The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic by Jay Moore

Posted on 7/05/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

This week's article is brought to you by my dear friend, Jay Moore, as I am currently driving back to Memphis after a fun weekend playing in Kankakee, Illinois, and in Davenport, Iowa at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. I will be reporting on these festivities next Monday here at American Blues News. See you then!

Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Potts Camp, Mississippi) On June 25, my wife and I packed up the truck with coolers, lawn chairs, canopy, and sunscreen to start our introduction to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. We drove over towards Potts Camp, concerned about the show not going on because a light rain that had started, but hoping for some smokin' hot Hill Country Blues, nonetheless. As we rounded a corner in the road we saw a sign that looked at first like an ad for the NMCHP, and didn't slow down (I'll admit, I was looking for the sign for the “Bucksnort” community – oh, yeah, it's real). We realized our mistake, and according to my GPS, we made a “legal u-turn” at the next opportunity, about a mile or so down the road. Upon returning to the road, we were greeted with a very funny sight: “Burma-shave” style “you're almost there; you can smell it in the air; right by the crick; it's the Hill Country Picnic” signs letting us know we were almost there. By the way, that's my paraphrasing – at the time, I was laughing too hard to remember the actual lines.

We arrived at what appeared to be the entrance to a cattle pasture. Surprise – it was! Kenny Brown opens up his “ranch” for the purpose of holding the NMCHP every year, and it's held on about 5 acres of his farmland. As we made our way down the field road, I began to wonder about what the scene was going to be like. By the time we arrived at the “main gate”, my poor ol' white truck was decidedly browner than usual.

We paid for our days' wristbands and for the cooler, then went in and grabbed the first good parking space we could find. We grabbed everything - chairs, coolers, backpack, canopy – and started walking. Friends, heed my advice: DON'T DO THIS! Take your time; make multiple trips. No sense in killin' yourself dead before the show gets crackin'. Even with the rain, it was still in the 90's and with the humidity up around “goldfish pond”, you can't sweat. Drink plenty of liquids! We had just gotten the canopy parts all laid out and were trying to figure out just which ones were parts “2A”, “3A”, etc. when my friend Brian arrived. Shannon McNally took the stage just a few minutes into our efforts, so we had to settle for listening to her belt out some great tunes as we worked. Segue to 45 minutes later, and we were finally perched under our now-assembled canopy, enjoying the last of Blue Mother Tupelo's set. The rain that had plagued the early afternoon finally let up about 6 or so, and then someone turned off what little cool air was blowing through the rain. I now have more sympathy for lobsters. The Boy Scouts had set up a tent next to the merchandising booth, and were serving some wonderfully sweet and cold watermelon and bottled water. We partook of those, which helped cool us down somewhat. The merchandising tent was selling each artist's CDs, t-shirts, and other assorted goodies, which meant that I would be back after just about every set to buy another CD or three. SUPPORT THESE ARTISTS!!!

Robert Belfour

Next up on the stage after Blue Mother Tupelo was Robert Belfour. Mr. Belfour gave us a set of some great “old-style” blues – simple, rhythmic, beautiful. His voice was smooth from years of practice, and his guitar playing was something to behold.

Cody and Cedric Burnside

Cedric and Cody Burnside got up on stage next, and to the delight of the crowd, they were introduced not by the emcee (Joe Whitmer of The Blues Foundation if I haven't lost my notching stick), but by two little Burnside girls, neither of whom could have been older than eight. Young they might have been, but these girls already show no fear of the stage or microphone, and know how to “whip up” the crowd! Cedric and Cody played a few songs, and then Cody and the girls moved to just off-stage as Lightnin' Malcolm came up and Cedric took his place on the drums. The Two-Man Wrecking Crew was in da house, y'all! Robert Belfour gave us toe-tapping, simple acoustic blues; Mal and Cedric gave us foot-stompin' power-house electric blues. This juxtaposition of simple vs. complex rhythm and style would continue for the rest of the weekend. I think that's maybe so that the attendees wouldn't be too wore out by Saturday night.

Lightnin' Malcom and Cedric Burnside

We were treated to an impromptu set by Robert L. Burnside, Jr., as he joined Cedric and Malcolm for a couple of songs. It's scary how much he looks and sounds like his Papa.

R L Burnside, Jr. joins Cedric and Malcolm for a short set

Whew. Cool down time. That was provided as T Model Ford took the stage, with Bill Abel accompanying him on guitar. I'm not an aficionado of Blues Music, so I can't tell you what songs, from what period, and in what style, that it was that T Model played; all I'll say is, “Man, that was some good music.”

T Model Ford with Bill Abel

T Model's Wife Shakes 'Em On Down

And no show can be complete without a demonstration of how to “Shake'em On Down” - in this case, presented by T Model's wife...

Eric Deaton and the author

I had the chance to chat for a while with one of my favorite Hill Country Musicians, Eric Deaton. Folks, in the picture below, that isn't rain makin' our shirts look like that – it's the heat, baby!

By this time, the crowd was starting to get thicker as people arrived, in ones, twos and groups. Being a truly family friendly affair, many people had their children with them. With acres of relatively flat grass to play on, the frisbees and footballs were a-flyin'. There were two EMTs on standby should anyone need them. Thank you, Lord, that neither day did they ever do more than pitch a football or two. And the smells of catfish and bar-be-que wafting from the vendor's row were enough to set just about any mouth watering.

Robert Kimbrough Sr. Blues Connection

It was in this atmosphere that the Robert Kimbrough Sr. Blues Connection took to the stage, and lit the crowd back up.

Hill Country Review

Next up on the stage was the band, Hill Country Revue. Having seen them in concert before, I was amazed at the raw power that they were able to put out in their music here on a converted flat-bed truck/stage. Night and day. I'm not sure if they held back in the concert hall to keep up with some kind of fire code or something, but at the NMHCP, they took the governers off their amps and let loose. There was some booty-shakin' goin' on now, brother!

Josh Roberts

Just as I was taking some of these shots, I felt someone peck on my shoulder. I turned and looked at the woman behind me, and was met with a wicked grin. Then she nodded to my left side. I turned and was looking at someone I'd never have expected to see in my neck of the woods: Josh Roberts, guitarist for The Reba Russell Band and also part of the group Wainwright, Santini and Roberts.

The Burnside Exploration

After Hill Country Revue stepped down and the stage was reconfigured, I started seeing a couple of guys setting up saxophones. Saxophones? Here? My answer to who could be so fiendish as to bring culture into this rough-and-tumble setting was quick to arrive: The Burnside Exploration! And this time, we didn't get a “cool down” period of slow music. No, Sir! The Burnside Exploration took the energy that was still zinging off the walls from HCR, re-wrapped it, and pumped it back out to the crowd, fresh, new and exciting. My dismay at the saxes was quickly forgotten.

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Up till now, we had been in an up-and-down musical vibe, but after these last two acts, the planners of the event decided to keep revving the engine. The Burnside Exploration blasted out many of what could be considered “Hill Country Classics”, plus some of their new materials, which had the crowd at the stage bumpin' and grindin'. When they left the stage, it seemed like an eternity before the next group came on. But, in reality, less than 10 minutes later, we had Alvin Youngblood Hart on-stage, and ripping into the guitar, tearing through hits from his “Motivational Speaker” album and then some of his older works.

Jimbo Mathus

The night was marching quickly on to the witching hour as the final act of the night set up. Jimbo Mathus and his band set up the stage, and then knocked down the crowd with a variety of songs, some quirky and fun, and many that were just bluesy electric tunes. I swear, at one time when I looked at Jimbo, I thought I was watching a young Roger Daltrey, straight down to the antics he was performing on-stage.

Jimbo's set ended the first night. We packed up, canopy and all, and headed home for some much-needed rest, relaxation, and air conditioning.

Day two of our adventure started out blistering hot and muggier than New York in an economic slump. When we arrived on-site, it was already 12:00, and we'd missed the first act, Jay Lang and the Ringers. To make matters worse, we again had to settle for listening to Eric Deaton and his band play as background music for our canopy set-up. One on-looker later mentioned that we looked like we were possessed or something, so fast did we work. I told him it was simple survival; one more minute in that sun and I was going to literally melt.

Eric Deaton

Rocket 88

With shade and seats firmly in place, we sat down to a cold Coke and some Country-fried Hill Country Blues, courtesy of Rocket 88.

Next up, it was time to “get right with the Lord” as John Wilkins got up on stage, and sangs songs made to make you wanna be in church on Sunday. In amongst the music, he told some amusing stories about being a musician and a minister. I wish I'd had the forethought to bring a recorder – some of those stories would be worth a trip to his church to hear again.

John Wilkins

After John had left the stage and before the next act, we were pleasantly “ambushed” by RL Burnside, Jr. and his band for a quick little set of Burnside classics.

RLB, Jr. and band take the stage. Literally. And we didn't care!

It was at this point in the day that things got a little bit dicey. The weather, which had blissfully cooled during the last hour, now started shifting winds. The partly-cloudy and sunny day we'd started with had turned dark and overcast. Then the lightning started dancing all around us. The winds whipped up, and tents went a-flyin'. We grabbed ours and held on for dear life for about 30 minutes, as we watched some folks head for their cars, some for the tree line, and others, apparently as dumb as we were, hunker down to wait out Mother Nature's wrath. But wait it out we did, and after a little clean-up and de-tarping, the stage was back ready for entertainers.

High winds wreak havoc on tents and chairs

Little Joe Ayers

Little Joe Ayers was next up on the line-up, and he quickly gave us something better to think about than the occasional lightning bolt that still bounced around. Part-way into his set, he was joined by Kenny Brown, much to the enjoyment of all.

Kent Burnside

Next up was Kent Burnside. He took the audience from classic Hill sound to more edgy electric, with a hint of smoke thrown in for good measure.

Loose Shoes

Alvin Hart, Luther Dickinson, and Jimbo Mathus took the stage as “Loose Shoes”, and proceeded to boogie everyone right out of their shoes. If these boys ever decide to cut an album, that sucker's going to be on my list the day it's announced. Three different styles, three different blends, one outstanding set.

The Rising Star Fife And Drum Band

From seemingly out of the woods came this plaintive flute's song, keening out a melody at once sad and yet hopeful. As the melody played, the sound focused more and more until it centered on the stage. The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band had arrived! They wowed the crowd (can I patent that phrase?) with a couple of songs, then the . . . Fifist? . . . began to sing as the drums played. She had a sweet voice that blended not only with the drums, but as she sang, she would also play during the lyrical breaks. This set had just about everybody in attendance wrapped around their finger.

The North Mississippi All-Stars

After all that sweetness and simplicity, well, you know we had to have some hard-drivin' music! The North Mississippi All-Stars were ready and waiting to deliver! Shake'em on down, and have yourselves a Snake Drive, boys!

Blue Mountain

Like Friday night before, once the rockin' starts after dark, it doesn't stop. Blue Mountain came up and took over the reins, and laid us low with some hot-rockin' blues tunes. One of my personal favorites of the evening!

DuWayne Burnside

DuWayne Burnside came on next, and showed that he's got what it takes to “call himself a Burnside” - the voice, the guitar playing, the music. It's all there, and it's all good. Check him out – you won't be sorry!

Kenny Brown

And now for the finale of the show: Kenny Brown came on the stage to whoops and howls, and set in for the long-haul by rockin', swayin', and rollin' us around. Kenny discovered that we had a contingent of folks from somewhere in Norway in attendance! Either they're “hard-core” or just really lucked out on the timing. Either way, it was nice talking with a few of them and welcoming them to our great state! Y'all come back now, ya heah?

When Kenny finished his set, he didn't even make it off-stage before the crowd was chanting “One More Song!” He must have heard them, because he came back out and delighted the crowd with not one, but two additional songs before thanking everyone and wishing us a safe drive home.

View from the “cheap seats”

We packed up and got ready to head home. But at the gate, just before hitting the road, I got an additional taste of how well this “picnic” is organized – there was a guard, checking to make sure that nobody leaving the picnic was going out on the road intoxicated. Very well done!

My wife and I will be back for the 6th annual Picnic next year. We hope to see you there!

© Jay Moore, 2010
© Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms, 2010

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

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Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

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