Well, folks, it's two years into the 21st century, and we've still got the blues. That's a good thing. The success of regional artists, clubs, and festivals proves that what's good for the soul is also good for tourism and, luckily, not too much is lost in the translation. Just ask 18-year-old Vanessia Young, performing at the 15th Annual Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, this weekend. "I like the blues because it heals the soul," she says about the music that's taken her from Mississippi to the White House and Kennedy Center. "You really feel what you're playing, no matter who you are or where you're from."
Young and her 15-year-old sister Fazenda play in the band Pure Blues Express, which will be performing on the festival's main stage in downtown Clarksdale Friday afternoon. They'll be followed by local favorites Sam Carr, Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Terry Williams, and John Mohead. Big Jack Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite, and Bobby "Blue" Bland will headline the two-day event, which also features an acoustic stage in the Clarksdale Station and a gospel stage in the nearby Civic Auditorium.
If that's not enough blues for you, Pontotoc harmonica man Terry Bean and Greenville guitarist T-Model Ford are playing at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art's grand opening at 252 Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale the same weekend. The store will be giving away refreshments and door prizes while they last, and be sure to see photographer Butch Ruth's work on display. Stop at Dela's Stackhouse at 232 Sunflower Street. Part record shop, part thrift store, Dela's is always worth checking out. After the festival, you can head out to the Hopson Plantation on Highway 49, where Jimbo Mathus and His Knockdown Society will be playing 'til the sun comes up.
The Sunflower Blues Festival is free, although donations are accepted. Festival hours: Friday, August 9th, 4 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, August 10th, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
A decade ago, there were still hundreds of juke joints in Mississippi, their names ringing like poetry in the deep Delta night: The Pink Pony Café in Darling, the Bobo Grocery Store, Booba Barnes' Playboy Club, and the Flowing Fountain in Greenville. Those places are all gone, blown down or burned down or simply padlocked for one reason or another, leaving local blues fans with few options beyond Wild Bill's and the Hard Luck Café. A favorite for Memphians, Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint in Chulahoma, was torched a few years ago. Sadly, the community hasn't come close to replacing this Sunday-night hangout. Part community center, part bar, the little wooden hut on Highway 4 had a vibe that's unfortunately impossible to re-create.
There's a handful of musicians left in North Mississippi -- R.L. Burnside and family, David Malone (Junior Kimbrough's son), and one or two nameless souls who play a mean guitar chord when they can get their hands on an instrument. But where can you find 'em?
Willie King, a relative newcomer, plays every Sunday night at Bettie's Place in Prairie Point. King combines contemporary blues licks with a hard-driving message, creating what he calls "struggling songs." Though Bettie's is located three hours southeast of Memphis, King's weekly performance is certainly worth the drive. But if you find yourself short on time, dim the lights at home and pop in a copy of his latest album, recorded at Memphis' Easley-McCain studio last year. Eleven searing tracks of righteous sociopolitical commentary, Living In a New World will turn you inside out and hang you out to dry.
Meanwhile, Othar Turner, the grand don of the hill-country scene, is holding his annual goat barbecue August 30th and 31st on his farm in Gravel Springs. The 94-year-old fife-and-drum master was first recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1940s, and more than six decades later, he's still going strong. While past amalgamations have included hill-country luminaries Jessie Mae Hemphill and R.L. Boyce, these days, three generations of Turner's family comprise his Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.
Back in the Delta, a gravel road just south of Clarksdale in Merigold will take you to The Poor Monkey Lounge, a plywood shack featuring DJs Dr. Tissue and The Candy Man. A sign at the door proclaims the joint to be a "prive club," but a small cover charge will get anyone inside. Be sure to stop in on a Monday evening, when strippers from Memphis are brought down to liven up the atmosphere.
If you've got all night, you'll want to head down Highway 49 to Bentonia. In this rural hamlet (population 300) nestled between Yazoo City and Jackson, the blues have taken on a supernatural quality. Bentonian Nehemiah "Skip" James put the town on the map back in 1931, when he first recorded "Devil Got My Woman Blues," his agonizing wail soaring high above the eerie E-minor chords of his guitar. Acoustic guitarist Jimmy "Duck" Holmes operates The Blue Front Café in downtown Bentonia. The setup is simple: a low-ceilinged, musty place with a wooden bar anchored on one side of the room. Chitlin'-circuit favorites Mel Waiters and Bobby Rush blare from the jukebox in the back, prompting couples to begin a slow grind on the makeshift dance floor. When he's in the mood, Holmes unplugs the jukebox and picks up his battered guitar, and the blues is still alright.
Andria Lisle covers local music news and notes each week in Local Beat. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.