Kudzu Kings began their reign on a stretch of Harrison Street that descends east of Lamar down to South 14th through and into Oxford’s arguably greatest band venue, fostering ground for a rockin’ Southern music culture.
At the top of the hill, Proud Larry’s; at the bottom, The Gin—the matriarch of Oxford’s bar scene—and in between was Ireland’s (later Murff’s, and now Frank & Marlee’s). While Ireland’s has been unjustly derided as a “blue-collar bar” and because of its lack of pretention (pool tables, dart boards, and Lance snacks) had its share of bubbas bellied up to the bar, at any given time you’d find people from all walks of life there swilling beer (among them Larry Brown) and at night listening to some of the best music in Oxford.
Singer and rhythm guitarist Tate Moore and bass player Dave Woolworth, affectionately known as “Kudzu Dave,” who had a weekly gig at Ireland’s, hooked up with electric guitarist Max Williams, formerly of The Mosquito Brothers, a New Orleans-style funk band. Williams drafted Mosquito Brothers drummer Chuck Sigler and keyboardist Robert Chaffe. “We merged both bands because Tate was playing with Dave, doing the acoustic thing,” Williams said. “So I was like, ‘Hey, I know some other cats that know how to play music, why don’t we just make a band out of it?’” They were soon joined by George McConnell, a co-founder of Beanland, Oxford’s premiere band during the late 80s and early 90s.
This lineup was the root of the Kudzu Kings (the origins of the name are a matter of dispute) in late 1994, and they soon spread up and down Harrison Avenue. “You know, what’s interesting was that it was really like ‘The Battle of Harrison Avenue’ for where the Kudzu Kings would play that week,” Moore said. “It was between the Gin, Ireland’s, and Proud Larry’s. I think there was actually a week or two when we played all three places.”
“We were still doing a house band sort of thing every week at Ireland’s, which was pretty much a bar locals went to, our friends,” Williams said. “But little by little the college kids started to realize how much fun it was, and they started coming too. Soon we had all kinds of people having fun and that’s when we started having to find places big enough for everybody.”
“It was Mondays at the Gin, Tuesdays at Ireland’s,” Chaffe said. “Every week, that was a given; Larry’s would be somewhere in the Thursday, Friday, Saturday mix. “We had a lot of gigs in the early days, and we developed a good chemistry early on. Packing the Library (a large venue west of the Square) came a bit later.”
The group has described their music as “funktry,” a unique version of syncopated country that nobody had really done before (“Except for maybe those groovy 70s era recordings from Willie Nelson,” Chaffe said), with an infusion of muddy New Orleans funk that got people moving. The lineage of Kudzu Kings is easily traced to The Tangents, a subject of legend across the state and beyond. The Tangents brought their own spectacular blend of blues, jazz, and rock to Oxford many times in the early 80s and sowed the seeds that sired Beanland.
“When I was with Beanland, we were trying to be the Tangents,” McConnell said. “With their soul, their camaraderie, their stage presence, they were a huge influence on me when I got here to Ole Miss in 1981, and when I caught them at the Gin, I was like, ‘Who ARE these guys?’ They were the Bad Boys from the Delta, man. They could play those old songs as well as anyone could, plus they did it with their own style. Beanland had some legendary shows with the Tangents at Syd & Harry’s; we’d swap sets, but they always closed the show and ended up mopping the floors with us. That carries on with the Kudzu Kings, so we’re going to do a couple of Duff’s songs, ‘Peace Lily of the Valley’ (about a bend in the Sunflower River) being one of them, another being ‘234’ (a room number at the Holiday Inn in Greenville).”
Kudzu Kings’ biggest early break came in 1996, when they opened for Widespread Panic at Mud Island in Memphis. “That’s when we fell into it,” Tate said. “I remember seeing Jeff Bransford backstage and he was like ‘Hey man, how did you guys swing this?’” They have shared the stage many times with Widespread Panic (McConnell eventually joined up with Widespread Panic in 2002, but has since left). Kudzu Kings toured together for almost ten years (1994–2003), garnering a significant following in their native South as well as in Colorado and Texas playing at several big music venues and sharing stages with the likes of Bob Weir, Leftover Salmon, Ratdog, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Junior Brown, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. The band has also collaborated with musicians such as Chris Etheridge, Bucky Baxter, John “Jojo” Hermann, Cody Dickinson, and Tony Furtado.
Kudzu Kings (1997), their debut CD, was produced by Grammy Award-winner Jim Gaines. In his review at Allmusic.com, Richard Foss said, “Picture in your mind a really good country band that has been playing the biker bar scene for a while. They’re tight and energetic and rowdy, and everybody works together really well. Now lock that band in a room with a whole bunch of Grateful Dead and Phish CDs and several dozen cases of beer, and tell them that they can only come out when the beer is gone and they have heard every album at least twice.” Foss called their music a mix of honky-tonk, country-rock, and jamming. “Many of the songs will be about getting drunk, getting laid, and being broke,” along with ones about relationships (“It’s a Play,” “Streetwalkin’”) and free verse set to music (“Amsterdam”), but Foss concedes that “the focus is on party music … The track that pushes this over the edge to greatness is ‘I Love Beer.’ ” Other crowd favorites are “Panola County Line” and “Mississippi Mud.”
By this time, Kudzu Kings were playing places such as the Varsity Theater in Baton Rouge, Tipitina’s in New Orleans and Newby’s in Memphis, as well as venues in Colorado such as The Fox and Boulder Theatres in Boulder and The Gothic Theater in Denver. Y2Kow (1999), the band’s second release, was co-produced by the band and Jeffrey Reed of Black Dog Records. By then the first of many changes in the lineup had taken place, with Ted Gainey replacing original drummer Chuck Sigler, and Bryan Ledford, a protégé of bluegrass musician Ed Dye, replacing Max Williams. Ledford brought an element of both bluegrass and gospel to the Kudzu Kings’ sound, and Y2Kow included new favorites like “Hangover Heart” and “Bound for Zion.”
After their watershed 2000 performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado—again opening for Widespread Panic—the Kudzu Kings found themselves at a crossroads. Resisting offers of a nation-wide tour, the band endured further lineup changes and decided to mostly book shows themselves. They toured heavily, but not for long. By 2003, the wear of nine years on the road was showing, the crowds were smaller, and a third album was cashiered. Since that time, the band’s members have for the most part moved on to other projects, but they still play together, keeping the brotherhood alive. While Proud Larry’s is going strong, the down Harrison Street scene is gone, but that sound lives on, and after twenty years, Kudzu Kings are bringing it back to Oxford with a show at the Lyric Theatre on Van Buren Nov. 28.
“I want to warn everybody that Dave Woolworth has gathered up jugglers, fire breathers, dancing girls, and nubile young ladies to serve drinks. Not only that, we’re holding a lottery for a tea cart we’ve been threatening to give away for years,” McConnell said. “We’re bringing in about every drummer we’ve ever played with, most all of the guitar players from over the years, lots of guests to sit in throughout the event, trying as best we can to begin with the songs we started with and move through the history of our music. We hope to show that there isn’t a band without progression.”
“This is the first time we’ve ever been really able to capture the group in all of is different phases,” Chaffe said. “Most of our former members are coming back, so it really feels like family when you go back twenty years and think about all the people that have gone in and out, all the relationships we’ve had. It’s going to be neat to bring this all together on an emotional level on top of the purely musical statement. I didn’t envision myself in Oxford twenty years later, but it just so happened that the relationships that were made as a direct result of being in this band have shaped my life in more ways than just the band itself.”
“It’s only been a good time,” Woolworth said. “In all marriages you grow, and when you’re a band, in a sense you’re married to everybody else. We’re still able to do things together. That’s exciting.”
All photos courtesy of Kudzu Kings.
With Beanland: Rising from the Riverbed, Scotty Glahn and Kutcher Miller have distilled the essence not only of a hot jam band but of a special milieu. Art fares best in an open forum, and in the 80s and early 90s no freer field could be found than in Oxford, Mississippi, where a variety of thriving businesses supported an eclectic marketplace for invention that Mississippi will never see the likes of again. In those halcyon days, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown contributed their literary wattage to an arts scene already illuminated the bright musical lights of the Hilltops/Blue Mountain, the North Mississippi Allstars and, of course, Beanland. It was a heyday of the muses; throw in a couple of Jere Allen’s brilliant brushstrokes, and you have nothing short of a red clay Parnassus.
Rising from the Riverbed attempts to and largely succeeds in capturing the freewheeling, lackadaisical and somewhat dissipated spirit of that time and place. This achievement proves to be somewhat of a drawback, however, since the result is a roman à clef best appreciated by those who were there then and know or knew members of the cast of characters. It’s an insider’s view into a seminal period in the cultural life of Oxford. Interviews add to the film’s appeal (Barton made the cut). Nostalgia is not a bad thing, especially when it’s worked out so carefully and lovingly. Allow me to tip my hat to Glahn and Miller not only for recognizing Beanland as worthy of a broader stage, but also their foresight in documenting a very special time in a very special place.
The blues have shaped American music for over a century, and many people the world over consider blues music Mississippi’s greatest contribution to global culture.
In recognition of this distinction, the state created the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC) in 2005. Its original charter established a statewide Blues Trail, but it soon became clear that more was needed than just historical sites and signs. As Rep. Willie Bailey explains, “When the Blues Commission started putting up Trail markers across the state we discovered that many grassroots blues pioneers, artists and musicians were experiencing hardships due to misfortune and poverty.”
“The markers allowed the state to profit on tourism from an art form kept alive by these faithful souls,” Bailey said. “But as the Commission carried on its work, there were requests from destitute artists for a little help to get through hard times.” Bailey pointed out that back then there was no legal way for the Blues Commission to respond to their needs, but the Legislature passed the necessary legislation allowing the Commission to act. In 2010, the Mississippi Blues Commission was authorized “to raise and expend grant funds to provide assistance to any blues musician in need.” The Blues Benevolent Committee was created to oversee the distribution of these funds. Now any established blues musician in need can apply for up to $1,000 in a 12-month period.
Dr. Edgar Smith, chairman of the Blues Benevolent Committee, said, “As a son of the Delta, I am keenly aware of the challenges that confront these artists on a daily basis. Many blues musicians, especially the older ones, have no health insurance and no other source of income other than what they get from blues gigs. It’s appropriate for Mississippi to have some mechanism for assisting the people from whom the blues derived. The Benevolence Fund represents the effort of on the part of the Mississippi Blues Commission to address this issue. I envision a future in which this effort will become the major focus of the MBC to the extent that it will approach the scale of the Music Maker Relief Foundation of Hillsborough, NC.”
The Music Maker Relief Foundation, founded in 1994, helps support elder blues and Appalachian artists. Their Musician Sustenance Program provides monthly stipends (typically $50 – $200), grants for emergencies and periodic needs for health care as well as other services. In 2012-13, Music Maker’s budget exceeded $630,000.
The Mississippi Blues Foundation, the fundraising arm of the MBC, spearheads efforts to secure money for the Blues Benevolent Committee’s separate grants fund. Most funds come from private donations, but the sale of car tags and donations from the annual Mississippi Blues Marathon also contribute to the fund. John Noblin, director of the marathon, said that the marathon is on the fast track to help.
“We have included a specific donation option for participants on the registration form because we want to generate money earmarked for the Benevolent Committee,” Noblin said. “In years we’ve made a $10,000 donation to the Mississippi Blues Commission in general. But contributing directly to the Benevolent Committee was the perfect way to tie in with the wellness component and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi’s involvement because it covers financial shortfalls with health-related issues.”
To date, the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Committee has awarded grants totaling $16,000to 18 artists, including James “T-Model” Ford; “Cadillac” John Nolden; Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt; Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry; Jim O’Neal, producer and a co-founder of Living Blues magazine; Duff Dorrough, founding member of The Tangents; and Eddie “Chank” Willis, winner of the 2013 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Award for excellence in music.
Malcolm White, former director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said, “The blues is based on hard times, and for many years the cultural and heritage movements in Mississippi have sought to honor these artists and support them when hard times come back around. Now that the Benevolent Committee has been established under Dr. Smith’s leadership and persistence, we have finally put our money where our mouths are.”
“Helping our native sons and daughters is the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “To come to the aid of suffering blues artists and musicians expresses Mississippi’s appreciation and recognition of their contributions to this native art form. We don’t want them standing on a corner with a cup begging, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’”
“People talk about keeping the blues alive,” Smith said, “but we need to keep these people alive, too.”
(For more information about the Mississippi Blues Benevolent Fund, contact Dr. Edgar Smith at: 601-713-2756)