By Jim Dees
This weekend (June 26-27) the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic (located 15 miles north of Oxford at the corner of Highways 7 and 310) will celebrate its 10th anniversary, a milestone that will be noted with pride by guitarist Kenny Brown. Brown, with his wife Sara, are the original organizers of the event and have seen it grow from a modest camping and musical weekend to an full-blown extravaganza that showcases the unique blues sound of north Mississippi. Brown, at 61, has graduated from eager student to one of the statesman of the genre. Over the years his guitar style has been celebrated worldwide.<>The Chicago Tribune said Brown’s music is, “short on radio-manicured polish and long on back roads fire.”
"Kenny's gotten better and better over the years," the late R.L. Burnside told the paper. "I'd compare him to some of the great slide players I've played with in my career." The late Jim Dickinson, a man with a keen record producer’s ear, said, “If you listen to those early (Oxford-based) Fat Possum records of Junior Kimbrough’s, Kenny is playing the most interesting guitar parts.” After Brown’s CD, “Meet Ya In The Bottom,” was released in 2008, one reviewer wrote, “If Keith Richards were born in Mississippi it would sound like this.”
Kenny Brown learned his blues the old fashioned way, as a hard-working protégé picking up tips from his mentors. As a teenager in Nesbit, Brown sought out his neighbor, Joe Callicott, who shared his guitar knowledge. The two would get together after work and play for hours at Joe’s house. When Callicott passed, Brown became friends with R.L. Burnside who also showed the young bluesman some tricks on the slide guitar.
“I started going there two or three nights a week,” Brown said in a 1998 interview. “I'd get off construction work and he'd get off the tractor and we'd sit up in there and play till midnight.”
In an oft-told story, Burnside took Brown deep in the woods to a rustic juke joint where Brown earned his wings as bluesman. As Brown recalled for “Blues on Stage,” “We played for a little while and then R.L. said, ‘I'm going out back and gamble. Brown, you keep playing.’ I said, ‘Damn, Rule (R.L.’s nickname) (laughs). I was the only white person in there and I went to playing and at first I was scared to death. I went to playing and the guys went to hollerin', ‘Yeah, white folks play that thing!’ And they went to dancin' so I kept playin'.
“R.L. come on back out after a while. I tell him, ‘Now you were just checking me out to see if I was going to make it weren’t you?’” In this way, R.L. was merely paying forward a blues education. After all, he had learned many of his licks from the late, great Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“On Sunday we'd go down to his (McDowell’s) house in Como,” Burnside said in the same interview. “We’d play there on his porch and drink whiskey and stuff you know. Fred was a good guy, real nice.” Before Burnside passed away in 2005, Brown and Burnside became more than protégé and mentor but bandmates who toured the world as a trio with Burnside’s son, Cedric, on drums.
Now, with the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, the circle is unbroken. Brown offers guitar and harmonica workshops to pass along what he has learned in what is very much a time-honored tradition. The stage at the picnic is adorned with plaques commemorating the names of past masters who have gone on to the great juke joint in the sky. Names like Kimbrough, Ford, Burnside, Turner, Dickinson and (Duff) Dorrough among others.
As the picnic celebrates its 10th year, the music, some of it a century old, will live and breathe with a fire and passion undiminished by time. For years overshadowed by its more famous cousin, the Delta blues, North Mississippi hill country blues is beloved worldwide – Brown recently played a festival in Crissier, Switzerland – and now takes its place as one of this area’s most cherished exports.
Get off the couch and dig it. It may be hot but the beer will be cold.
For more info, including tickets, musical lineup, shuttle information and cooler rules, go to http://www.nmshillcountrypicnic.com/.
Jim Dees has lived in Oxford for over 30 years and lived to tell the tale.