Friday, December 17, 2010

Broke & Hungry Records - Ten Questions With Jeff Konkel

Over the past couple of months, Friday Blues Fix has looked at a couple of important blues labels of the past.  Today, we're going to look at a present-day blues label that's doing its part to keep the blues alive, Broke & Hungry Records.

Jeff Konkel is the founder and driving force behind Broke & Hungry Records, a label that specializes in finding and recording rarely-heard (or never before-heard) Mississippi Delta Blues musicians. Konkel started the label in 2006 with a recording from Bentonia bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a disciple of fellow Bentonia natives Skip James and Jack Owens. Since then, B&H has released six other well-received recordings, the most recent being another album by Holmes titled Ain’t It Lonesome. In 2008, the label joined forces with Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (Roger Stolle) and Mudpuppy Productions (Kari Jones) to release M for Mississippi, the critically acclaimed documentary of the current Mississippi Delta blues scene, and its two accompanying CD soundtracks. 

In 2011, Broke and Hungry will be celebrating their fifth anniversary.  Mr. Konkel was gracious enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix to answer a few questions about his label, past, present, and future.  We appreciate him taking the time to do so.

Wesley Jefferson and Jeff Konkel during the filming of M for Mississippi

Everyone has a story about how they were first drawn to the blues. What’s your story?

Like a lot of people, I backed my way into the blues. During high school, I was a big classic rock fan. In the spring of 1992, when I was 18, I heard about Robert Johnson and his influence on Zeppelin, Clapton and the Stones. I picked up his Complete Recordings and, frankly, it didn’t make much of an impact on first listen. I just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I kept listening and eventually the music really hit me. From there, I began collecting music from other prewar figures like Skip James, Bukka White, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt and others.

It wasn’t until 1997, during my first trip to the Delta that I became interested in contemporary rural blues. Once I fell for it, I fell hard.

How did the idea for Broke and Hungry Records come about?

October 2005 was not a great time for fans of Mississippi Blues. Rooster Blues Records had folded and Fat Possum Records had moved toward rock. R.L. Burnside had just died as had a couple of other artists from the region. I was at a juke joint called Po’ Monkey’s in Merigold, Mississippi, lamenting the fact that there were still great bluesmen flying under the radar with no one seemingly interested in recording them. I also knew that these artists weren’t getting younger. The beer was flowing that night, and in a moment of “clarity” (read: drunken foolishness), I declared that I was going to start a label to address this need. A couple of weeks later I formed Broke & Hungry Records, and just two weeks after that, we cut our first record.

While Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a fairly familiar name to a lot of Mississippi blues fans, as are Terry “Big T” Williams and Wesley Jefferson, how did you happen to find out about Odell Harris and the Mississippi Marvel? Those two artists seemingly came out of nowhere.

Frankly, even Jimmy was pretty obscure when I first recorded him. He had only played outside of Yazoo County on a couple of occasions. The dedicated blues hounds knew about Jimmy’s juke joint, the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, but I don’t think many folks had a real grasp of the depths of his talent.

As for Odell Harris and the Mississippi Marvel, I was basically chasing rumors and shadows.

I knew a handful of folks who had heard Odell, and they all told me he was incredible. They also told me he was utterly unreliable and impossible to track down. My friend Lightnin’ Malcolm knows Odell pretty well and was able to find him. I realized I might not have a second shot at recording him, so I set up a session on the Gulf Coast without ever having heard him play a note of music. I guess you’ve figured out by now, I’m a pretty impulsive guy. Anyhow, the session was grueling. It kicked off at around 11 p.m. one Saturday night in August 2006. It dragged on throughout the night, but the first several hours were pretty brutal. Odell was in a sour mood and the locals in the club were in even lower spirits. At several points, I considered just shutting it down and cutting my losses, but shortly before dawn, everything came together. In just a couple of hours we had what we needed. Good thing, too, because Odell has once again vanished. I talked to him by phone shortly after the session, but I haven’t seen him again and he seems to have fallen off the map completely.

As for the Mississippi Marvel, I had heard about him for a couple of years before I met him. Since he’s chosen to stay anonymous, I can’t tell you much about the circumstances behind meeting him. What I can tell you is that when I finally did hear him, I was immediately bowled over. I called my buddy Roger Stolle and held up the phone so he could hear. At the end of that phone call I told Roger, “I guess I know who I’m recording next.” Of course, making that happen proved a little difficult. After several months of trying to talk him into recording, the man we now call the Mississippi Marvel informed me that his fellow congregants at church were not fans of blues music and he feared he would be alienated from his community if he cut a CD of secular music. Eventually we came up with the idea of issuing the CD under the pseudonym and with no photos or details that might compromise his anonymity.

I’m really proud of both of those records. They’re totally ragged and raw in the best possible way. Needless to say, it’s hard to make your money back on CDs where the artists won’t do media or play any shows, but I’d do it all again.

Any standout moments with B&H so far that you’d like to remember?

Too many to count. And the highlights greatly outnumber the lowlights.

One obvious highlight was winning the Blues Music Award for our film M For Mississippi in 2009. I’d like to say that such things don’t matter, but that would be a lie. When you put your heart and soul, not to mention your savings into a big project like that, you want people to appreciate it. It was really gratifying to know that audiences connected with the artists in the film.

But at the end of the day, it’s really the little moments that make it all worthwhile. I enjoy spending time with the artists we record, getting to know them as people, developing friendships. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and I drove out to the East Coast for a short tour earlier this year, and while there were a few bumps along the way, I wouldn’t trade experiences like that for the world.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes
Any moments you’d just as soon forget?

A few, but even the worst experiences usually make for a good story later. The Odell session started terribly but ended up resulting in a great record.

Looking at my bank account is usually an experience I’d just as soon forget. They don’t call us Broke & Hungry for nothing.

The M For Mississippi documentary is fantastic… of the best at covering its subject, blues musicians…..not as a specimen under a microscope as many of these docs do, but as living, breathing human beings. What made you guys decide to do such a film and how long did you bounce the idea around before jumping in with both feet?

Thanks. We had a blast making the movie. The week we spent on the road was amazing. Exhausting, but amazing.

The idea for the film evolved over time. Since starting Broke & Hungry Records, I’ve become great friends with Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale. We’ve spent a lot of time hanging out together in jukes and in the homes of bluesmen across the region. We knew we wanted to collaborate on a major project that reflected those experiences and eventually we decided a film was the best way to do that.

We agreed right away that this couldn’t be another dry, academic treatise on the history of the blues. Those films have already been made a thousand times over. Besides, that just isn’t how we approach the music. If you’re not having fun at a juke joint or a house party, you’re doing something wrong. We wanted the film to reflect that attitude. The movie is intended to be fun and entertaining. We want people who see it to hop in their cars and head down to the Delta for a road trip of their own.

(L to R) Roger Stolle, Jeff Konkel, and Terry "Harmonica" Bean during the filming of M for Mississippi
We started talking about the project sometime in 2006, and spent the next two years mapping it out, assembling our team and raising money. We shot the film in just a week during the spring of 2008 and we released it a mere six months later. It was a pretty exhausting process, but we wanted to release the film quickly so that it could benefit the artists while they’re still alive and able to take advantage of the exposure. Sadly, that concern has proven well founded. Two of the artists in the movie – Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson and Wiley Foster, better known as “Mr. Tater the Music Maker” – have since passed.

There are a lot of memorable moments in the movie, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. Give us a few of your highlights from filming the documentary, some things that really stand out in your memory?

Well, the day at R.L. Boyce’s house in Como, Mississippi was a blast. The weather didn’t cooperate, but the house party was great. As you can see on the film, there was a lot happening in the house. We laughed a lot that day. Actually we laughed a lot throughout the entire filming. We really enjoyed the experience. Most of the artists in the film are guys we know well both personally and professionally, so the atmosphere was usually pretty relaxed.

Nevertheless, nonstop filming for a week is completely exhausting. By the final day – when we shot the L.C. Ulmer segment – we were basically walking zombies, but even then we managed to have some fun.

You basically started Broke and Hungry with no previous experience in the music industry. Did that help you or hurt you? Is there anything that you would have done differently if you had the chance?

From an artistic standpoint, I think my inexperience helped. I started the label as a fan, not as a seasoned producer. As a result, I’ve tended to make records that I would want to hear as a fan. These aren’t just “products” to be deposited in the marketplace. They’re true labors of love, and hopefully that shows. I don’t get hung up on what others consider the “right” way of doing things. We’re going to keep on marching to the beat of our own drum.

For a taste of the Broke & Hungry approach, check out this truly unique, atmospheric version of the Delta classic, "Catfish," courtesy of Terry "Big T" Williams and the late Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson, from their Meet Me In The Cottonfield amazing combination of the best of the past and the present of Delta blues

What can we expect from Broke and Hungry Records in the future?

In early 2011, we’ll be issuing a two-CD collection called Mistakes Were Made: Five Years of Raw Blues, Damaged Livers & Questionable Business Decisions. It pulls together some of the best music from our catalog along with a whole lot of great, never-before-heard recordings.

The set will include 30 tracks, of which a full 15 have never before been released. The unreleased tracks include contributions by Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Wesley Jefferson, Pat Thomas, Terry "Big T" Williams, Bill Abel, The Mississippi Marvel and Terry "Harmonica" Bean.

Here's a previously unreleased song (courtesy of Mr. Konkel) that will be included on the upcoming collection from Terry "Harmonica" Bean, called "Pretty Baby."

Pat Thomas
I’m also planning to reissue our debut CD, Back to Bentonia by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes next spring. This remastered version will feature new artwork, new liner notes and several unreleased cuts from the session.

Additionally, we’re hoping to finalize a project for Three Forks Music, the new cooperative organization that reunites the labels responsible for M For Mississippi: Broke & Hungry Records, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and Mudpuppy Recordings.

What are your top ten indispensable recordings?

Tough question. Ask me tomorrow and you’re likely to get an entirely different bunch of records, but here are some of my favorite postwar blues records (in no particular order):

- Fred McDowell – First Recordings (Rounder Records)

- Lightnin’ Hopkins – Lightnin’ And The Blues: The Herald Sessions (Buddha Records)

- Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends – Party! At Home (Arcola Records)

- Cedell Davis – When Lightnin’ Struck The Pine (Fast Horse Records)

- David “Honeyboy” Edwards – I’ve Been Around (Trix Records/Savoy Record)

- Various Artists – I Have To Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues – 1960 (Arhoolie Records)

- Junior Kimbrough – Most Things Haven’t Worked Out (Fat Possum Records)

- Jack Owens – It Must Have Been The Devil (Testament Records)

- Big Joe Williams – Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie Records)

- Lonnie Pitchford – All Around Man (Rooster Blues Records)

The Broke & Hungry Records Catalog

Back to Bentonia

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Back To Bentonia

Searching For Odell Harris

Odell Harris – Searching for Odell Harris

Meet Me In The Cotton Field

Terry “Big T” Williams & Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson – Meet Me in the Cotton Field

Done Got Tired of Tryin'

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Done Got Tired of Tryin’

The World Must Never Know!

The Mississippi Marvel – The World Must Never Know

His Father's Son

Pat Thomas – His Father’s Son

Ain't It Lonesome

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – Ain’t It Lonesome

M For Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues (More Music From The Motion Picture)  M For Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues (Music From The Motion Picture)

M for Mississippi - A Road Trip Through The Birthplace of The Blues (DVD & 2 CDs) – a collaboration between Broke & Hungry, Cat Head, and Mudpuppy)

To see FBF's post from April on M For Mississippi (and an interview with Roger Stolle, go here.)

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