Thursday, April 9, 2020

Junior Kimbrough's "Cotton-patch blues"

By JIM McGUINNESS Staff Writer
The Hackensack (New Jersey) Record, September 1, 1995.

Photo: Adam Smith
As I prepared for a phone interview with guitar great Junior Kimbrough, it dawned on me: What if the Mississippi bluesman was a bad — really bad — interview? 

There was a basis for such fear. Since the release of his critically acclaimed "All Night Long" debut album in 1992 —and his equally strong follow-up, last year's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" — I couldn't recall seeing a single story in which Kimbrough was quoted at length. My trepidation intensified when a representative from his record company responded to my interview request with, "Oh, Junior. That guy's tough to get a hold of. You see, he doesn't have a phone."

Suddenly, I had a picture of poor Kimbrough risking injury by hanging from a telephone pole — "Green Acres"-style — to answer questions about his musical influences. 

Suffice to say, Kimbrough isn't exactly a quote machine. His short, barely intelligible replies only deepened the mystery surrounding the blues men of the Delta region. Robert Johnson himself — dead for 57 years —probably gives better interviews. 

Speaking in a Southern drawl thicker than Mississippi mud, Kimbrough grunted forth the essence of his music. 

"I just play my music," he said, speaking from a neighbor's home. "I just play for the people." 

Short, simple, and honest. 

Therein lies his charm. In a time when pop stars carry on as if their latest albums were the answer to world peace, Kimbrough is refreshing in his brevity. He's out of his element in an interview, preferring to let his music do the talking. 

His trance-inducing guitar style is dominated by eerily constructed riffs and raw, rocking rhythms. His original songs — one-chord droners —ring of the hard life. Farm worker. Moonshine runner. Tractor and bulldozer driver. Kimbrough has done what's needed to survive down along the Mississippi Delta. 

"I play that cotton-patch blues," said Kimbrough. "I was working in the cotton fields when I learned how to play." 

Kimbrough isn't a Delta blues man, per se. He lives in Chulahoma, a tiny town of 500 people in the northern Missisisippi hill country adjacent to the Delta. There he is a big man — the proprietor of a popular juke joint that bears his name. In the two-family house next door lives R.L. Burnside, a bona-fide blues man and Kimbrough's frequent partner in musical mayhem. A converted storehouse, Kimbrough's juke joint — which doesn't bother to have a sign —is the hot spot in Chulahoma. 

Photo: Adam Smith
"It's a place to play music, sell beer, dance, and have fun all night," Kimbrough said. "Sometimes we don't even close." Like Burnside, Kimbrough is affiliated with Fat Possum Records, an Oxford, Miss., label that specializes in recording gritty juke joint performers. At 58 or 65 (Kimbrough isn't very good with dates, so his age varies depending on the source), he seems unaffected by his apparent blues stardom at such a late juncture. 

"It surprised me," he said. "You never know." 

This much is known about Kimbrough. He was born in Hudsonville, Miss. At 8, following the lead of his three older brothers and one sister, he took up the guitar. He made his first record — "Tramp," backed with "You Can't Leave Me" — for the Philwood label in 1968. His only other recorded efforts were in the Seventies when he made "Keep Your Hands Off Her" backed with "I Feel Good Little Girl" for High Water and "All Night Long," a song that appeared on the Southland label's National Downhome Festival Series.

Kimbrough's big break came in 1992, when he was featured in "Deep Blues," a blues documentary put together by music journalist Robert Palmer. Shortly afterward, he recorded "All Night Long" for Fat Possum. Produced by Palmer and recorded at Kimbrough's juke joint, the album received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone (which called it the best Delta blues album in 40 years) and other music magazines. 

Kimbrough's belated recognition was nearly cut short late in 1992, when a stroke robbed him of some mobility in his left leg. But he's persevered, never thinking of himself as a star. 

"If my leg wasn't so bad, I'd like to work some," he said. "Maybe as a mechanic." 

Try to catch them at the World Financial Center. This kind doesn't come our way too often. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dec 12, 1982.

1 comment:

  1. KImbrough was indeed a tough interview. Although he had many friends, he tended to be taciturn with people he didn't know so well. His High Water 45 was produced by Sylvester Oliver. Sylvester took me to see Kimbrough in 1979. He was playing with his band at a night club on the south side of Holly Springs. There were about 150-200 people there, nicely dressed sitting at tables, with a dance floor.