Jimmy "Duck" Holmes

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is one of the most celebrated rural blues musicians performing today and proprietor of one of the oldest juke joints in Mississippi, the Blue Front in Bentonia.

In the mid-2000s he began performing blues actively after many years of performing casually, and has already garnered several awards and many accolades. He is a practitioner and conscious advocate of a distinctive blues style from his hometown whose most famous proponent was blues pioneer Skip James.

Holmes was born to sharecroppers Carey and Mary Holmes in 1947, the year before they opened the Blue Front Café. He was one of ten children and his parents also raised four children of Mary’s deceased sister. The children all grew up partially at the Blue Front, which served hot meals, sold groceries, housed a barbershop, and sold bootleg corn liquor to both its African American customers and to whites who would buy it out of the café’s back door. With the money they earned from the café and harvesting cotton, the Holmes sent most of their children to college.

During the segregation era the Blue Front was subject most of the time to a 10:00 pm curfew, but during the cotton harvest it stayed open 24 hours a day to accommodate workers processing cotton. Another segregation-era restriction was that the café could not serve Coca-Cola, which was reserved for whites. They instead sold brands such as Nehi but began selling Coca-Cola after the end of official segregation.

Musical performances at the café have historically been mostly informal, and notable out-of-towners who played there included James "Son" Thomas and Sonny Boy Williamson II. It also hosted musicians who played in what has been called the "Bentonia School" of the blues, which is characterized by distinctive tunings (E-Minor and open D-Minor), the use of falsetto, dark lyrical themes, and an overall eerie" quality.

The most famous artist from Bentonia who played in this style was Nehemiah "Skip" James (1902-1969). James learned to play guitar from local musicians including Henry Stuckey, who was never recorded, and also learned to play the piano. He recorded on both instruments for Paramount Records in 1931, resulting in influential songs including "Devil Got My Woman", "Hard Time Killing Floor", and "22-20 Blues", which Robert Johnson recorded as "32-20 Blues". After his "rediscovery" in the 1960s, James recorded several albums and performed on the folk circuit, introducing his seemingly idiosyncratic style to a new generation.

In the mid-‘60s musicologist David Evans travelled to Bentonia to conduct research, and found that other artists shared James’ style, notably Jack Owens (1904-1997), who ran a juke joint in Bentonia for many years, and Cornelius Bright. Evans’ field recordings of Owens were released on the 1971 Testament album It Must Have Been the Devil, and in subsequent decades Owens, together with his partner, blind harmonica player Bud Spires, performed at various festivals and was often visited at home by blues pilgrims.

Holmes, who never met Skip James, studied the music of Owens, learning songs including "Cherry Ball", "Hard Times", "I’d Rather Be the Devil", but didn’t perform very actively until relatively recently. He promoted blues through the founding in 1972 of the Bentonia Blues Festival, which took place annually until the mid-‘90s and was revived in 2006. He took over the Blue Front in 1970 after the death of his father, and beginning in the ‘80s the café became a popular destination for blues tourists, including annual visits by busloads of Japanese fans. In 1995 a commercial for Levi’s 501 jeans was filmed there.

Various blues researchers including Alan Lomax recorded Holmes beginning at least in the ‘70s, but until recently his only vocal appearance on record was one song, "Devil’s Blues", that he performed together with Cornelius Bright and which appeared on the Austrian Wolf label compilation album Giants of Country Blues Volume 2. In 2006 the St. Louis-based record label Broke & Hungry released Holmes’ debut CD Back to Bentonia. He was joined on the record by Spires and drummer Sam Carr, and in addition to some originals songs, Holmes also covered the Bentonia standards "Hard Times" and "I’d Rather Be the Devil".

The CD was well received, and garnered several Living Blues Awards and to multiple festival bookings, including the Chicago Blues Festival and the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. Holmes, who normally works as an educator, has traditionally been a somewhat reluctant performer, but has enjoyed the opportunity to share his music and talk about the Bentonia tradition. "You don’t get nervous when you’re doing your hobby," he says of performing.

In 2007 Broke and Hungry released a second CD, Done Got Tired of Tryin’, which followed a similar formula, and included James’ "Cherry Ball". The CD was nominated for a 2008 Blues Music Award for Acoustic Album of the Year, and National Public Radio listed it as one of the "Top 10 Blues Albums" of the year. Holmes also received national publicity in August 2007 when a Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker was dedicated in honor of the Blue Front Café.

Other members of Holmes’ family who are involved in the blues include his brother John and cousin Otha, who both sing and play guitar, and his sister Mary Alice Towner, who started a blues and gospel festival in Marks, Mississippi in 2000.

-Scott Barretta

Old Gray Mule

How do you break bar sales records in Australia, a country so married to their liquor habit that citizens have been known to partake in a little tipple during the workday *with* their bosses? You give patrons what Old Gray Mule’s got: juke blues boogie backed up with a ton of joy.
It was the blues that led Austin, Texas, native C.R. Humprhey to pick up his guitar again after a short break that turned into a 13-year hiatus. Inspired by the raw, rural end of the spectrum, with an emphasis on the music coming out of the north Mississippi hill country for the past 60 years – from R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones on up to Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm – Humphrey dedicated himself to learning this simple-sounding, not-the-same-old-twelve-bar-blues style that was bringing him so much pleasure. And it’s a good thing he had that dedication since this pared down style was not as simple as it seemed. But after hardcore immersion and practice, Humphrey did get a handle on it, and under the handle Old Gray Mule, he began writing, recording, and playing out.
And as Old Gray Mule continued to play – Humphrey honing his craft while playing or recording with the likes of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, T-Model Ford, Cedric Burnside, Kenny Brown, Lightnin Malcolm, Kinney Kimbrough, David Kimbrough Jr, and Hosea Hargrove – crowds gathered, responding not only to the skilled playing, but also the great joy with which OGM shows are imbued. People didn’t just watch; encouraged by the fun and friendly air of an OGM show, they danced, women got up on stage, and of course, contributed to the atmosphere. Expanding on the aforementioned Australian bar sales records, Humphrey talks about how patrons packed the clubs like sardines in a can, how OGM played a wake where the widow danced and the mourners showered roses on the band (actual roses – there is pictorial proof), and of a memorable album launch show in Adelaide when “we had a fat Elvis doing karate on stage with us, the usual girls getting down, a guy making mad love to a PA column after giving a minute or so of oral first, a guy making beer angels on the floor at the back, and on and on and on.”
Now with the release of the fourth album “Like a Apple on a Tree”, Old Gray Mule is ready to bring the sweaty, deep-grooving, hard-grinding joy to the people again. “Like a Apple on a Tree” is a package full of the heart, humor, and happiness with which Humphrey seems to conduct his whole life. As the music blog Now This Sound Is Brave put it, “Throughout the ten tracks, mostly originals, of Like a Apple on a Tree, Humphrey plays that good heart out with guitar work that is so immaculate and sharp, you could cut up your next meal with it. Though let me be clear: it is immaculate and sharp, but by no means clinical. Humphrey has sat at the knee of the best the Mississippi hill country has to offer (and when you’re talking blues, that’s pretty damn good) so these songs are made to play in stripped down, humid, dimly-lit jukes. [...] Like A Apple On A Tree is going to make you feel something, whether its joy, the blues, the desire to strip down with a willing partner or just the need to shimmy your hips way, way down.”

Mother Merey & the Black Dirt

A dust colored, rickety and road-worn minivan pulls up in the lane next to you. You don't really think twice until a sharp rev of the engine erupts in a cloud of smoke and rust that slowly rises from the battered windstar. The lights are on, windows tinted. The light turns green and the next thing you know the minivan is burning rubber on its way to sixty in five seconds flat, throwing rocks from the road and leaving two dark plumes of burnt rubber in its wake. Where is it going? Its headed Down To The River where you'll find:

Mother Merey Kimbrough(washboard/vocals)
Eric Witthans (dobro/vocals)
Kevin Allen (harp/vocals)

Blending a mix of folk and country blues. Mother Merey and the Black Dirt are currently playin around town and working on getting their debut album out (due April 2013).

$10.00 - $75.00

Tickets Available at the Door

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