Songs of the South

Author and critic Amanda Petrusich follows the Mississippi Blues Trail to Holly Springs, where time has stopped but the music wails on

Junior Kimbrough, shown singing in his juke joint in the early ’90s, was one of the town’s most revered Hill Country blues artists.

Credit: Steven Jones

Listen to Junior Kimbrough sing the blues

Following the kudzu-laced Highway 7 north into Holly Springs, Miss., feels a little bit like rolling backward in time. With each passing mile marker, whole decades vanish, disappearing into tiny puffs of exhaust. Sipping convenience store coffee, my fingers curled loosely around the steering wheel, I push deeper and deeper into midcentury, chugging toward the sleepy town square. With its antebellum homes, empty streets, and roadside grocery stores peddling MoonPies and RC Cola, Holly Springs is quiet and fixed, like a scene from a crackled junk-store photograph. I pull off the highway and park my car on Gholson Avenue, just around the corner from City Hall. I'm looking for Hill Country blues.

To outsiders, Holly Springs may seem slow and archaic: Not much has changed here since the end of the War Between the States, and the city feels forgotten, as if contemporary culture has passed it by. But its music—a heavy, droning strain of Mississippi blues known as Hill Country—is poignant and vibrant.

When most folks think about the blues, they tend to conjure images of the Delta: the flood-prone, cotton-choked counties in the northwestern corner of the state. There, in cities like Clarksdale and Greenwood, Delta blues revolutionized popular music, becoming globally recognized as the direct progenitor of much of what airs on contemporary pop radio. Less well known are the native sounds of Panola, Tate, Marshall, and Lafayette counties—the region east of the Delta that surrounds Holly Springs. Influenced heavily by African music brought to Mississippi via the slave trade (and adapted, in part, from American fife-and-drum bands), the deep, undulating Hill Country blues is just as miraculous, just as breathtaking. The music tends to be subterranean, raw and private and feral, a genre that lives and prospers in backwoods juke joints or on rickety back porches. It pulses through the late-summer air, piercing the thick, heady smoke of goat roasts and roadside barbecue pits, calling everyone within earshot: Come. Move.

Holly Springs' musical legacy isn't immediately evident on its hushed, tidy streets. The city was only recently added to the state's official Mississippi Blues Trail, and the large blue marker at the intersection of Van Dorn Avenue and North Center Street (erected last July) is the town's only public recognition of its musical heritage.

I wander the town square, peeking in the dusty windows of local drugstores and luncheonettes. From Van Dorn Avenue, I trudge a block and a half to Aikei Pro's Record Shop on North Center Street, a haven for anyone seeking obscure blues records (or radio parts), which are stacked haphazardly around the interior of the shop. The hand-painted sign, tin roof, and mound of bicycles and television sets tottering out front suggest that shopping at Aikei Pro's requires a certain amount of intrepidness. As Blues Traveling author Steve Cheseborough explains, "To really look through the records, you have to climb over or around the heaps of radios, move piles of records to get to other piles, carefully pick through precarious stacks."

Like most everything in Holly Springs, Aikei Pro's requires equal parts intuition and luck: Proprietor and local Hill Country blues expert David Caldwell does not post the store's hours. Having just missed him, I tug a CD from my backpack and listen to the late bluesman R.L. Burnside—a Holly Springs native and Hill Country hero—wail from my car stereo, his voice rich and craggy. "I went home last night," he sings. "Sat down on my bed and cried."

The city's musical heritage coexists with a rich Civil War legacy. On Dec. 20, 1862, in an attempt to thwart Ulysses S. Grant's impending occupation of Vicksburg, Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn led three cavalry brigades into Holly Springs and raided a Union supply depot, seizing and trashing supplies, slicing railroad and telegraph lines, and effectively disrupting Grant's advance.

Holly Springs is also home to a parade of remarkable antebellum residences. The city's tourism board has organized many of the estates into a walking or driving tour, which includes Crump Place, the boyhood home of the infamous Memphis Mayor E.H. "Boss" Crump, who is memorialized in W.C. Handy's "Boss Crump Blues." Also on the tour are Walter Place (above) and Airliewood, a massive pink Gothic Revival villa built in 1858 and restored in 2006. Among the town's other landmarks are Rust College, founded in 1866 and one of the oldest historically black liberal arts colleges in the country; the birthplace of the civil rights activist and suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett; and the store where you can order one of the greatest cheeseburgers in America—Phillips Grocery, a ramshackle two-story wood house built in 1882. Meanwhile, determined Elvis fans flock to Graceland Too, a wild amateur re-creation of Presley's famed Memphis mansion, crammed with Elvis memorabilia and open 24 hours a day.

Unlike 12-bar Delta blues, most Hill Country songs consist of one or two chords strummed in an endless, hypnotic rhythm (mimicking the drum of the fife-and-drum band), with the vocal line carrying the melody. The seemingly simple rhythm and feel of Hill Country blues—its hazy, repetitive spell—is difficult for non-natives to master and is largely passed down from generation to generation. R.L. Burnside's son Garry and grandson Cedric perform nationally as the Burnside Exploration, helping to spread Hill Country blues beyond the boundaries of its hometown.

Along with Burnside, the late singer and guitarist Junior Kimbrough is considered one of the genre's forefathers. A few miles outside Holly Springs, Kimbrough's faded juke joint sits on the side of the road, tiny and humble, alongside an old, weathered marquee. This red-stained cypress log cabin—it was officially known as the Chewalla Rib Shack, back when it was still in operation—once stood near Byhalia, Miss. In the 1980s, a high school football coach named Sammy Greer came across the house and received permission to move it to Holly Springs, where he teamed up with Kimbrough to open a juke joint and barbecue shack.

During Kimbrough's lifetime, the Chewalla Rib Shack was overstuffed with patrons shimmying to Hill Country blues. Staring at the tiny cabin today, I can easily imagine it bloated and shaking, its ancient logs trembling in rhythm to Kimbrough's haunting songs.

After his death and the demise of the shack in the mid 1990s, local blues fans moved to Blues in the Barn at Foxfire Ranch (a cattle and horse ranch where regional Hill Country bands play on temperate Sundays), and continued the tradition of congregating at family picnics and goat roasts.

Hill Country blues didn't gain national acclaim until fairly recently. In 1991, blues historian Robert Palmer narrated and hosted the acclaimed documentary Deep Blues, highlighting Holly Springs and a handful of northern Mississippi's primary players.

A few years later, University of Mississippi student Matthew Johnson founded the Oxford-based Fat Possum Records and started releasing recordings by R.L. Burnside and Kimbrough. Although they'd collaborated unofficially in Holly Springs for years, the Fat Possum deal marked the first major commercial recording sessions for both musicians.

I leave Junior's and circle back to Highway 7, heading toward Hudsonville, where Kimbrough is buried in a small cemetery just off Kimbrough Church Road. The graveyard is quiet and gray, with headstones arranged in no particular order. Kimbrough's headstone is littered with an assortment of beer bottles and guitar picks, laid carefully and in earnest homage. The back of his memorial declares, "Junior Kimbrough is the beginning and the end of all music." It seems only fitting, then, that Kimbrough's beginning and end were here, in Holly Springs.

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