If you've seen guitarist Kenny Brown play his version of the hard-driving hill-country blues around town, you've surely noticed his gleaming silver stingray boots. They fit Brown's legs like a second skin -- a bit of cowboy flash in his typically understated wardrobe. No wonder, then, that he acquiesced when Fat Possum Records head Matthew Johnson opted for Stingray as the title of Brown's new album.
"It took three years to finish the album," Brown says, speaking from his new home in Potts Camp, Mississippi. "I kept getting sidetracked, buying land out in the country and stuff like that. Maybe it was meant to take that long." The former Cooper-Young resident moved south in the late 1990s. "I was getting older, and I didn't want to keep paying rent," he explains. "The land was too expensive where I grew up [in Nesbit, Mississippi], so I ended up all the way out here."
Stingray opens with a punch. "If Down Was Up" infuses the sound of the hill country with a heavy dose of deep-grooved funk, before Brown slips back into the hypnotic, haphazardly fluid drone he's honed backing the legendary R.L. Burnside for the past 20 or so years. "Me and Cedric Burnside would go in the studio and start playing, and these songs would just start coming out," Brown says modestly. "I didn't always have words for 'em. But I gave Matthew a stack of lyrics I'd written, and he suggested I stick 'em on to 'If Down Was Up,' and that's how I wrote the song."
Brown covers a fair amount of hill-country material on Stingray, including R.L. Burnside's "Miss Maybelle" and "Goin' Down South" and an electrifying version of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Shake Em On Down." He dusts off a seldom-heard number called "France Chance," learned from his mentor, the late Joe Callicot, and updates it as a jangly, uptempo blues. "I learned it from Joe, and I had just about forgotten it," Brown says, recalling the years he spent studying with his neighbor in Nesbit, which began when Brown was just 10 years old. "I call it 'Drop Down Baby.' I thought that's what we were gonna call it on the record. I think Ry Cooder recorded it as 'France Chance,' which is where Fat Possum came up with the name."
Assembling a tight band for Stingray was no problem. "Cedric's been playing with me [in R.L.'s band] since he was 14," Brown explains. "Whenever I do side projects, I use him." Bassist Takeeshi Imura was a friend of Brown's cousin Sam Taylor at the U of M when he was recruited for the project. The Subteens' Terrance Bishop plays bass on the rocker "Brought You to the City," and a saxman simply billed as "Jeff" contributes some mean solos to the session.
Brown and his band can also be heard on Defector, the latest album from Widespread Panic's John "JoJo" Hermann, another new Fat Possum release. Brown will open for Hermann and his Smiling Assassins bandmates Luther and Cody Dickinson at The New Daisy Theatre Thursday, February 20th.
"We'll be out for 29 days on the Smiling Assassins tour," Brown says. "[With] Luther and Cody playing with JoJo, I'm sure we'll be doing lots of jamming. We're all traveling together on one bus."
"R.L. opened up for Widespread out on Mud Island once," Brown recalls. "We played to an empty amphitheater. Of course, it filled up when Widespread came on. It was like they were waiting for us to get off the stage. But now I think a lot of people will come to see us too."
"It's great that so many younger people are listening to the blues," Brown adds. "Back in the '70s, when I was coming up playing with cats like R.L., Johnny Woods, and Junior [Kimbrough], I was the only white kid around. But over the last 10 years, I think people have become hungry for something real. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen, and now I'm finally making a living playing the blues."
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.