Saturday, January 29, 2022

North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic: Where It All Began, and How It Keeps on Going

Kenny Brown and his lifelong Musical Collaborator and Mentor, R.L. Burnside
Kenny Brown and his lifelong Musical Collaborator and Mentor, R.L. Burnside

If it weren’t for Kenny Brown and his wife Sara, there would never have been a North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Kenny, blessed to have been mentored by the greatest bluesmen of North Mississippi in his time, was determined to continue the tradition as he had experienced it.

They started the picnic with the intent to preserve the magical, legendary musical get-togethers held by African American families all over the Hill Country, and throughout the rest of the rural, agrarian South, that have been going on for generations. Starting out as private celebrations of music and ancestral bond, these get-togethers are arguably the reason anyone ever even heard of the Hill Country Blues. The artists who’ve come to be known as the founders—such as Joe CallicotOtha TurnerJunior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside—all had (and are still having) these musical shindigs that had a large influence on Kenny Brown and how he came to craft his style of Hill Country blues.

Kenny first began to play guitar at the age of ten, shortly after his family moved to Nesbit, Mississippi. He was teaching himself how to play guitar, and his brother suggested that he “go over to ‘ol Joe’s house across the road” and ask him to help. Joe Callicot, known for being one of the most under-recorded, yet influential of the Hill Country bluesmen, took Kenny under his wing. Every day before and after school Kenny would spend time at Mr. Callicot’s home. Joe Callicot passed away in 1969 when Kenny was only 16, and was buried at Mt. Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Nesbit. In 1995, Kenny Brown, along with the help of John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame), placed a proper memorial on Callicot’s grave to commemorate his place in the hallowed halls of Mississippi Blues History. 

After Callicot’s death, Brown began searching for another authentic blues guitar teacher, which led him to R.L. Burnside. Although Kenny had trained under other Hill Country legends such as harmonica ace Johnny Woods and slide guitar wizard Mississippi Fred McDowell, it was R.L. who Kenny ended up playing with on a regular basis. Beginning in 1971 and continuing for over 30 years, Kenny toured the world with R.L., covering five continents, making seven albums together, and even being featured in the 2003 documentary You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen—released by Fat Possum Records in 2005. This fantastic piece of film was produced and directed by Mandy Stein, and if you are a fan of the blues, or even just a fan of great documentary-making, you will want to see this film. The link embedded in the title of the film above is a direct link to the documentary in its entirety, featuring the following legendary blues legends…all while they were still living: R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Cedell Davis, T Model Ford, Bono (U2), and Iggy Pop.

R.L. Burnside and Kenny Brown also appear together in the 2001 film Big Bad Love, based on a collection of short stories written by the late, great Oxford writer, Larry Brown. This film is a must-see for all of you Larry Brown fans out there. This movie is also exceptional because it is one of those rare films originating from a published work of genius-level literature that does not fall flat, losing sight of the author’s original intentions in the process of bringing it from book form to the silver screen.

Kenny Brown and R.L. Burnside were so close that R.L. often referred to him affectionately as his “white son,” or sometimes, “the white boy on guitar.” 

Brown, along with R.L. and other members of the Burnside family, played on the soundtrack to the film Black Snake Moan (2006), loosely based on the life of R.L. Burnside. Brown provided the moaning and wailing guitar to back Samuel L. Jackson’s vocals. Kenny Brown, along with Burnside’s grandson Cedric Burnside, appears in an integral scene in the movie, playing at a juke joint.

It would seem that history has underrated Kenny Brown as being one of the most successful and influential artists to break the color barrier in American music history—especially considering the blues genre from which he hails. It is easy to forget that the year Kenny started playing publicly with R.L. Burnside was the same year that the Federal Government sent in the Mississippi State Militia to force some public schools to integrate.

Kenny Brown lives with his wife Sarah way back in the woods near Holly Springs, Miss, and continues to tour both locally and worldwide with his band, carrying on the tradition taught to him by the greatest of the North Mississippi Hill Country bluesmen.

Duwayne Burnside
Duwayne Burnside

Duwayne Burnside, second oldest son of R.L. Burnside, is one of two Burnsides featured at this year’s festival. Of all the musically-inclined Burnside offspring, Duwayne plays and sings more like R.L. than any of the others. He began playing guitar at a very young age, and around the same time accompanied his father at local juke joints, one of which was owned by Blues legend Junior Kimbrough. Soon Duwayne began playing with Junior in his band, and as soon as he was old enough to “get to Memphis,” he began sitting in with legends such as Albert KingBobby Blue Bland, and B.B. King. He later played with his R.L.’s band Sound Machine Groove

Duwayne played various instruments on several of his father’s albums, beginning with Bad Luck City (1992). He played bass on Too Bad Jim (1994), and in 2001, the album Raw Electric 1979–1980, consisting of previously un-released recordings made at R.L.’s home near Independence, MS. Periodically from 1979 to 1980, an 11-year-old Duwayne plays the drums. Duwayne collaborated many times with the North Mississippi Allstars, contributing to five of their albums from 2003–2013. Duwayne released two albums of his own—Under Pressure (2005) and Live at the L.A. Mint (2008). 

Garry Burnside Playing Proud Larry's, Oxford -- Photograph by Suanne Strider
Garry Burnside Playing Proud Larry’s, Oxford — Photograph by Suanne Strider

Garry Burnside, the youngest of R.L.’s children, began his music career by playing bass in Junior Kimbrough’s band. From 1992 to 2002 he played bass on six of Kimbrough’s albums. Along with Cedric, Duwayne, and R.L., Garry played on the North Mississippi Allstars album Shake Hands with Shorty, and on the soundtrack to the film 2001 film Big Bad Love.

Garry will be performing at this year’s North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic with a new back-up band—fellow musician friends of Garry’s from Summerville, Tennessee, and Andrea Staten, a very talented lady originally from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, who was “discovered” by Garry at a guitar workshop she attended at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic several years ago. Andrea has been playing as part of Gary’s band for several years now, and this should be a lesson to all of you budding musicians out there…if you put yourself in positions to be taught by the greats, especially if you are lucky enough to attend a close and personal all-day guitar workshop taught by one of the greats, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, you could be standing on that stage one day with one of your own idols.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s third and final Installment of my coverage of the Eleventh Annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic.

See you there!

“Please visit the First Installment of this three-part series for general information regarding ticketing, accommodations, camping information, the entertainment schedule for each night, as well as a list I have gifted to you HottyToddy.com blues fans to ensure that your North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic experience is a safe, simple, and fun adventure into the backwoods to hear the blues.”


Suanne HottyToddy Picture (1)

Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at suannestrider@gmail.com.

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