Friday, April 27, 2012

We Juke Up In Here! - Ten Questions With Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle

(L to R) Jeff Konkel, Willie Seaberry (owner of Po' Monkey's), Roger Stolle (photo by Lou Bopp)

We blues fans owe a huge debt to Jeff Konkel (Broke and Hungry Records) and Roger Stolle (Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art) for their tireless efforts at documenting the still fertile Mississippi Delta blues scene.  For several years now, these guys have recorded artists that a lot of us would never have had the privilege of hearing otherwise.....artists like Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Big George Brock, The Mississippi Marvel, Odell Harris, Pat Thomas, Wesley Jefferson and Terry "Big T" Williams.  In addition, several others have been featured in a pair of important documentaries (M for Mississippi and the new release, We Juke Up in Here, co-produced by Konkel, Stolle, Lou Bopp, and Damien Blalock).  These musicians, and others like them, are STILL living in the Delta, making mighty fine music, and now they have the opportunity to reach even more folks, thanks to Jeff and Roger.

We Juke Up in Here is a look at the current state of the juke joint in Mississippi.  It features a couple of artists from the previous movie (Holmes and the ever-ebullient Terry "Harmonica" Bean) and introduces us to some exciting new (to us) musicians, Anthony "Big A" Sherrod, Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood," Robert Lee "Lil' Poochie" Watson, Elmo Williams, and Hezekiah Early, that know how to rock the  juke joint.  However, the centerpiece of the movie is Red Paden, the owner of the world famous Red's Lounge in Clarksdale.  Paden offers up a healthy dose of his wisdom, wit, and philosophy, and also gives an unvarnished, unblinking view of what it's like to operate a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta.  This is must-viewing for blues fans.....great music, great stories, great musicians

Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle, both veterans of our Ten Questions With....department, sat down again this week with FBF to answer Ten Questions about We Juke Up in Here.  Thanks to both of them for their time.

Friday Blues Fix:  When did the idea to make We Juke Up in Here come to y’all?

Jeff Konkel:  Once our earlier film M For Mississippi was released, we tossed around all kinds of ideas for a follow-up film. We knew there were still a lot of stories to tell about today’s Delta blues scene.  We Juke Up in Here is really the combination of a couple of film ideas. At one point we considered doing a relatively simple concert film capturing a weekend of performances at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. At the same time we talked about doing a larger, more ambitious film about the state of juke joints in the Delta. What we ended up with was a film that married both ideas. While we explore the larger juke joint culture across the region, We Juke Up in Here is anchored by performances at Red’s Lounge and driven by the voice of the juke’s owner, Red Paden.

Roger Stolle:  Jeff and I started talking about this film as a nameless project during the making of M for Mississippi. While touring various venues and talking with the owners and musicians, the topic of Mississippi’s disappearing juke joint tradition kept coming up. It’s a topic that has only come more to the forefront since then. We’re literally down to just a handful of live music juke joints at this point. We wanted to celebrate the history and culture while also shining a light on the remaining spots around the Delta where you can still go jukin’ on a good Saturday night.

(L to R) Jeff Konkel, Damien Blaylock, Lou Bopp, Roger Stolle (Photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Can you tell us a little about the movie-making process…..fill us in on what you guys do behind the camera and what were Damien Blaylock, Bill Abel, and Lou Bopp’s roles?

RS:  Sure. In our co-director/co-producer roles, Jeff and I share a number of key responsibilities: Movie concept (from pre-production thesis to narrative technique to final story), project fundraising (from seed money to backing sponsors to pre-sale execution), production schedule (from initial conversations to specific film shoots to final product deadline), creative team (from hiring production team to arranging location venues to booking musicians/interviews), story narration (from on-screen roles to off-screen voiceovers to behind-the-scenes facilitation), packaging design (from choosing photography to art direction to copywriting/proofing), marketing and promotion (from press releases to print ads to interviews like this), international distribution (from location-based premieres distribution to film festival submissions to DVD/CD retail) and so on. Jeff and I have worked on this project non-stop since we initiated production last June. Damien Blaylock is our lead cameraman, hands-on editor and co-director/co-producer. Lou Bopp was our second cameraman, still photographer and co-producer. And we hired Bill Abel to record and mix some of the film sessions last summer. Making a film/music project is an expensive, time-intensive process… but it is also very rewarding when you see the final product.

FBF:  What was different from M for Mississippi about making this one…..what did you do differently this time around?

JK:  In a lot of ways, the two movies are very different, but hopefully they retain many of the same strengths. Some of the obvious differences have to do with how the movie was shot. For starters, M For Mississippi was shot over the course of just one week with a single camera. We Juke Up in Here was shot over the course of six months and we incorporated a second camera into the shoot. I think those factors really enhance the pacing of the new film and allowed us to incorporate some really beautiful shots into the movie. From a narrative perspective, Roger and I made a real effort to stay out of the way of our interview subjects this time around and to let them tell their own stories.

RS:  While M for Mississippi was essentially a road-trip movie that visited various “real-deal” bluesmen where they live and play in the Delta – letting the musicians tell the stories – We Juke Up in Here starts with a series of unspoken questions that we try to answer through various interviews with juke owners and musicians as well as on-screen experiences. What is a juke joint? What makes it special as a venue? What is the current state of live blues at Delta jukes? Is there a future? Jeff and I tried very hard not to overtly answer these questions ourselves. We try to leave that to the folks in the trenches. The other big difference between the films is that Jeff and I scheduled M for Mississippi as a one-week film shoot; for this project, we scheduled half a year of long weekends and conference calls. It was a different story, so we chose a different way to capture it.

Red Paden (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  The centerpiece of the movie is Red Paden, his Clarksdale juke joint, and his wit and wisdom (“This game is for life!”).  What was it like filming this movie with Red?

RS:  Difficult! No, not really. Here’s the thing. Red Paden is a proud, experienced, (at times) defiant juke joint owner. In his world, there really did used to be a lot of gamblin’, moonshinein’, womanizin’, cuttin’ and shootin’. It may not be like that in modern times, but he learned through decades of hard-fought trial and error that the best defense is a good offence. He’s got to be tough at the door and ready to react at a moment’s notice. He’s got to be tight lipped and only say what needs to be said. He has to be careful. Plus, at the end of the day, he needs to be able to make some money to keep the whole show going. As a result of these things, even though we’ve known Red for years, it really did take much of the summer to earn his trust enough to get at the philosophies and stories behind his infamous sayings such as, “The game is for life!” When all is said and done, Red Paden is an intelligent, hardworking man. He knows what time it is – what’s what. He may operate in the shadows (in sunglasses, no less), but he doesn’t miss much. The key was to get him to talk about it – to share not only his wit but also his wisdom.

JK:  I have to say that Red was much more patient with us than we expected! He’s a great guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools lightly, so there are times when we had to walk on eggshells to get him to open up to us. We’ve known Red for years and have had a lot of great conversations with him over that period, but putting a camera in someone’s face really changes the dynamic. We spent months trying to nail him down for this movie and to get him to talk candidly on film about his experiences as a juke joint owner. He gave us a few nice kernels of insight along the way, but it wasn’t until the final night of the film shoot that he really opened up and spoke from the heart. Much of his commentary in the film comes from that final interview.

FBF:  A regular line in the movie seems to be “Ain’t nothin’ like it used to be,” which seems to be a familiar refrain from most of the principals in the film.  After finishing this movie, are either of you optimistic at all about the future of live blues music in the juke joint setting?

JK:  The harsh reality is that juke joint culture is in decline and that the decline is speeding up. There’s no guarantee that any of these venues will be around tomorrow, yet alone a decade from now. Having said that, we did see some exciting developments during the making of this film. A good example is the Blue Front Café in Bentonia. I’ve been visiting the juke on a pretty regular basis for about seven years, and I have never seen it as packed with locals as it was on the night we filmed our segment there. Live music has become a rarity there, so to see its owner, bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, making an effort to bring it back is pretty exciting. Whether or not he can sustain an audience over the long run is an open question, but it was pretty exciting to see so many Bentonians come juke at the Blue Front!

RS:  Look, we can document and promote juke joints all we want, and if we’re lucky, maybe we can even help the culture hang around a bit longer. But, the truth is this: juke joints, juke owners and the musical veterans who play them are all archaic – anachronistic, really. There’s no reasonable reason why these places and characters should still exist over a decade into the 21st Century. They are from a less competitive time and place where there wasn’t 24/7 entertainment as near as the closest cell phone or casino. Just as older, traditional Mississippi blues players are dying out so are the juke joint proprietors and customers. We live in a homogenized society. Such “they broke the mold” characters as these have an increasingly small space to work in. All of that said… please see the movie, and we’ll let y’all be the judge.

Roosevelt Roberts, Jr. at the Blue Front Cafe (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Were there any surprises (pleasant or unpleasant) that you encountered while making this movie?

RS:  Everything takes longer and costs more than you think on big projects like this! That said, we had tremendous support from our film sponsors – not to mention the juke owners, musicians and customers. A lot of folks wanted this story to be told. That may not come as a total surprise, but until you actually jump off the ledge with an undertaking like this, you don’t really know if anybody is going to be there to catch you. The good news is that someone was, and we truly appreciate it.

JK:  Biggest surprise for me? Robert Lee “Lil’ Poochie” Watson. We had heard great things about him and had seen some tantalizing evidence of his talent, but we were just blown away by his performance in the film. We took a big chance by including him, and he really delivered. One of the reasons we make movies like this is to help these artists further their careers. Lil’ Poochie is just one of many artists in the film who deserves to be better known.

The Blue Front Cafe (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Can you tell us about your favorite scenes in the movie?

JK:  The Blue Front segment I mentioned earlier is a real highlight to me. It’s just beautifully shot by Damien and Lou. They really captured the wild fun of a juke joint on a good night. I also especially love the closing scene. I think it nicely encapsulates where things stand in the Delta’s juke joint tradition. And then, of course, there are all of the amazing performances by the musicians. Too many to count!

RS:  That’s a hard question, really. There were so many special moments – both in front and behind the camera. Two things that immediately stand out to me: Touring the ruins of Red Paden’s old Red Wine juke joint. That was cool for me, personally, since Red had told me about that place for years. (Also, you might notice that I never walk into the tall grass. Jeff was smart enough to wear jeans that day. I was not. Those are some chigger-infested grasses out there!) The second scene that stands out to me is our visit to the Blue Front Café. Honestly, we wanted to tell the story of the juke joint owner who wants to bring live blues back to his silenced juke, but we were uncertain whether this would be a positive story or a depressing one. As it turns out, most of the town showed up that night, so it was absolutely amazing – like stepping back in time. Our faces hurt from smiling so much in one evening. The coolest thing is that we now have all of this and more captured on film. For today, that means a little more promotion for what is still going on. For tomorrow, it gives us a lasting document of “the way things were.” It’s a win-win. 

Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood at Red's (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  I think you’ve unearthed a future star in Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood.  Are there any other outstanding musicians in the Mississippi area that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the movie?

RS:  There are still many wonderful blues musicians working in the Mississippi area. We’ve showcased many of them in M for Mississippi and We Juke Up in Here, for sure, but there are always more. Gearshifter is a personal favorite of ours, and he was actually on one of the early “potential artists” lists for M for Mississippi. We are so glad he made it into this film. He’s a heck of a nice guy, a tremendous musician and an entertaining performer. We really wanted to get Big Jack Johnson and maybe even Odell Harris into the latest film as well, but Big Jack sadly passed on last year and Odell just didn’t want to be found! It’s a crazy scene here; that’s all I can really say.

JK:  Gearshifter is fantastic. He’s a really special musician and just a hell of a nice guy. We were really happy to include him in the film. As for other worthwhile musicians in the Delta? Absolutely! Hopefully we’ll have a chance to keep profiling great musicians in future film and recording projects. 

FBF:  What future projects are in the works for you guys?

JK:  Sleep is the project I’m most thinking about right now! Putting together this movie and soundtrack has truly been a 24/7 effort over the past year. We’ll spend the next year promoting the film and trying to get it seen by a wider audience, but in the meantime, we have several other ideas percolating for future projects.

RS:  Right now, we are concentrating on the release and promotion of the new We Juke Up in Here film and music project as well as some international touring with both the movie and some of the artists from it. But… we are ALWAYS talking about the next big project! There are still plenty of stories to be told here and music to be unearthed. The challenge is that the clock is ticking. Folks can check out our current projects at and… and watch for updates.

Terry "Harmonica" Bean at Red's (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  What is your greatest all-time “Juke Joint Moment”?

JK:  One of the greatest nights of my life took place at Green’s Lounge in Memphis in October 1997. It was my first exposure to a real juke joint and it was absolutely enthralling. The Fieldstones were playing that night and the late Wilroy Sanders on guitar and vocals just blew me away. I walked out of Green’s that night a changed man, committed to spending as much time in juke joints as I could after that. Little did I know that they were already nearing extinction at that point. Green’s Lounge burned to the ground a week later.

RS:  Read the introduction to my blues book Hidden History of Mississippi Blues (The History Press) for my “greatest…moment.” My fateful visit to Junior Kimbrough’s old juke joint a decade and a half ago in many ways led to everything else I’ve been involved with – from my Cat Head blues store to the latest movie.  A great night in a real-deal, live music juke joint can literally change your life. For the love of blues, if you are reading this and haven’t spent a sweaty night in a Delta juke… don’t wait. Check out a Red’s Lounge or whatever juke you can find RIGHT NOW while you still can. Need help finding one? Check out my Music Calendar at (Also, we hold our annual Juke Joint Festival every April here in Clarksdale, Mississippi – Hope to see you there.) 

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