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Boogie Children

Mississippi's Hill Country Blues is Alive and Well, Even Thousands Of Miles Away

PASS THAT (JUKE) JOINT: The Black Keys pay homage to Junior Kimbrough on their latest.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/5/2006

The North Mississippi Allstars

Rams Head Live July 11

When Junior Kimbrough died at age 67 in 1998

, and his legendary juke joint burned down a few months later, it seemed that Mississippi’s Hill Country blues scene was slipping away less than seven years after it had been discovered by the wider world. When R.L. Burnside, the Hill Country’s other giant, started canceling dates due to health and finally died last year, it felt like the most exciting blues scene of the past 40 years had slipped into the past tense. But after a few quiet years, the Hill Country blues have come roaring back over the past 12 months.

The rumpled topography of the Hill Country created small farms rather than giant plantations, intact communities rather than ghost towns decimated by emigration, a thriving music community rather than a remembered past. Those who made the pilgrimage to Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma witnessed a scene where locals still came out to dance to the blues on a Saturday night, where the musicians still played because they were trying to please those dancers. They found drummers whose push-and-pull syncopation still had ties to Africa, guitarists whose one-chord vamps created hypnotic drones, and vocalists whose growls were equal parts dread and lust.

Jim Dickinson, who has produced and played piano for everyone from Big Star to Aretha Franklin, could have made a lot of money in Nashville or Los Angeles but, instead, he chose to raise his sons near Memphis to absorb the nearby culture of the Delta andýHill Country. It worked. Guitarist Luther Dickinson apprenticed himself to Burnside and to the legendary fife-and-drum-band leader Otha Turner before co-founding the North Mississippi Allstars with brother/drummer Cody and gospel bassist Chris Chew. They weren’t an authentic Hill Country blues band—they had absorbed too much from punk, jam bands, and Southern rock—but everything they did reflected the lessons absorbed from the masters.

The latest North Mississippi Allstars album, Electric Blue Watermelon (ATO), was produced by father Jim and opens with a rocking version of Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Boll Weevil” followed by “No Mo,” Luther’s memoir of the brothers’ hip-hop adolescence. The album features some wonderfully melodic Southern rock and some wild jamming with steel guitarist Robert Randolph, but it’s the reunion with Otha Turner on a hypnotic call-and-response chant of “Bounce Ball” that brings the album home to the Hill Country.

On their two previous albums, the Allstars expanded to include Duwayne Burnside, R.L.’s guitarist son. Never gelling with the band, Burnside left at the end of 2004. His second solo album, Under Pressure (B.C.), suggests what Jimi Hendrix might have sounded like if he had grown up near Holly Springs, Miss. The electronic effects and florid fills suggest Woodstock psychedelia, but the grooves underneath are from the neighborhood. The songs are underdeveloped, but the sound is intoxicating—a suggestion of where the Hill Country blues could go next.

Garry Burnside, Junior Kimbrough’s longtime bassist and another son of the prodigious R.L., has teamed up with his nephew Cedric Burnside, R.L.’s longtime drummer, as a duo called the Burnside Exploration. Their debut, The Record (B.C.), also has an unmistakable Hendrix flavor. But the proportions are different here; the Hill Country sound is more prominent, and the songwriting is stronger. On originals such as “You Don’t Love Me,” a man confesses his romantic weakness in a forlorn melody even as his lust and frustration well up in the buzzing guitars and thumping syncopation.

Less impressive is Shell-Shocked (B.C.), the new album from Junior Kimbrough’s son David Kimbrough Jr., who released I Got the Dog in Me as David Malone and the Sugar Bears in 1994 before a drug charge sent him to prison. Kimbrough lays the soulful sound of Prince and Michael Jackson over a Hill Country groove that’s been slowed and thinned out. It’s a combination that might work, but David’s weak tenor and derivative songwriting aren’t up to it. Still, there are a few affecting moments: “Hey Pretty Girl” was recorded a cappella in David’s cell at Parchman Farm, and “I Dreamed Pop Gigged With Us” is a heartfelt tribute to his dead daddy.

Jon Spencer, the New York trash-rock guitarist who led his own Blues Explosion, fell in love with R.L. Burnside’s music and collaborated with the septuagenarian bluesman on the 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. It was a mixed blessing. Ass Pocket was Burnside’s best-selling title but also his least interesting music. Spencer had no feel for the groove and lusty singing at the heart of Burnside’s music and focused instead on the old man’s dirty jokes and guitar noise.

Spencer continued to explore the Hill Country blues and in 2001 collaborated with the three Dickinsons—Jim, Luther, and Cody. A dozen tracks from the session wound up on the Japan-only Spencer Dickinson that year, now beefed up to 19 songs and finally released in the U.S. as Spencer Dickinson’s The Man Who Lives for Love (Yep Roc). Luther and Cody are the best rhythm section Spencer has ever played with, but his inability to groove or sing hasn’t improved with the years.

Jim Dickinson, on the other hand, is a natural groover with an encyclopedic knowledge of American roots music. His new solo album, Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International), features songs as terrific as they are obscure, all bursting with infectious spirit. But there’s a problem: Jim is an even worse singer than Spencer, and his ragged, off-key vocals can only be tolerated a few songs at a time.

The Black Keys’ new Chulahoma (Fat Possum) is named after Junior Kimbrough’s hometown and features the Akron, Ohio, duo tackling six of Kimbrough’s songs. Guitarist Dan Auerbach’s liner notes confess the life-changing impact Kimbrough’s music had on him as a college freshman, and this six-song EP meets the tricky challenge of respect without imitation. The knotty rhythms, bristling guitar, and desperate vocals are all still there, but the tempos are slower and the sound is full of woozy echo. It’s a reminder that the Black Keys play for white Midwestern college kids, not black Mississippi farmhands.

Portland, Ore.’s Hillstomp is another guitar-and-drums duo that has absorbed the Hill Country aesthetic from an improbable distance. Guitarist Henry Kammerer and drummer John Johnson understand in a way Jon Spencer never has that the blues can accommodate a dangerous instability as long as the rhythm is steady and relentless. The second Hillstomp album, The Woman That Ended the World (Fuzzmonster), begins and ends with the Hill Country standard “Poor Black Mattie,” delivered with a leanness of sound that doesn’t weaken the intensity but bolsters it. Kammerer has a modest tenor that works only because he focuses it as precisely as his economical guitar figures. The Black Keys and Hillstomp know that the Hill Country blues needn’t be limited to a small patch of north central Mississippi. It’s one of the most exciting sounds of the past 20 years, and it can be stolen by anyone with sufficient courage.

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