If you study American music you can’t get away from the story of the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues and home to pioneers like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. But East of there, running from northern Mississippi down the middle of the state is a stretch known as the Hill Country, and in recent years this region has at last been acknowledged as a hotbed with its own sound and traditions, perhaps most notably through the rise to fame of the North Mississippi All-Stars. This week on Roots, we’ve pulled together one of the strongest themed lineups of the year, one that draws from the Hill Country, with its strong African roots and its modern grooves.
To help illuminate what you’ll be hearing, I make things easy on myself and quote at length the observations of Justin Showah, founder of Hill Country Records and a member of several of the bands playing this week. He calls the Hill Country sound “a patchwork of different musics that were soaked up by the area’s musicians, from evangelical revival music and all-night country picnics, to string band pickin’ parties and juke house trance-dances.”
More from Justin:
“The story begins with the first field recordings of Senatobia’s blind fife and quill player, Sid Hemphill, in the 1940s, jumps to Marshall County’s Charlie Feathers, inventor of rockabilly, and a guy from the wrong side of Tupelo named Elvis Aaron Presley. From the mind-blowing recordings of Como’s Fred McDowell and Avalon’s John Hurt in the 1950’s and 60’s, to the recent recordings of blues trance legends Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and the goat roast picnics of Otha Turner, the area has established itself as a cultural giant unto itself.”
Justin also sent us sharp notes about each of the night’s performers.
A main pillar of the Hill Country Sound is the endless boogie, and the band Afrissippi brings a relentless fusion-driven sound that melds the traditional Fulani music of Senegal, West African singer-songwriter, Guelel Kumba, with its long-lost offspring, the hill country blues. Kumba sings in his native Pulaar, while backed by members of Junior Kimbrough’s backup band, including Kinney Kimbrough on drums and Eric Deaton on guitar. In 2009 the band completed its second release, Alliance with Jimbo Mathus at Delta Recording in Como, Mississippi.
Shannon McNally and Hot Sauce, from Holly Springs, Mississippi, showcases the singer-songwriter and country-soul aspect of the Hill Country. McNally is touring in support of her latest effort, Coldwater, which was recorded live with the late Jim Dickinson at Zebra Ranch in Independence, Mississippi in 2009. This is her tenth recording. McNally is featured in the emerging artist segment on this edition of Music City Roots, and her amazing voice blurs the lines between country, blues, and soul.
Next up is Kenny Brown who looks part horseman, part bluesman –like a Mississippi version of Townes Van Zandt — and has the country flavored voice to match. As a teen Kenny learned to play at the feet of Hill Country acoustic guitar legend, Joe Calicott and later, cut his teeth touring back-road house parties, ballfields, family reunions, and county-line juke houses with R.L. Burnside in the greater Hill Country area. In the 1990’s, Kenny toured the world with Mr. Burnside and recorded two CDs, Goin Back to Mississippi and Stingray. More recently Brown recorded Meet Ya In the Bottoms and for the past three years, he has hosted the Mississippi Hill Country Picnic near his home in Potts Camp.
Born and raised where Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi meet, near Corinth, Mississippi, and currently residing in Como, songster Jimbo Mathus earned recognition for his hyper-ragtime band, Squirrel Nut Zippers in the 1990s and later collaborated with Buddy Guy as guitarist and arranger on the classic recordings Sweet Tea and Blues Singer. Over the last decade, Mathus turned his concentration towards seven solo records with his project Knockdown South, ranging from a tribute/benefit to Charlie Patton’s daughter, Rosetta, to Mississippi string band, to his recent effort, Jimmy the Kid, a mix of classic honky-tonk and rock-n-roll. Most Recently, Mathus opened Delta Recording Service in Como, Mississippi, and performed and recorded with South Memphis String Band (Luther Dickinson on guitar and Alvin Youngblood Hart on banjo) and the Sons of Mudboy. On Music City Roots, Mathus will have his current band, Tri-State Coalition.
I can’t wait for this one. I had my first taste of the Hill Country sound through the mystical and ancient sound of Otha Turner’s fife and drum band some years ago in Memphis. It’s deeply affecting in both its churning rhythms and scrappy modal melodies. You’ll never otherwise see this kind of sampler of this sound in one place in Nashville, so I think the folks who see this show will be talking about it for a long time. Come join us.