|Hill Country Blues is rock n' roll in its purest form|
What is hill country blues? It’s a way of life for one. It’s a regional style of blues that comes from North Mississippi, particularly around the greater Holly Springs area. It gets down in your blood if you let it (and sometimes you don’t have a choice in the matter). It makes you wanna get up and get down. It’s a sound that moves you. Then, eventually, it forces you to physically move cause it gets you up out of your seat, throws you into a coma-like state and makes you MOVE. (Remember I said you have no choice in the matter?) This is a groove unlike any other. Not a groove like Funk, R&B, Jazz, Funk or any other kind of groove in music. This is trance music.
Hill country differs from all other styles of blues. It’s built from guitar-driven riffs, emphasizing the rhythm and percussion, very little use of the harmonica and the song structures themselves are more unconventional than any popularized blues songs on the radio, tv, etc. It’s different than Delta Blues for sure. Often, people mistake all styles of blues for being the same. For starters, this mistake happens simply because they all came out of Mississippi. Plus, Delta Blues took the limelight first. It’s far more popular than others, due to the old delta pickers taking their music to Chicago and becoming successful with worldwide recognition. Sometimes the styles even overlap. Take, for instance, T-Model Ford’s music. He hailed from the Delta but his sound and his playing was clearly Hill Country. From a musician’s point of view, the chords used, or lack thereof, are completely different from Delta and Chicago blues songs. It’s not your basic three chords (I-IV-V) you normally hear in popular blues progressions (Mustang Sally, Sweet Home Chicago, The Thrill Is Gone, etc). For the most part you’re just using that first chord (the I chord) of those three and, typically, never straying away from it. They hit that chord/key, lock into a groove, and ride it on out ‘til the wheels fall off. Obviously there are exceptions, as there are in any and every style of music. But, for the most part, it’s just trance music baby...all night long. And they didn’t wear no stinkin’ expensive suits either. They’re from the hill country. They wore wife-beaters, boots, trucker hats, overalls...they’re country-livin’ folks.
When you think hill country, two of the musicians that are mentioned the most, in modern times, are R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. In the 90’s their styles caught on with blues crowds and indie/alternative crowds alike. Especially when they appeared in the 1991 Deep Blues documentary and then signing with the Fat Possum record label out of Oxford, Mississippi. They actually began recording in the ‘60s, playing mostly at juke joints and house parties close to home. It wasn’t until the ‘70s that they actually started playing festivals and even Europe but, then in the ‘90s they gained much success, extensively touring in the states and overseas, inspiring many artists who would go on to emulate their hill country sound along the way. Burnside’s most popular trio consisted of himself, his grandson Cedric on drums and his buddy and “adopted son” the legendary Kenny Brown on slide/lead guitar. One of Kimbrough’s most notable lineups consisted of his son Kinney on drums and R.L.’s son Garry on bass guitar. Where Burnside’s music was more on the happy, dancing side of things (for a lack of better explanation), Kimbrough’s music portrayed a much darker side and approach to the style. Both Burnside and Kimbrough influenced tons of heavy-hitter artists who’ve recorded their tunes, such as The Black Keys, North Mississippi Allstars and more. They’ve had their songs in commercials, television shows, films, etc. But who influenced them? Burnside and Kimbrough both were heavily influenced by the music of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. However, Burnside learned directly from guitarists Mississippi Fred McDowell and Ranie Burnette. McDowell’s sound is said to have helped define the hill country sound early on. His performances had that “drone” style, that’s prominent in hill country, heavy on African rhythms and the percussive side of things.
|RL Burnside will always be my personal favorite Hill Country Blues artist|
Even though Burnside and Kimbrough have passed, their families still play on in this tradition that was passed down, keeping this style of blues alive: Duwayne Burnside, Duwayne Burnside & The Mississippi Mafia, The Burnside Exploration, Cedric Burnside, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm, Kent Burnside & The New Generation and David Kimbrough. Kenny Brown and other North Mississippi artists, such as North Mississippi Allstars and Hill Country Revue, have taken the style or their newer version of the style to international fame as well. If you’re not hip to hill country blues, hopefully this will help get you on your journey and be the starter kit to learning about North Mississippi music. Do yourself a favor and seek out some of these artists mentioned, new and old. The same ol’ blues is gonna be just that without expanding to check out other voices and other ways of the land and music in Mississippi.
For a more in-depth look at the blues in all of it’s forms, check out the book Deep Blues by Robert Palmer. A great read for lovers of southern music!