Words and photos by Ray Proetto of bluespowerphoto.com
Something Off the Beaten Path
It was Sunday, April 15, 2012 and the Juke Joint Festival weekend in Clarksdale Mississippi was winding down. Red’s Lounge or Blues Club or whatever he is calling these days is the place I prefer to end the weekend.
On Sundays there is a jam hosted by Terry “Harmonica” Bean or whoever Red has lined up. When the music ends late Sunday night, I walk up the block to my room at the Sunflower Hotel and get a good night’s sleep before my long drive back to Florida.
It had been a long weekend of great music, dancing and stimulating conversation since I arrived in Clarksdale Thursday afternoon three days ago. But this year Sunday night would be different. One of my favorite blues couples, Bob and Judy convinced me to make the 90 minute drive to the Foxfire Ranch in Waterford MS to see Eric Deaton perform outdoors. I’d heard him play several times before and knew Eric was well worth the trip.
When my good friend Rosalind Wilcox heard about the show, she was excited to come along and see the Foxfire Ranch for the first time. Rosalind is an artist and musician herself who owns the Sun House Art Gallery in Clarksdale.
What’s more, she performs on drums with many of the older Delta and Hill Country Blues musicians. We hit the road at 5:30pm. Of course I took my camera along just in case there would be some unique photo ops.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues
Eric Deaton is a young man who has been studying blues guitar in North Mississippi for over 15 years. He moved to Mississippi from somewhere in the Carolinas just out of high school. He studied and learned from some of the old masters who are no longer with us.
Eric plays the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues but seems to prefer a harder edge style when performing his own songs.
What is the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues?
It’s a regional blues style that grew up in the Holly Springs area of North Mississippi. “Mississippi” Fred McDowell was one of the earliest proponents of this style.
The music is a “country blues” fingerpicking style which sounds somewhat like the Delta Blues but often stresses a one chord run rather than the twelve-bar multi-chord structure of the Delta Blues. Similar to the Delta Blues, it typically contains the use of a slide but differs in its focus upon a simpler repetitive groove.
This repetitive groove is accomplished by using less chord changes and leaving out the turnaround which is used to restart the chord structure in 12 bar blues songs. Played up tempo, this repetitive groove is ideal for a dance party. When played slowly the music takes on a droning style which sends me quickly into a comfortable trance.
Some of the Hill Country musicians used just the thumb and index finger to pick out the music. You can see Fred McDowell do this on this YouTube video.
The Hill Country Blues became world famous in the 1990s from the recordings of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Those two have passed on but artists such as “Little” Joe Ayers, Kenny Brown and Robert “Wolfman” Belfour continue to play the music in Mississippi.
The Hill Country tradition has been carried on with younger artists such as Cedric Burnside, the North Mississippi All Stars, “Lightnin” Malcolm, Eric Deaton, and to some extent, the All Night Long Band out of Clarksdale MS. Check out all of these artists on YouTube and get a quick taste of this unique style of blues.
Junior Kimbrough Playing A Real North Country Juke Joint
Eric Deaton can do it all. I’ve never seen him use a pick to play guitar. It’s all finger style for Eric and I’ve heard him play everything from droning Hill Country Blues to searing 12 bar blues solos.
I was fortunate to hear a different side of his playing when he performed live with Shannon McNally in Atlanta on June 27, 2010. That evening he played the most beautiful, melodic, soft touch guitar solos. I was floating away on a cloud listening to him play on Shannon’s “Bohemian Wedding Song.” It took a lot of talent to make me forget Shannon was standing and singing just four feet away!
Arriving on the Hilltop
Turning onto the drive for the Foxfire Ranch, it followed a long dirt road uphill. On the left was a two story house and up a little further at the very top of the hill was a large metal roof about forty feet high and at least 90 feet long with no walls. It resembled a giant car port.
Under the entire length of the roof was a cement slab with picnic tables, an empty space at the far end for dancing and beyond that was the stage.
A building on the left side ran longer than the length of the roof. It had bathrooms on one end. In the middle were large open windows with counters to serve customers and a kitchen.
At the far end near the stage was some sort of meeting room that wasn’t open. We parked in a large grass parking lot and stepped out of the car. The first thing I noticed was the soothing cool breeze. We were in Mississippi Hill Country and this was the very peak of a hill which elevated higher than all the others around.
The Hollowells Set the Tone
Walking under the metal roof we were immediately greeted by the owners, Annie and Bill Hollowell. They seemed genuinely warm and friendly. Bill soon returned to work behind the counters and Annie sat down for a long conversation. She was sincerely interested in getting to know her new patrons.
When they weren’t working or dancing, Annie and Bill sat down and talked to the group at our table and with other patrons throughout the night. Our friends Bob and Judy were there as well as quite a few local musicians.
Some of the Burnside clan and one of Rosalind’s performing buddies, “Little” Joe Ayers. Joe played with Junior Kimbrough (one of the late Hill Country Blues legends) for at least twenty years.
Joe Ayers is a talented performer in his own right. I was fortunate to hear him perform the night before at Rosalind’s art gallery in Clarksdale. He’s written quite a few well known songs and is one of the last of the older generation of Hill Country blues performers.
When Joe sings and plays his acoustic guitar it sounds like the blues in its purest form. His singing is haunting and poignant with a deep mournful voice. This voice on top of his hypnotic guitar playing puts me in a trance inspiring feelings from sorrow to joy.
Joe Ayers wouldn’t perform tonight but before the night was over we did hear “Lightnin” Malcolm sing and play a few songs. Malcolm, like Eric Deaton is a younger blues artist who moved to the area and studied the Hill Country blues guitar style. Malcolm’s guitar playing is so evocative of Hill Country Blues legend Junior Kimbrough that when hearing their recordings I often cannot tell them apart.
To my surprise some of the people had brought along children to the Foxfire Ranch. It was still daylight when we arrived and the atmosphere was and would remain more of a family picnic than a rowdy Juke Joint.
It wasn’t before long I was talking to the Hollowell’s two beautiful daughters Annette and Hollie. They introduced themselves and the oldest, Annette had just returned from a vacation with her husband Hamilton. The family was celebrating the couple’s return this evening and they were all in very good spirits.
The whole operation was definitely a family affair. At some point, each family member helped in the kitchen or behind the counters. They were also extremely friendly and conversed with the customers whether they were close neighbors or total strangers like me. Within the first hour I had the sense I was among old friends at a very special gathering.
A Great Place to Bring Your Appetite
Up at the counter, I placed an order for the Sampler Plate. If you enjoy southern cooking, this is a great place to bring your appetite. The food is all homemade right there on the hill.
My sampler included fried catfish, collard greens, pulled pork with homemade barbecue sauce, corn with jalapeños, coleslaw, slow cooked sweet potatoes, and corn bread. And for a special treat, I tried the corn wine, made from a special family recipe passed down for generations. The wine packed a nice punch and tasted like a sweet cross between wine and liquor.
And if corn wine isn’t your cup of tea, you can bring your own alcohol to the Ranch-even your own cooler.
Let the Party Begin
Just as the sun began to set, Eric Deaton began his first set. Eric is an extremely talented guitarist who played a combination of Hill Country blues dance music, hard edged rock, and 12 bar slow burning blues.
Eric’s band consisted of Kent Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough on drums and Nate Robbins on bass. Despite the high level of talent in this band, patrons at the Foxfire Ranch were of such an interesting mix it was often hard to watch Eric play. I found myself trying to identify various musicians from the local blues scene or photographing my friend Rosalind playing and dancing with the cutest little toddler.
Annette and her sister Hollie jump-started the party when they hit the dance floor first. It wasn’t long before there were 20 or so people dancing. Later Annie joined in and encouraged anyone sitting to get up and boogie.
During the second set, “Lightnin” Malcolm joined the band on drums. After a short stint he grabbed Eric’s guitar and sang a few songs as much of the crowd continued dancing and cheered in appreciation. Then Eric picked the lead back up and the dance party rolled on.
By 9:00pm there was magic in the air.
There was a storm brewing and the wind whipped a stiff breeze from out of the black night cooling the dancers. Grade school children were making chalk drawings on the dance floor, my favorite toddler was playing drumsticks to the music, and the looks of delight on so many faces was a sight to behold.
The infectious blues, stiff breeze, and the joyous smiles of the dancers combined to create a special energy I’ll never forget.
Does This Night Have to End?
Eric Deaton put on quite a show and thoroughly stirred me toward the end of the night with some powerful 12 bar slow blues. When Eric had played his last song, I could sense everyone around me had experienced the same magic and no one wanted it to end. There was such a sense of elation in the air as people all around were laughing, hugging and taking pictures with their new friends.
Long after the music was over, those still lingering at the Ranch spontaneously gathered to take an enormous group photo. As they lined up for the picture, Bill Hollowell joined the group lying on the ground in front of everyone. Then Annie jumped on top of him as everyone to burst into laughter.
When we said our goodbyes and left the Foxfire Ranch, I was feeling as though I had found a second family I could return to at any time.
If you are lucky enough to be in North Mississippi for any reason at all, be sure to squeeze in a trip to Waterford Mississippi and experience the Foxfire Ranch. With southern cooking, a friendly family atmosphere, local musicians, and always a cool breeze the Foxfire Ranch is a big slice of blues heaven.
Additional Note: The Foxfire Ranch is now the home of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic held the end of June each year. This gathering of local musicians and friends from all over the region is a very special event. See a description of the 2010 Hill Country Picnic under ARTICLES on my website… bluespowerphoto.com.