Hill Country Blues

Hill Country Blues - Holly Springs

Although Delta blues often claims the spotlight, other styles of the blues were produced in other regions of Mississippi. In the greater Holly Springs area, musicians developed a “hill country” blues style characterized by few chord changes, unconventional song structures, and an emphasis on the “groove” or a steady, driving rhythm. In the 1990s this style was popularized through the recordings of local musicians R.L. Burnside and David “Junior” Kimbrough.

R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough became unlikely heroes of the music world in the 1990s when their “hill country” style caught on in both blues and alternative rock music circles. Although Burnside (1926-2005) and Kimbrough (1930-1998) had both begun recording in the 1960s, they had mostly performed at local juke joints or house parties. Most of their early recordings had been made by field researchers and musicologists such as George Mitchell, David Evans of the University of Memphis, and Sylvester Oliver of Rust College. They developed a new, younger following after they appeared in the 1991 documentary Deep Blues and recorded for the Oxford-based Fat Possum label, and college students and foreign tourists mixed with locals at Kimbrough’s legendary juke joint in Chulahoma. Both artists toured widely and inspired musicians from Kansas to Norway to emulate their hill country sounds. Their songs were recorded by artists including the Black Keys and the North Mississippi Allstars, and remixes of Burnside tracks appeared in films, commercials, and the HBO series The Sopranos. The music of actor Samuel L. Jackson’s blues-singing character in the 2006 movie Black Snake Moan was largely inspired by Burnside.

Burnside, born in Lafayette County, was influenced by blues stars John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters but also learned directly from local guitarists Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ranie Burnette. For most of his life Burnside worked as a farmer and fisherman. He only began to perform at festivals and in Europe in the 1970s. Burnside’s music took a more modern turn when sons Joseph, Daniel, and Duwayne Burnside and son-in-law Calvin Jackson played with him in his Sound Machine band. By the early ’90s Burnside was performing around the world in a trio with grandson Cedric Burnside and “adopted son” Kenny Brown. Following Burnside’s death his family, including grandson Kent Burnside, continued to perform his music, as did his protege Robert Belfour, a Holly Springs native who also recorded for the Fat Possum label.

Just as Burnside’s music reflected his jovial personality, the more introspective Junior Kimbrough produced singular music with a darker approach. Born into a musical family in Hudsonville, Kimbrough formed his first band in the late 1950s and recorded a single for the Philwood label in Memphis in 1968. In the 1980s his band, the Soul Blues Boys, featured longtime bassist Little Joe Ayers. In later years he was backed by his son Kinney on drums and R.L. Burnside’s son Garry on bass. Kimbrough’s multi-instrumentalist son David Malone devoted himself to carrying on his father’s legacy as well as developing his own style on recordings for Fat Possum and other labels.

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