North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, Volume II CD Review

The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic is one of my favorite music festivals and the recently released “North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, Volume II” CD from Devil Down Records is a great souvenir of the 2010 festival and a good sampler to entice new fans to the annual event. The Picnic is presented each year by a non-profit foundation created to nurture and promote the unique music of the north Mississippi hills.

The music of several generations is honored here. Mississippi Fred McDowell and Rev. Roy Wilkins received worldwide recognition in the late 1960s and early 1970s due in no small part to the fact that the Rolling Stones recorded a song by each. The music of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough had worldwide impact in the 1990s due to recordings released by Fat Possum Records and the fife and drum music of Otha Turner was recognized during that time as a priceless link to the past. They have all passed on, but their music lives through their progeny and their disciples.

Another musical hero honored here is the late Jim Dickinson, a record producer who was the power behind many stars and who moved to north Mississippi to embrace the music there and baptize his sons in the hill country sound. Those sons, Luther and Cody, as the North Mississippi Allstars are the most widely known heirs of the amazing north Mississippi music legacy, but heirs from the Burnside, Kimbrough, and Turner families carry on making music that both looks back to the past with respect and charges into the future with great power.

There are also disciples here like Eric Deaton who came to the hill country to play at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, and Kenny Brown who grew up in the hill country and whose slide guitar became an integral part of recordings by Burnside and Kimbrough. Kenny Brown and his wife Sara are the organizers of the annual festival which is held in Potts Camp, Mississippi.

The CD opens with Rev. John Wilkins, son of Rev. Roy Wilkins, singing the Mississippi Fred McDowell classic, “You’ve Got To Move.” McDowell’s reminder of the inevitable was slow and mournful, but here it becomes a hand clapping, dance evoking romp topped off with sweet slide guitar by Kenny Brown.

Eric Deaton charges in on cut 2 with an R. L. Burnside song, “I’m Going Away.” Any fan of Burnside’s music will love this song which is played and sung with passion by a man of many musical talents.

When Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Jimbo Mathus teamed up as the South Memphis String Band, they played old timey traditional tunes of death and disaster, but reformed as Loose Shoes they boogie into Bo Diddley’s classic, “Bring it to Jerome,” cut 4 on the CD. Dickinson sings and plays bass, Mathus sings and plays drums, and Hart provides the guitar and harmonica icing.

Cut 5 features Robert Belfour, master of the hill country drone playing “Hill Stomp.” Belfour is a respected native of this country and the music is in his blood.

Grammy award winner Alvin Youngblood Hart grew up in California but visited family in Mississippi frequently. His powerful anthem, “Big Mama’s Door” (cut 5) begs to be played over and over and features Eric Deaton on bass and harmony vocals.

The Oxford, Mississippi based Alt-Country band, Blue Mountain provides cut 6, “Midnight in Mississippi” which is a tale of drunken escapades paying homage to the late Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint as a popular night spot for students from the University of Mississippi.

“Little Hand, Big Gun” by Jimbo Mathus is cut 7. Mathus led the North Carolina based Squirrel Nut Zippers to fame in the 1990s, then returned to his native Mississippi to play what he calls “Mississippi Music,” a little bit of blues, a little bit of country, and a lot of good rocking fun.

Ninety-some-odd-year-old juke joint blues master T-Model Ford still has what it takes as he shows in cut 8, “I’m Going Down,” accompanied on drums by his grandson introduced only as “Stud” and slide guitar by Bill Abel.

The North Mississippi Allstars are a trio, but brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson have toured recently without bassist Chris Chew as the North Mississippi Allstars DuoLuCo, opening for Robert Plant shows. Cut 9, “My Babe/Station Blues/Glory Glory” is a medley of songs which Otha Turner loved to play with his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Luther sings and plays percussion by touching the plug on the end of his guitar cable as Cody pounds out tight rhythms on a drum set and members of the Rising Star band (including Sharde Thomas who carries on her grandfather’s fife playing) play snare and bass drums. Kenny Brown adds some beautiful slide guitar toward the end of this touching medley.

Hill Country Revue’s version of R. L. Burnside’s song, “Georgia Women” (cut 10) just plain smokes! Kirk Smithhart plays a hot slide guitar solo followed by fire from Cody Dickinson’s electrified washboard percussion.

Cut 11 features Duwayne Burnside, son of R. L. Burnside, singing and playing guitar on his father’s song, “Snake Drive.” Luther Dickinson adds some guitar licks and vocals, then Duwayne calls his young son to the stage to add more guitar, giving assurance that the hill country sound will carry on for a long time to come.

Kenny Brown plays the Elmore James classic, “Shake Your Money Maker” on cut 12. Brown’s vocals and signature slide guitar are in great form here and this song just makes you want to hear more. (A double CD of Brown’s music recorded at the Picnic is forthcoming from Devil Down Records.) Mark Yacovone adds some nice piano and Duwayne Burnside adds a smooth guitar solo.

Duff Dorrough leads a southern gospel quartet in “Stand By Me” on cut 13, and if you let the CD play just a bit more you find a hidden track of R. L. Burnside telling a funny story. I imagine that Mr. Burnside has a big smile on his face as he looks down on the annual Picnic event and the great music it features.

The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic takes place the last weekend in June each year.

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