It was the third of June,
another hot and dusty Delta day…
So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about a suicide on the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.
Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.
Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.
“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”
Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”
Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.
Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.
The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”
The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.
Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.
For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”
Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”
Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.
Bobbie Lee is as much a mystery as Billy Joe.
Unforgettable to his contemporaries, a will-o’-the-wisp to others, Verell Pennington Ferguson III is often described as Mississippi’s first beatnik, a gleeful and strident nonconformist at Ole Miss and points beyond. V.P. Ferguson has become a legend to many, a status fully justified by his utmost legacy, Days of Yoknapatawpha, a “memoire/timeplay” written at the urging of a friend in the publishing business who told him to “Recall the old days, Faulkner still alive, and you managing the cultural life of Oxford with la main gauche while beating time with the other for your various and assorted bandsmen.”
The section reproduced here, entitled “7th Movement: Mose Allison and the Cool World: Ole Miss—1949-50”, describes V.P.’s first encounter with another legend, Mississippi jazzman Mose Allison, on the campus of the University of Mississippi on a winter’s day in 1949. It is only a fragment of an astounding manuscript, full of humor and insight and populated by some of the most famous people of mid-20th century Mississippi. Deepest and most profound thanks to artist, gentleman, and bon vivant Johnny Hayles for his perceptive, indefatigable research, considerate advice, and unmitigated generosity.
It was a lovely day in early January—at zero degrees centigrade—where a sun-filtered mist, breaking down at ground level, enshrouded the campus in a crisp, ashen whiteness. Shortly after lunch, about 14 hours, the Ole Miss Grill was overflowing with permanent grill-hounds, many of whom considered class attendance as secondary activity, if not outright torture, and of course the classic défilé of bewitching doe-eyed gazelles—and long-stemmed greyhounds.
The in-house jukebox was playing “Greeneyes” (“those cool and limpid”: Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell). Nobody could be unhappy around here, I reflected, as I duly parked the nervous little Ford in front, then wandering through the University Post Office for a quick mail check before floundering into some serious grill-hounding myself. Hardly inside and seated before cherished breaded veal cutlets with Roquefort, I was warmly heckled by “Fish” Salmon, the powerhouse quarterback, and Douglas “Little Abner” Hamley, a star linesman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, both inveterate Damon Runyon wits. “Yeah, that’s it, dad. Hang up the gloves, man, hang up the gloves! You’ll never make it, V.P. Ferguson!” (They were both right.)
Both faces gleefully pointed out a large black and white press photograph thumb-tacked onto the adjacent campus bulletin board before I sniffed out the source of my public shame. It was that jinxed photo again! Maybe the Tombigbee Sage was right after all: “People are no damn good!”, which, unfortunately, down in Columbus, hadn’t stopped the Sage, now the Hook, both of whom read the Memphis press, to roundly snigger at my latest public nemesis. The large, inopportune photo in question was untimely taken a short while back during the Golden Gloves Mid-South Tournament of Champions staged at Memphis, where, to say the least, I was engaged in a real “down-home slug-out”. The caption read: “Ole Miss’s V.P. Ferguson heads for a hard seat—before coming off the canvas to take a unanimous decision.” It was, and I did. Salmon and Hamley got all torn up. Mysteriously, someone even paid for my breaded veal cutlets.
However, feeling called upon to explain, I “thrusted home” like the grill-hound Cyrano that I was. “When that George T. Billy from Fort Smith, Arkansas pummeled me around my flat-topped head, I saw a grandiose colored flash, like a purple ball of fire, and ricocheted off the canvas. But without a count, mind you: a crew of cameramen flashed on me like I was the real Richard Widmark in a fast-paced, Grade B thriller: but when, in turn, I fire-stormed good old George T Billy to the canvas, at least twice, not a flash bulb went off. That’s the shabby popular press for you: but it couldn’t happen around here. You all ball-player grill-hounds are coming down with hamburger guilt, a Freudian jock strap transfer blaming the other goof folks whenever you “lose the big game”. In the Ole Miss/Quo Vadis/S.P.Q.R. show, none of you gladiator ball jocks are ever photographed all strung out on the ground, or worse, like poor fighters! Those AA/PR men around here are better paid than foreign agents!”
My lost dog act played out better than expected. Both Manley and Salmon invited to smuggle me into the jock strap steakhouse tonight for still another seared slab of fabulous Texas longhorn. The Richard Widmark act was not without merit, and grill-hounding had become an art. Abandoned at the corner side table for a quarter of an hour or so, I fondly reflected that outside of my romantic, geo-pantheistic idée fixe of canoeing down legendary waters, I entertained the lingering dream of creating another dance band. Not a big orchestra; the on-campus, well-rehearsed “Mississippians” were far beyond me for a class, but a high voltage jazz combo operating with about 6 or 7 Damon Runyon characters like myself—sunbelt hard cats living out the life adventure in rhythm, fervor, and soul. Leaving the table and the pulsating Ole Miss Grill, I had it: “The Let It Roll Band”—it was as sure as death and taxes.
Returning to the ’32 Ford Roadster, I adroitly placed a pair of powerful binoculars, canoe paddle, and a copy of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers up behind the front seat. Having read the innovative intriguer, (The Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball Flap I was relieved to discover that among other bourgeois nightmares, I had happily escaped what Wylie allegedly described as The Dreadnaught Syndrome: there’s no good old Mom, the catalyzer of the All-American Square, in the new family Buick off to the supermarket to load up on more burger meat and tons of ketchup.
That was heady stuff, attacking good old Mom, burger meat and ketchup was tantamount to Jack the Ripper slashing Saturday Evening Post covers. Curiously enough however, seen from another angle, Wylie’s fevered, Freudian, matriarchal fiasco humorously backed into certain of my reflections concerning good old George, and Miss Milly T. Billy, the archetypical bird-brain hicks. But intellectual macho was already démodé, if not effete, and Wylie might be heading for unnerving trouble with the ladies, including a new race known abouts as “Jane the Beards” pulling on line from corporate board rooms to backwater togetherness. As for the common man’s Richard Widmark, I liked Philip Wylie, apple pie and baseball. As for good ole Mom, whom I had nothing against, end even visited on occasion, she dutifully machined through the University of Virginia Law School at Charlottesville, as did my sister Betty, belatedly becoming an excellent professor of commercial law in that elegant state, but my existential good taste remained beyond reproach: I was raised by the Wizard and “belonged to Ole Miss”.
Once the daydream drifted off, I leisurely opened up the small rumble seat on the fast back, fumbling around with some unread novels, river maps and assorted outdoor gear when I saw it: the vast spinach greenness wearing Tallahatchie County license plates—kept coming and coming, finally docking beside my modest little ’32 Ford Roadster, imposing as it were through the sun-filtered, ashen whiteness. I saw that all of that long greenness belonged to the latest model Chrysler New Yorker—a veritable limousine de ville: the driver, flashing a generous smile, sprang out as if he was making a homecoming landfall. (He was.) If the eyes were the windows of the soul, the stranger, looking out on the world in blue electric, extolled instant intelligence.
And there he was, an authentic sunbelt hard cat of medium build, cinnamon hair worn in a brush, a classic, sensitive face, and moreover, decked out in cool, California/Vegas togs: Bordeaux red cardigan, with polished brass buttons, snug-cut butter yellow shirt with oversized buttoned-up collar, worn over full rich lemon trousers, a hand-crafted Aztec beaded belt, and ankle-length high desert boots. While the long spinach greenness had little in common with the California Special, there was, however, an irrefutable linkage to the Damon Runyon world, as I reflected for an instant that we both solicited the same mail-order West Coast tailor. But it was an illusion. Upon second glance I realized that the unknown creature momentarily appreciating my roadster was hardly inspired by hip advertisements in hot rod magazines. While flashing the same “Culver City style”, his “threads” were obviously more refined, and several cuts above mine.
As usual, my Richard Widmark act was spontaneous: “Man, with a cruiser like that, you must need a harbor pilot! But the next time you cool in with all that lovely greenness, please extend me the grace of not docking alongside my little ’32 Ford. You make me insignificant.” The colorful character fleeing across the street toward the Vardaman-Longstreet dormitory complex flung an arm high in the air: “Don’t panic, dad! Energy of that class commands a lot of respect!”
Room address in a suede gloved hand, I, in turn, wandered across Grill Street to the Vardaman-Longstreet in hopes of ferreting out a few high tension elements for the on-coming “Let It Roll Band”. Although someone said “third floor right”, it was irrelevant—I picked up on the solid jazz sounds even before entering the building. Arriving at the moment of truth, I peered through the half-opened doorway into a blue-bulbed inner sanctum at what was surely the cutting edge on the cutting edge, where six or eight sunbelt hard cats, all dressed in California/Vegas togs, were solemnly planted around a scratchy record player listening to hardcore bebop. I rapidly spooked out the pilot of the long spinach greenness, a proselytizer, if not a high priest of la nouvelle vague (New Wave jazz). I hesitated a moment until he recognized me, smiled and waved me into the inner sanctum, where, by happenstance, I entered into a new dimension. That simple gesture, although coming from the same Damon Runyon world, portended a certain esoterical attitude, engendering, as it were, a colorful lifestyle of its own. I was altogether intrigued.
The stranger was called Mose Allison, Junior, from Tippo, Mississippi, a lovely, lost corner in fecund Tallahatchie County, where he was raised in an affluent plantation family. Upon first contact, however, in front of the Old Miss Grill, by the strange mystique of instant enlightenment, I somehow realized that Allison was world class talent, (I was not wrong) and indeed honored to have made a brilliant new friend. The comfortable, blue-bulbed dormitory room, spatially limited, cluttered and strewn out pell-mell with the banalities of quotidian existence, took on the allure of an urban ritual where bohemian characters from the 4th dimension gathered around a record player instead of a fire, listening, as it were, to fascinating far out new sounds.
When the frenetic record, re-played several times, finally ended, Allison, ardently searching for another in the stack, paused, and looking up with a smile, announced my modest entrée to no one in particular: “Ah! It’s the California Special back on the scene: We were listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come”. Did you pick up on it, dad?” I was at ease. My Damon Runyon background was well anchored: “Oh yeah. That’s frantic stuff, man! But outside of my collection of Stan Kenton and Herman’s Jimmy Giuffre thing, “Four Brothers”, sadly enough, I don’t know a lot about New Wave jazz.” Someone on the far side of Allison allowed as to how it was called bebop.
“Sure. Yeah, man, I know, the image is colorful enough, but somehow obscure. At any rate, let’s face it New Wave jazz has outgrown show business. In fact, it’s no longer dancefloor stuff. It’s moved into the concert hall where it really belongs.” Concluding my rather off-hand reflection, the relative silence rippling across the blue-lighted little room of sunbelt hard cats was my no means an admonishment, but rather heralded a warm, on the spot friendship which was to endure for years, or as it were, if Mose Allison was an ace proselytizer and high priest of New Wave jazz, seen from a certain angle, I was a defending knight, or an engagé as the French would have it.
Among the six or eight, there was Bill “Big Jay” Katz (after Big Jay McNeely, “Deacon’s Hop”-1948, etc.), a hard-driving tenor saxophone player from New York City tall, well-groomed with burnt, desert sand hair, matching eyes and a disarming, soft-glowing smile. John Earn MacDade, a hip, bushy-haired ace Mississippi trombone veteran—and blithe spirit, avoiding all physical effort whenever possible, championed the “L.A. hard look” and could have just wandered off Hollywood and Vine in a lime green cardigan, tomato red shirt with oversized, buttoned-up collar, worn over pleated, black velvet slacks and Aztec moccasins. Thomas “Bunky” Lane was a romantic, slender-built mystic with raven-hazel hair worn in a tall bush cut, whose sensitive, near melancholic face and deep chestnut eyes reflected the inner fire of an introverted intellectual. Lane, an ethereal alto saxophone player and biology major, normally dressed in black or blue double-breasted suits and dark Windsor ties, possessed the ultimate, if not indefinable talent: a musician’s musician, playing New Wave jazz with a relaxed, full-blown richness inspired by the beguiling tenor sax, Stan Getz (“Early Autumn” with Woody Herman-1948), Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lane, “The Mystic” readily measured up to any avant-garde, mastering a style which had just begun to be called “Cool Jazz” (1948-55).
As for the creative brilliance of Most Allison, Jr., out in the surrealist world of good ole George T. Billy, amid a myriad of bucolic squares, he was light years ahead of the scene, ,and moreover, he knew it. But for the ongoing moment, however, he allowed as to his recent Tallahatchie county homecoming: “I was discharged from the army a short while back, where I was in training with special ski troops out in Colorado Springs, the fabulous Far West—real Nirvana! But I picked up all those hip threads in Denver, man, a mountain paradise a mile above sea level. Someday I’ll make that scene again!”
Suddenly John MacDade (Hollywood and Vine) and “Big Jay” Katz got all torn up, which apparently had little to do with Allison’s hip Denver togs. By the time Lane “The Mystic” chimed in, I knew in my bones what was coming. (It did.) “Say, Man, aren’t you the fighter cat in that action photo over at the campus grill?”; “Yeah, man, the one where Widmark is going through the ropes, head first!”; “Yeah, man, he’s the cat. The whole campus has spooked that photo. In your case I would either sign it, or take it down! You’re playing out a no win scene, man!” Somehow I was happy, if not mollified. “A good sense of humor was the escape valve of humanity.” Good musicians were my chosen people, an idée fixe—happily following me into old age.
“Okay, you cats! So I suffered an inglorious scuffle—but I don’t plan to make a lifetime of it! In fact, that purple ball of fire convinced me how right I was to take up the slide trombone. It’s easier on the jaw!” The scene shifted into another direction as Mose Allison spooked out an amusing intruder. “It’s Mister Coffee Nerves—the phantom nerve ball of the corridors! Coming to rain on all the hard cats about all this degenerate bebop music!
Allison, possessing a spark-jumping, electric wit, apparently enjoyed riding super-squares like Mister Coffee Nerves, distant outsiders going far beyond mere Squaredom into an anti-bourgeois dimension, which seen from a certain point of view, was a negative form of hip. Mister Coffee Nerves, ostensibly a precursor to Sal Mineo (Plato in Rebel Without a Cause) dressed in impeccable buttoned-up tweeds, gave the impression of tortured precocity: a chubby, cherub-faced little enigma, with the pink, stubby fingers of a child strangler, and who had been thrown out of an impressive number of tony prep schools on strange and obscure charges, including “ghoulism”, whatever that entails. Mister Coffee Nerves professed to being a self-styled nerve grater, sand papering the nerve endings of even the most comatose victims with astonishing success. Flashing his dead fish smile, Mister Coffee Nerves entered the inner sanctum with customary flair: “Gentlemen: or should I more fashionably say “sunbelt hard cats”? I suppose that all of this bebop monkey music has softened your brains: it was inevitable.”
Mister Coffee Nerves, pausing for effect, lit up a super perfumed, long, rainbow-colored cigarette and gleefully moved into action. “Perhaps you should like to receive with me some good old “down home” Dixieland. Why not Louis Armstrong? Yes, that’s it. “When the Saints Go Marching In”! Good for the soul, you know, and a bit of Doris Day. Good, bitter-sweet for broken hearts. And of course Harry James. That “crying trumpet”! Ah! A good ole circus man, Harry! Gentlemen, excuse me, I mean hard cats, this decadent bebop can only lead to catatonic schizophrenia, or worse! You had better repent and go back to ragtime! Rudy Vallée is great!”
The super square had talent. Nobody could be that outrageous by happenstance; one had to work on it, which he did. The triggered ubiquitous reaction readily proved that point, nearly driving MacDade, H&V and Big Jay Katz, among others, up the walls. Coffee Nerves listened on in ecstasy. “Most of those old-style cats were greatmechanics, man, but they played themselves into a dead end!”; “You’re cool, dad. That “crying trumpet” cat plays good B.C. (*Before Christ) horn, but in A.D. (*After Dizzy) he sounds like he’s changing a flat tire!”; “You’re a hard can, man! And that D.D. chick (*Doris Day) sings like a melting river of chocolate at the Lonely Hearts Club!”
Mister Coffee Nerves, fawning over a certain Pavlovian success, fired up another rainbow-colored cigarette, and came up with his best dead fish smile ever, although somewhat askew, on the spot; one wondered how a lone cigarette could be charged with so much perfume. Shortly thereafter, Mister Coffee Nerves, freezing on the dead fish smile, took leave of the bebop inner sanctum, as usual, in super-square flair. “Well, gentlemen, if you’re please excuse me, as those “hipsters” say down in good old rockabilly, ‘See you laters, alligators!’” Pulling hard on the rainbow-colored cigarette, the chubby, cherub wandered off down the corridor to bug a couple of itinerant Jehovah Witnesses passing through to save Ole Miss from abject heresy and assorted Devils. But destiny can be cruel even for fevered missionaries, Mister Coffee Nerves would see to that. In the worst case scenario, the naïve zealots, disillusioned, would certainly be losing face, if not faith.
Back in the inner sanctum, where even the ace proselytizer was a bit slack-jawed, the sunbelt hard cats returned to normal, playing “Night in Tunisia”, “Manteca” (Dizzy G.) and “The Chase” (Wardell Gray/Dexter Gordon) not without a last reflection: “Man, I fell you, that Mister Coffee Nerves is really a twisted little cat!”; “Aw, yeah, dad, he’s warped 360 degrees! And there’s no exit!”; “Yeah, man, coffee nerves is all strung out with an eerie talent for negative genius!”
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.
309 Farish Street, the home of Trumpet Records, is a ruin.
Trumpet Records was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve national stature. The premiere releases by Mississippi blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James and Willie Love appeared on Trumpet in 1951. Early Mississippi gospel and country artists also appeared on the Trumpet label.
The impact of Trumpet Records on American music has been profound and lasting, but the site of the studio is rapidly decaying. The building that housed this jewel in the crown of Mississippi music has not only lost its luster, but it’s become a dilapidated shell. While the roof and walls are intact, they’re barren and pitted, covered with patches of peeling paint and without windows, open to the erosive elements of weather.
Musician Sherman Lee Dillon is the driving force behind a group of people who seek to preserve and restore the building with an eye to commemorating Trumpet Records and its music. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that the old building where these legends laid down some the most famous tracks in Mississippi music is preserved. Maybe we can even to get some momentum going towards the restoration of Farish Street itself.”
Dillon notes that the 30-year efforts to restore the Farish Street District by massive infusions of public funding have stalled. “We think it’s worthwhile to give private initiative a chance.”
To that end, Dillon and his group have secured a lease on 309 North Farish Street, one of the few privately-owned properties in the Farish Street Historical District. Dillon said that he asked the owners not to lease or sell 309 Farish until he had an opportunity to restore it.
“They have stuck to their word for three years and not seriously entertained any other offers,” he said. “But I have not been able to find any pockets to get money from, and I am in not in a situation for matching funds. The city does nothing to support the project, even though the mayor drops by from time to time. I can’t wait any longer. If I can’t get the money to restore it, Trumpet Records goes on the block.”
Dillon said that once the building is secured, he will work on creating a nonprofit business, a museum and a recording studio. “I am personal friends with musicians who have played with several Mississippi blues people, Johnny Taylor, Milton, Bobby Rush, Dorothy Moore, BB King and Albert King.” Dillon points out that while Trumpet had some national recognition, their recordings of local celebrities might be one of the most interesting aspects of the proposed museum.
“There are collections of ‘The Hillbilly Sides’, spirituals recordings, rock-a-billy recordings as well as blues recordings that connect to people still living in the area,” he said. “The singers and artists that didn’t quite have the combination to go national, are often the most fun,” he said. “These songs would be on a jukebox for people to sample and pictures of them people would be on the wall.”
“The problem is that there’s no money for restoration,” Dillon said. “The agreement I have with the owners is for two years’ rent, $48,000, paid in advance within 30 days. That money will be used exclusively for the restoration of 309. Any money that comes from the operation of 309 for the next two years will be to further the services of the restoration.
“All I can say is that if this doesn’t work, a golden opportunity has been missed.”
Details available at Save Trumpet Records