By Devon Wendell
Mississippi is a birthplace of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and some of the most influential gospel, country, and folk music. The Recording Academy, quite correctly if not belatedly, finally decided to pay homage to the great music from this state last Thursday with its Mississippi Music Celebration — a program at the Grammy Museum featuring artists such as Homemade Jamz, Shannon McNally, and Jimbo Mathus.
The focus that night (which also happened to be the birthday of Robert Johnson) was on Mississippi music history, concentrating on Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, “Pops” Staples, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and a list of the faces that would appear on the Mount Rushmore of the blues. Though there was a lot of talk from the podium in the Museum’s Clive Davis Theater from distinguished members of the Recording Academy, it was the music that spoke the loudest.
Kicking off the show was Tupelo, Mississippi’s Homemade Jamz, a young (in their late teens) electric blues band with plenty of fire in its belly, featuring Ryan Perry on guitar and vocals, Kyle Perry on bass, and Taya Perry on drums. This aggressively soulful power trio of two brothers and a younger sister were joined by their father Renaud Perry on harmonica. Their sound was a cross between the hypnotic, one-chord blues of the Mississippi hill country stylings of Junior Kimbrough and R.L.Burnside. combined with the more brash sound that Mississippi Delta blues would have when it became electrified in Chicago by icons such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Ryan Perry’s guitar style was a louder combination of Magic Sam and Albert King. But on numbers like “Burned Down House” and “Mississippi Hill Country,” it was evident that there was equal power amongst the band members. Kyle’s thick and muddy bass thumping jelled perfectly with Taya’s hard but dynamic drumming. For a late teen, Ryan’s vocals seemed far beyond his age with their roughness and grittiness. His finest vocal performance was on the minor key “Got A Bad Bad Feeling.” His guitar work on this song was also close to fellow Mississippi native Otis Rush, with its weeping string bends and slow vibrato.
Homemade Jamz’ set also contained funky juke joint shuffles on “Washing Clothes” and “People Don’t,” which explores the idea that, musically and culturally, the times they are a’changin’. During this final number, Ryan walked out into the audience mid–solo and played guitar behind his head, which would have made Charlie Patton (the father of the Mississippi Delta blues) proud, though I got the impression that Ryan had more Hendrix on his mind than Patton, who was known to display such stage antics as early as the turn of the 20th century.
Renaud, the Perrys’ father, played a nice subordinate role, standing in the back, and never allowing his James Cotton style harp comping to overblow any of his kids. It was refreshing to see a family – including such young players — who truly knew the history of the blues from their home state and played it with pride and conviction.
Shannon McNally (photo by Ron Baker)
Up next was Shannon McNally, solo with her acoustic guitar. Even though she was born on Long Island, New York, McNally’s stripped down, wonderfully under-produced country style shone on Jimmy Rodgers’ classic “The Mississippi And You.” McNally had Rodgers’s yodeling style down flawlessly and her Southern-accented, soft and haunting vocals had a down home sincerity. The sad minor key ballad “The Bohemian Wedding Prayer” (originally produced by Jim Dickinson) displayed some gentle vocal phrasing and pensive guitar picking that harmoniously took the listener across the Delta cotton fields.
McNally summed up her music perfectly when the great Mississippi producer Dickinson asked her what she wanted for her album. She responded “I don’t want to pander,” and she never did during her brief set.
McNally certainly didn’t “pander,” even on a song about childbirth called “Thunderhead,” which was no-frills country music at its purest with clear and beautifully imagistic lyrics. Her natural beauty is a perfect match with her music. This was evident on the romantic ballad “Lovely,” which revealed a warm charm and vulnerability all at once.
Jimbo Mathus may best be known for founding the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Mathus also has been one of the most sought after musicians and producers over the past decade. This Clarksdale native has worked with Buddy Guy, The North Mississippi Allstars, and the South Memphis String Band, to name a few.
At this Grammy tribute to Mississippi, Mathus came to represent his beloved state with humor and passion. He took the stage with an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup and harmonica and opened with the perfect number, “Home Sweet Home.” And there was a gleam in his eyes as he sang it. And I’m betting that Bob Dylan and Neil Young would be inspired to work a little harder if they heard Mathus’s masterful guitar playing, with vocals that are both mournful and joyous, and lyrics that are poignant without being pompous.
Only a true Southern artist with homegrown dedication could pull off a cover of Gus Cannon’s 1928 classic, “Money Never Runs Out.” This ragtime-feeling jug band anthem was one of the highlights of the evening. Mathus’s voice and banjo playing eerily sounded like Cannon’s. And his major diatonic harmonica work was beautifully simple, punctuating each chord change.
Next, Mathus switched to electric and was joined by Squirrel Nut Zipper Chris Philips, plus local musicians Jon Flaugher on bass and Jason Borger on keyboards. They launched into “Let Me Be Your Rocker,” which was a wonderfully loose Southern rock song that displayed all the soulful nuances that The Stones and all of the English bands missed completely. Mathus said it best. “All of these English bands and musicians are being knighted for music they we invented in Mississippi. So you Grammy people, please hire us Mississippians, we’re still in abject poverty and will work for cheap.”
The boot stompin’, backyard barbecue soul of “Cling To You Roots” and “Jimmy The Kid” from Mathus’s latest CD Confederate Buddha were relaxed and fun. Mathus got to show off his own Little Milton flavored blues leads. Mathus’s and his band’s last number was a straight twelve bar blues entitled “Mule Plow Line,” centered around a true Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf-esque guitar motif. The only problem arose when Mathus got wilder in his playing and the piece started too feel a bit too self-indulgent.
After a brief pause, Mathus was joined by Shannon McNally and Homemade Jamz for a jam on the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads.” McNally came equipped with an electric guitar and played better here than either Mathus or Ryan Perry. While they relied on some stock blues licks, McNally’s Strat tone and phrasing were unique. Her vocals were also outstanding, and the fact that a woman has never tackled this Delta Blues masterpiece made McNally’s presence all the more intriguing. The arrangement of “Crossroads” here felt as if these musicians were taking back this song from Eric Clapton and delivering it back to Mississippi, U.S.A. Each band member got to sing a few verses, swap some licks, and have fun, which is one of the important things that the blues and Mississippi roots music are all about.
The evening’s performances underscored the fact that the musical influence and the contributions of Mississippi should have been honored 40 years earlier. Especially so, considering the many plagiarist rock musicians who’ve won countless awards and made billions of dollars profiting from the music of the state’s great pioneers. Nonetheless, the Mississippi Music Celebration was the best kind of acknowledgement — a heart felt evening full of diverse music performed by authentic musicians who know and love their Mississippi home.