then continued his famously long, slow progress toward his rightful throne on the bandstand. Once seated there, guitar in hand, Junior plunked a few reverb-heavy notes and let out his call—that mournful holler that cut through time—“All Night Long”—and repeated it a couple of times until, with a crash of the cymbal, the band joined in. But they only got through a few songs before the guest bluesman with the guitar asked to join in. The band conceded, the guy plugged in and started laying down some fiery flash blues style riffage. Almost immediately Junior set his own guitar down and left the bandstand, seeming to take the old style “dirty blues” with him. Then the guest hotshot really took over, calling a “shuffle in ‘C’,” and the band fell in behind him, making it look easy. But it was now the kind of stuff you could hear just about anywhere. Will Oldham sneered and left the room. Not long after that, the blues walked out the door.