Band: Kenny Brown
Date: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.
Venue: The Listening Room, 78 St. Francis St., www.thelisteningroommobile.com
Tickets: $10 artist donation at the door
Some people are just in the right place at the right time. When Kenny Brown moved to North Mississippi, he was surrounded by blues history and practicing musicians. The soundtrack of his childhood included the work of Otha Turner and Fred McDowell, who were playing right across the street from his home. Before he hit his teens, he was learning Hill Country style under the guidance of his neighbor, Mississippi Joe Callicot. By the time he was 20, he was learning cuts from and performing alongside R.L. Burnside.
Over the years, Brown has definitely done his part in preserving the Hill Country blues sound, and will be bringing this style to the Azalea City for an intimate performance at The Listening Room. During a conversation with Lagniappe, Brown was more than happy to regale readers with tales from his life in Mississippi’s Hill Country.
Stephen Centanni: You started apprenticing under Mississippi Joe Callicot at a very young age. What made you want to learn the Hill Country style at that age?
Kenny Brown: Well, I was really just wanting to learn how to play the guitar then. I had taken a few lessons. They were trying to teach me to read music, and that wasn’t working too well. I was learning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Yankee Doodle” and stuff like that, but I wasn’t reading music too good. I was about to quit, and Joe Callicot moved in next door to me. I was pretty young, probably about 9 or 10 when he moved in. I heard that he played guitar, and I saw him playing on the porch some. I finally got up the nerve to introduce myself, and he started teaching me. I was just hungry to learn. It was stuff that he played, which was kind of country blues.
Centanni: One thing I’ve learned is that the Hill Country style is not easy.
Brown: It’s usually real simple, but the simplicity is what makes it complicated. One thing about Burnside’s style is there’s just as much in the right hand as there is in the left.
Centanni: You were very close with R.L. What do you remember most about him?
Brown: He was a real friendly guy and liked to have fun and joke and tell jokes and have a good time. The first time I met him, I was about 18. I had never seen him before. I saw him playing somewhere, and I introduced myself to him and said I … liked what he was doing. I told him I sure would like to learn, and it was after Joe had died. Back then, I was trying to learn anywhere I could. Back then, you didn’t have the Internet or the World Wide Web. You had to go find people to show you something or learn it on your own off the radio. Immediately, he told me where he lived and told me to come down to his house. I started going down there two or three nights a week and hanging with him.
Centanni: Hill Country is almost an underground style of blues. There’s not that many people out there doing it.
Brown: Yeah, but there’s more and more people now, though.
Centanni: Why do you think it’s been underground to this point?
Brown: (laughing) Well, nobody had heard about it or heard it that much. Even Fred McDowell wasn’t that popular. In the ‘60s he made some of the blues festivals and stuff, and he had a couple of records out. Blues in general has not been that popular. It’s more popular now than it’s ever been. With the Hill Country style, for years, it didn’t have a name. Nobody called it that until just a few years ago. There weren’t that many people recording that style of stuff, and there wasn’t that many people playing it. They would have had to have been raised with it, because it was kind of obscure. Most people, when you mentioned blues, for years they were like, “Aw yeah, like B.B. King?” They knew about B.B. King or Eric Clapton or something, but some people didn’t know a lot about the serious blues.
Centanni: In addition to Callicot and Burnside, you’ve worked with legends like Asie Payton and Junior Kimbrough, to name but a few.
Brown: Man, I feel blessed. If Joe Callicot hadn’t moved in next door to me, I don’t know what would’ve happened with my life. Meeting Johnny Woods and R.L. and hanging with those guys just changed my life. I guess it was meant to be. People have destiny. I guess some people believe in that, which I do. It was meant to be, I’m sure. Even before I met Joe, the place we moved to when I was 6 years old, Othar Turner and Fred McDowell and those guys were playing across the street from my house. I didn’t get to go over there and meet any of them at that age. We didn’t have air conditioning, so in the summertime when they had the picnics, they would start on Friday and didn’t end till Monday morning a lot of times. That drum and fife music would be going on all weekend. I guess that was subliminal education.
Centanni: Your latest release is “Goin’ Back to Mississippi.”
Brown: Well, that’s not really the latest one. It was just reissued on Fat Possum (Records). I cut that in ‘96 or at the end of ‘95 with Dale Hawkins, who did “Suzie Q” and was a rock ‘n’ roller. We put it out on my own, and I sold 2,000 or 3,000 CDs.
Centanni: Do you get a different reaction to that album now than you did back then?
Brown: I don’t know. Some people bring it around occasionally for me to autograph, or they’ll buy them at the shows. I haven’t heard any different reaction. A lot of people have told me over the years they needed to get another one because they wore it out or it “got stolen out of my CD player.” It got get reviews before. I’ve heard it was getting some good ones lately. It’s one of my favorites of the ones I’ve done. I don’t listen to my stuff a lot, but about once a year, I get in my truck and drive country roads and listen to that record.
Centanni: When is the next album?
Brown: I’m hoping to get a country record out, and people tell me my voice would sound good for that. I was born in ‘53, so some of the first stuff I heard was Johnny Cash and Ricky Nelson and that kind of stuff. I’ve been around country and blues and rock ‘n’ roll my whole life. I guess it shows in how I play.