Bentonia. Among serious fans of country blues, the very name conjures up images of hard times and cypress groves, black cats and the ever-lurking devil. It was in this southern Delta town that Skip James and Jack Owens lived and played, giving rise to the term Bentonia blues, a haunting, forlorn style of blues known the world over. When Owens died in 1997, most assumed that the Bentonia blues died with him.
They were wrong.
In the 1970s, Owens became determined to pass the tradition forward, and he enlisted a young aspiring guitarist for the projects. His disciple, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, was no stranger to the blues. He was the owner of the Blue Front Cafe, a now-famous juke joint that had been run by his parents since 1948. And he was already a talented guitarist in his own right.
But under Owens’ tutelage, Holmes would become a master of country blues. He learned to play and sing songs from the celebrated canon of James and Owens like “I’d Rather Be the Devil,” “Hard Times” and “Cherry Ball.” But he also developed his own powerful songwriting voice. When he coupled these songs with the Bentonia stylings of his predecessors, the effect was mesmerizing.
Yet for some reason, Holmes remained virtually unknown in the blues world. Other than a handful of unreleased or obscure recordings, Holmes and his remarkable talent have been little more than a rumor to most blues fans.
Recorded during two sessions in November 2005, this remarkable CD features Holmes in stunning form, both vocally and instrumentally. Like so many classic blues recordings, Back to Bentonia is dominated by tales of scornful and treacherous women, but Holmes’ lyrical nuances and haunting delivery come together to create a sound that is wholly his own.
The lion’s share of these tracks stem from an all-acoustic session recorded at the Blue Front Cafe on an unseasonably warm November evening. Several tracks from this session feature veteran bluesman Bud Spires playing harp. For decades, Spires was Jack Owens’ musical partner and foil. His presence on this only adds to its historical importance. On the album’s final track, Spires even takes a rare turn at the microphone for the rollicking “Your Buggy Don’t Ride Like Mine.”
The remaining tracks on Back to Bentonia stem from a brief recordings session held three days later at Jimbo Mathus’ Delta Recording Studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Equally raw and stripped down as the Blue Front tracks, these recordings nevertheless stand in stark contrast to those from the earlier session. Here the guitarist plays in a raucous amplified form to the accompaniment of the great Sam Carr on drums.
The 11 songs that make up this CD are among the most powerful country blues recordings in recent memory. For those who have been captivated by the music of Skip James and Jack Owens, this disc is sure to transport them back to Bentonia.
-Jeff Konkel/Broke & Hungry Records
POSTSCRIPT (2011 Deluxe Reissue)
In the five years since the release of Back to Bentonia, much has changed for both Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Broke & Hungry Records.
Upon the original release of this CD, the blues community sat up and took notice of a bluesman who had played in obscurity for the better part of three decades. Critics hailed the CD as “a magnificent debut set from Holmes and Broke & Hungry Records” (Blues & Rhythm Magazine) and “as plaintive as anything you're likely to hear this side of Robert Johnson's crossroads" (Blues Revue Magazine). The record went on to net three Living Blues Awards.
Festival offers soon followed. Before the CD’s release, Duck had never ventured further than Memphis to play his music. Suddenly we were fielding offers from major music festivals around the world. Although Duck has thus far resisted the siren’s call of Europe, he regularly travels large distances to play for crowds in the Midwest, the Deep South and on the East Coast. In 2009 he even drove 2,500 miles (each way!) to play the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon.
Broke & Hungry Records has gone on to release a further two CDs of Duck’s music: The Blues Music Award-nominated Done Got Tired of Tryin’ (2007) and his latest opus Ain’t It Lonesome (2009). Duck also made a memorable appearance in our award-winning blues film M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues (a co-production with Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and Mudpuppy Recordings).
Of course, the Broke & Hungry Records story has expanded well beyond Bentonia over the years. We have worked with a wide range of talented bluesmen across Mississippi, from the raucous hill country guitarist Odell Harris to the gentle acoustic player Pat Thomas.
Yet through it all, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes has been a central part of the Broke & Hungry Records family. On this, the fifth anniversary of its release, we’re pleased to make available this deluxe edition of Back to Bentonia. In addition to the 11 tracks that made up the original CD, we have included a further four cuts from the sessions – all previously unreleased. The first three – “Whiskey and Women,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and “Everyday (Blues All Day Long)” – stem from the all-acoustic session held at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia on Nov. 17, 2005. The final track, “Key to the Highway” was recorded three days later at Jimbo Mathus’ now-defunct Delta Recording Studio in Clarksdale and features the late great Sam Carr on drums.
- Jeff Konkel/Broke & Hungry Records
released June 1, 2011
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes – guitar & vocals
Bud Spires – harmonica (tracks 1, 4, 11, 12 and 13), vocals (track 11)
Sam Carr – drums (tracks 2, 5, 8 and 15)
Produced by Jeff Konkel
Co-produced, recorded and mixed by Bill Abel
Production assistance by Jerry Konkel
Mastered by Mark Yoshida at Audiographic Masterworks
Art direction and design by Joey Grisham
Original album design by Anne Willis
Photography by Jeff Konkel
Tracks 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9 – 14, recorded Nov. 17, 2005 at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Mississippi.
Tracks 2, 5, 8 and 15, recorded Nov. 20, 2005 at Jimbo Mathus’ Delta Recording Studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi.