COTTON PATCH KIDS
The first thing I noticed when I got to the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival in Holly Springs, MS, for a daytime van tour of north Mississippi hill country blues sites was that the van had left early. I had left Memphis a touch late and was reassured when I pulled up to the wet field outside the Hut, the juke joint where the fest was to be held, on time. I assumed that we would all be on Mississippi time.
Turned out the bus was actually a caravan of cars and we caught up with them at their second stop, the old Chewalla Rib Shack, a cabin built in the 1820s where Junior Kimbrough held court in Chulahoma once a week in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before moving to his own juke joint. Next door was Mr. Sam Greer, who was the proprietor of the shack and was serving lunch and homemade wine and moonshine, to those of us on the tour: delicious ox, chicken, and sweet potato pie. He was gracious about his stories as well, telling us about how many ribs he used to sell, how Junior used to wake up and play guitar, and telling us that his football plays helped snap a local high school football losing streak. Little Joe Ayers, who played in Kimbrough’s band, played acoustic guitar in the corner, while people poured themselves portions out of plastic gallon jugs he had set out. We also saw the old site of Junior’s Juke Joint, which burned down around the same time that its host passed.
(A brief word about the terminology: though it’s popularly known as North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, Junior himself called it Cotton Patch Soul Blues and even named his band the Soul Blues Boys and the festival title is preferred nomenclature. In this review, Cotton Patch will mean North Mississippi Hill Country.)
On to the fest itself: a stage was set outside of the juke for the main event. Robert Kimbrough, Sr. Blues Connection kicked it off and Robert was game, though he apologized for the hoarseness of his voice. I guess a weekend of juking can take a toll on anyone. He played slashing, emotive guitar, sometimes atop a Cotton Patch groove and sometimes atop a modern blues sound. After the first of many versions of “All Night Long,” he quickly ceded the stage to a series of other performers, vowing to return later in the night before retreating to smile at the merch booth with a pint bottle. The Kimbrough Brothers were the most faithful act of the nnight to Junior’s own sound and they unleashed dancers in front of the stage.
Lucious Spiller, a veteran of Fenton Robinson’s band, unleashed his Stratocaster with a set that alternated the fiery and the deeply felt. He closed with a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Hey Joe,” made famous by Jimi Hendrix, both of which he made his own. As a Clarksdale musician, he arrived as if an ambassador from a whole different style of blues.
The Hut’s food consisted of fried fish sandwiches, burgers, and pulled pork while another vendor offered delicious cracklins and BBQ-spiced pork rinds. Appropriately, NYC’s Pork Chop Willie played a welcome and capable set of steady-grooving RL Burnside tunes backed by members of the Burnside clan; one of the more memorable moments was when the stage lights briefly faltered but the groove drove relentlessly while leader Bill Hammer played tight slide guitar.
The tanktop-clad Jesse Cotton Stone joked that he was going to keep performing until kicked off the stage; his Cotton Patch-inspired originals allowed him to stretch out on inventive, grooving solos on his SG guitar, including while wandering through the delighted crowd.
GRAMMY nominee RL Boyce, whose annual picnic is another Hill Country Blues must-see, later performed as well.
A friendly, intimate event where one could interact personally with all of the performers on hand, the 2019 fest was only the third edition and also featured an exhibit of female photographers, a workshop on playing Cotton Patch Soul Blues music, a cooking demonstration, juke joint dance lessons, and an open jam. It also served to launch the new NYC-based label Go Ape! Records, featuring live albums by RL Boyce & The Thunder Band; and Robert Kimbrough, Sr. BluesConnection. Hopefully, there will be many more Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festivals to come.