Friday, March 26, 2010

Mississippi Flavor

There's very little argument that Mississippi is the home of the blues, right? Other places like Memphis or Chicago might try to claim it, but most of their musicians came from Mississippi. Actually, lots of other styles of music could claim roots in the Magnolia State, but since this blog is called Friday BLUES Fix, we'll focus on the blues. Let's look at a few of the current artists that are keeping the blues alive in Mississippi.

Grady Champion was one of the big winners at the IBC (Best Band) in Memphis back in January. Champion, one of 28 children, was raised in Canton, MS.  He started out as a rapper but switched to the blues, a fine decision on his part.  He recorded a couple of discs for Shanachie in the late 90's as well as a disc on his own Shady Grady label, before taking a brief sabbatical in the early part of the decade to study music. He re-emerged with a live disc recorded in Jackson, MS at 930 Blues that also featured his friend Eddie Cotton on guitar, with whom Champion had been gigging for awhile in the Central MS area. This clip was taped in Natchez, MS sometime last year and features Champion with his band performing the blues standard, "Baby, What You Want Me To Do."  As you can hear, he blows a mean harp and his vocals have that perfect mix of gritty blues and sweet soul. 

Eddie Cotton has made a name for himself in the Magnolia State as well over the past few years. The Clinton, MS native has wowed audiences with his Albert King-influenced guitar and the most soulful vocals this side of Al Green.  He's recorded two incredible live discs at Jackson's Alamo Theatre and a couple of impressive studio recordings in between (Extra! and Mississippi Cotton Club). There's not a lot on YouTube with Cotton yet, but this clip is a taste of his talent on acoustic and electric numbers. You can get the full effects by checking out his discography at CDBaby.

About 30 minutes northwest of Jackson lies the city of Bentonia, home of the Bentonia blues.  For years, there were only a couple of people around who played in the Bentonia style.  Now, I'm sure lots of folks could describe this style of music much better than I can, throwing out  words like tonality, tuning and chords, but I know more about flying the space shuttle than I do about music theory, so all I can say is that if you ever hear it, you'll know what it is.  There have only been a few musicians who played in this highly unique style.  Skip James is probably the best known.  He recorded in the early 30's and later in the mid 60's, he was "re-discovered" and made a few more records.  All of his work is excellent, but the early recordings can be a bit of a challenge due to sound quality.  Jack Owens, a contemporary of James, also recorded, but less frequently and lived into his 90's.  Both supposedly learned from an unrecorded musician named Henry Stuckey.  Currently, there is one man keeping this branch of the blues alive......Jimmy "Duck" Holmes

Holmes owns the Blue Front Cafe, a true blues landmark located in Bentonia, and has recorded three discs for Broke and Hungry Records over the past few years.  While he plays in the Bentonia style, his vocals are a bit deeper than both James' and Owens'.  Here's a clip of Holmes playing on the mock porch at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas during the Mother's Best Festival in the mid 2000's, around the time of his first release, Back To Bentonia.

Finally, we have McComb, MS native Vasti Jackson, who has played with just about everybody who's anybody in the blues world.  He's appeared in movies, documentaries, served as a session musician and toured with several musicians, including a lengthy stint with the Swamp Boogie Queen, Katie Webster as part of her road band and as co-producer of several of her albums.  He spent a lot of time in Jackson, playing with local legend Jesse Robinson and with many of the gospel groups in the area.  He also served as session guitarist on Malaco recordings from Lattimore, Denise LaSalle, and Bobby Rush.  More recently, he's played with Cassandra Wilson, Michael Burks, Harry Connick, Jr., and Henry Butler.  I saw him several years ago when he was playing with Katie Webster and he just blew the place away.  Here's a 2005 clip of Jackson in Natchez (I've got to make a pilgrimage down there sometime to catch some of these blues) playing "Let Me Love You Baby."

Of course, there are many other Mississippi blues musicians keeping the faith.....people like Jesse Robinson, Super Chikan, Pat Thomas, T-Model Ford, Terry "Big T" Williams, and Terry "Harmonica" Bean.  We will be checking out all of these folks and many others in upcoming weeks.

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