On Sunday, May 6th, the blues world lost two giants: 86-year-old Alabama-born barrelhouse-piano legend Big Joe Duskin, who recorded his 2004 comeback album, Big Joe Jumps Again, with the assistance of Memphian William Lee Ellis for Yellow Dog Records, and 70-year-old Macon, Mississippi, native Carey Bell, who gained fame as the greatest harmonica player to hit Chicago's post-war electric blues scene.
The following weekend, St. Louis bluesman Big George Brock (he's a transplant from Grenada, Mississippi) celebrated his 75th birthday by cutting a live album at Clarksdale's Ground Zero Blues Club, living proof that there's no such thing as retirement for most purveyors of authentic blues.
That sentiment hit home at the 28th annual Blues Music Awards, held at the Cook Convention Center on May 10th. Even relative newcomer Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans, who was unfortunately shut out on a record six nominations, is eligible for his AARP card, while stalwart BMA winners such as Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year Etta James, Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year Bobby Rush, Contemporary Blues Album of the Year winner Guitar Shorty, and Acoustic Artist of the Year David "Honeyboy" Edwards (truly an elder statesman of the genre, at 91) proved, once again, that age is just a state of mind.
Also showing no sign of slowing down: 71-year-old Sun rockabilly veteran Jerry Lee Lewis, who garnered the coveted Comeback Album of the Year award for Last Man Standing, and octogenarians such as pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who swept the instrumentalist categories.
Memphis native Charlie Musselwhite, who, at 63, could be considered a veritable youngster, picked up a handful of BMAs for his latest album, Delta Hardware, before heading out for a slew of shows near his adopted home in the Pacific Northwest. He'll return to the region on June 1st, when he plays the Ford Center for the Arts on the Ole Miss campus with The Blind Boys of Alabama before heading to Paris, London, and Moscow later this summer.
Other winners at the BMAs, which were broadcast via XM satellite radio, included the late Robert "Junior" Lockwood, Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year; Rory Block's The Lady and Mr. Johnson, Acoustic Album of the Year; Irma Thomas, Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year; Janiva Magness, Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year; Tab Benoit, Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year; Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, Band of the Year; and 21-year-old Daniel "Slick" Ballinger, whose inaugural album, Mississippi Soul, won the Best New Artist Debut category.
Senegal-born Guelel Kumba might seem like an unlikely candidate for keeping the blues alive, but the Oxford, Mississippi, transplant is doing just that with his group Afrissippi. The band, which also features drummer Kinney Kimbrough, bassist Justin Showah, and guitarists Eric Deaton and Max Williams, serves up a rousing blend of traditional Senegalese story-songs and the North Mississippi hill-country blues sound, as heard on Fulani Journey, which was released last year. This Friday night, May 18th, Afrissippi are rolling up I-55 to play the terrace at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The outdoor concert, which costs $15 for nonmembers, offers a final opportunity to view Power Dressing: Men's Fashion and Prestige in Africa, which closes this weekend, and a chance to glimpse the museum's next exhibit, Soul Food: African American Cooking and Creativity. For more information, go to www.BrooksMuseum.org.
The more traditional side of the North Mississippi blues scene will be spotlighted later next month, when guitarist Kenny Brown hosts his second North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in Potts Camp, which is approximately 55 miles southeast of Memphis.
Last year, more than 1,000 people trekked to Brown's 1,100-acre farm for the event, which both celebrates and expands upon the foundation laid by gone-but-not-forgotten iconoclasts such as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner, and Mississippi Joe Callicott.
Already scheduled to appear at the 2007 festival, slated for June 29th and 30th: second- and third-generation hill-country musicians including The Burnside Exploration, Duwayne Burnside & the Mississippi Mafia, David Kimbrough, Sharde Thomas & the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and the North Mississippi Allstars, collectively the heirs apparent to the region's famed musical legacy.
A two-day ticket costs $30; go to www.NMSHillCountryPicnic.com for complete details.