North Mississippi Hill Country Blues:
It's NOT the Delta Blues!

 

 

 

Now that we have your attention, here's a brief lecture on the music and the place it comes from.  Because the music is fantastic, distinctive, unforgettable.  And the place is, too.  (R. L. Burnside, the patron saint of Mississippi hill country blues, is doing his thing at the top of this page.  Towards the bottom you'll find more videos that evoke both the music and the place.  You'll also find some icons for a few of the best hill country blues albums offered through Amazon.com)

§Hill country blues is NOT the stuff that Muddy Waters took to Chicago.  It's the stuff that stayed behind in Mississippi.  This may be why Junior Kimbrough's music sounds sadder, and uses fewer chords, than Muddy's:  because the lives of its creators were more circumscribed.  The hill country elders didn't have the big hits that Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, B. B. King enjoyed.  They didn't have tour buses.  They didn't play the Regal and the Apollo.  They didn't wear matching suits.  They wore truckers' caps and cowboy boots. They stayed home.  (Actually, an important correction:  R. L. Burnside DID move to Chicago in 1944 and stayed there for about 15 years.  He fled back home to the Mississippi hills after his father, two brothers, and uncle were all murdered in Chicago within the span of one year.  Hill Country bluesmen were the guys for whom the escape-to-the-promised-land thing just didn't work out.)  These men farmed, drove tractors, worked for themselves.  Sometimes they killed a man and did prison time.  They played houseparties and picnics.  They rocked Kimbrough's juke in Chulahoma.  Hill country blues is functional:  it's all about the groove, and the dancers who move to the groove.  (It's also about the women:  guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, for example, granddaughter of multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill.)  

§The hill country is NOT the Delta.  The Mississippi Delta is a teardrop-shaped flood plain that sits in the northwestern quadrant of the state.  Memphis is the northern tip of the Delta; Vicksburg is the southern tip.  The Mississippi River is the Delta's western flank; the Yazoo River is the eastern flank.  The Delta all lies west of I-55.  The Mississippi Delta is extremely flat--so flat that you notice its flatness the moment you enter it on any of the dozen-odd state highways that cross the interstate and sail down into it.  Historically, the Delta counties had a very high proportion of African American residents--as much as a 9-to-1 ratio of black to white.  This is why the blues flourished in the Delta during the 1920s and 1930s. 

§The hill country is its own distinct part of the state.  The North Mississippi hill country lies, for the most part, east of I-55, although some portions of it, including the towns of Como and Senatobia, straddle the interstate.  The hill country has lots of flatland, a fair share of cottonfields.  But the land isn't as fertile as Delta land.  The hills in the hill country aren't like the massive Appalachian crests of Kentucky.  They're low rollers, like a thick blanket roughly shaken across an unmade bed.  By early summer, kudzu has taken over--snaking out into the middle of the road, covering everything, including the smaller longleaf pine trees, with a rippling emerald carpet that has a distinctive astringent smell. 

§Hill country blues is different.  But how?  The sadness and the droning groove are predominant.  Where Delta and Chicago blues generally use a 12-bar, AAB format (think "Sweet Home Chicago"), hill country blues often sticks to the I chord rather than making a change to the IV or the V.  Sometimes, though, hill country blues spends most of its time on the IV chord, like a dancer who always starts off on his left leg but quickly hops to his right, and holds the pose.  This harmonic shift, when it shows up, gives hill country blues a haunting, uncanny sound--what musicians call a "suspended" sound.  I might kill you right now, baby, but then again I might just sit here all night long and never do it.  That sort of sound.

§The harmonica doesn't show up much in hill country blues.  In fact, Johnny Woods, a harmonica player from Looxahoma, is the only name that comes up, and even he barely registers with many harp aficionados.  He accompanied Mississippi Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside, and did a great job of it.  His playing is spare, solid, and intense.  But he pretty much stands alone as an exemplar of hill country harmonica playing.  And that's too bad.  (Among other things, Hill Country Harmonica--the event--dares to suggest that the hill country blues sound and its danceable grooves is something that harp players should be paying attention to.)  There's one other player who deserves mention here, and isn't usually thought of in this context:  Jason Ricci.  Arguably the most dynamic and innovative blues harmonicist on the scene today, Jason spent the late 1990s in North Mississippi, working Junior Kimbrough's juke joint with Kimbrough's son, David Malone Kimbrough.  Listen to Jason's second album, Down at the Juke.  You'll hear the hill country flavor. 

§The fife, absent from the Delta blues, plays a significant role in hill country blues.  This may be why there are so few hill country harmonica players:  because the fife was the region's wind instrument of choice.  Otha Turner and before him Napoleon Strickland were the masters; Turner's granddaughter, Sharde Thomas (see photo above), carries on the tradition.

§There's some overlap between Delta and hill country styles.  Musicians travel, and they carry their music with them.  Mississippi musicians travel in-state for various reasons:  to play gigs, to look for work, to spend time with family.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, a great number of black folk migrated down out of the hills into the Delta, looking for a fresh start.  But family members remained in the hills, and people go back home.  So it's a mistake to assume that Delta blues and hill country blues are entirely distinct.  They're first cousins; sometimes they're more like brothers.  Musicians from each tradition share a common stock of songs.  Some musicians who hail from the Delta, like Paul "Wine" Jones and T-Model Ford, sound more like hill country players.  

§The acknowledged masters of hill country blues, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both deceased, have left a remarkable family legacy.  Duwayne Burnside and the Mississippi Mafia, Burnside Exploration, David Kimbrough, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm, Kent Burnside & the New Generation, not to mention "adopted son" Kenny Brown:  a new generation of North Mississippi artists playing blues and blues-flavored music.  And of course the North Mississippi Allstars have gone on to international fame, carrying the hill country sound onto the roots-rock charts.

 

R. L. Burnside - "Poor Black Mattie" (1984)

 

R. L. Burnside and Johnny Woods -  "Suzanna" (1984)

 

 Jessie Mae Hemphill - "Loving in the Moonlight"

 

Othar Turner and Sharde Thomas - warming up for the August picnic

 

Cedric Burnside (drums) and Lightning Malcolm (guitar) - "Goin' Down South" (2008)

 

North Mississippi Allstars - Poor Boy (Long Way From Home) (2009)