In a world increasingly overrun by chain restaurants and strip malls, the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Mississippi, is a stark reminder of days gone by.
Stepping into this low-slung cinderblock building is like stepping back in time. Exposed lightbulbs dangle from the ceiling. An old jukebox glows in the corner. The cracked and peeling walls are decorated with dog-eared posters promoting long-ago blues festivals and yellowed photos commemorating long-dead bluesmen. During the winter months a converted 55-gallon steel drum serves as a wood-burning stove. A can of cold beer can be had for a buck and a quarter.
At one time, you couldn't toss a rock in Bentonia without hitting a juke joint. By Jimmy "Duck" Holmes' estimate, the little town was once home to nine functioning juke joints.
Today, only the Blue Front remains. Jimmy's parents first opened the juke in 1948, and Jimmy took over its day-to-day management when his father died in 1970. Nearly four decades later, the Blue Front Cafe stands defiantly as the longest-running juke in Mississippi.
All of the music on this CD was recorded at the Blue Front. Most of the tracks stem from an August 2009 recording session. The remainder come from the November 2005 sessions for Back To Bentonia, Jimmy's critically acclaimed debut CD.
For Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, the Blue Front is home, and there's no place he would rather play his blues. Naturally, there's no place I'd rather record him.
Of course, that doesn't mean a recording session at the Blue Front is easy.
For starters, there's the building itself to contend with. Its cinder block walls and cement floor create a perfect echo chamber but a lousy space for recording drums. Hours of tacking tattered blankets to the walls help to deaden the echo to a degree. But no amount of blankets can stop the rain from ricocheting loudly off of the tin roof.
Throughout the July 2006 recording session, rain came to Bentonia in violent bursts. At one point, water poured through the ceiling and sprayed onto the recording equipment.
On the plus side, the rain did manage to keep the juke at a more reasonable temperature - closer to a simmer than a boil - but it did nothing to slow the flow of traffic in and out of the joint. Trying to stem the tide of patrons was futile. All day long, locals wandered in and out to buy a can of beer or a bag of pork skins or just to check on our progress. Perfect takes of haunting country blues were aborted at frequent intervals so that Jimmy could make change or answer the questions of of a friend or relation. Sometimes these songs were recaptured later. Other times they were lost as Jimmy moved on to another song.
Even when we were able to call the sun out of hiding and keep the curious onlookers at bay, we had to compete with incessant trains that roared by fewer than fifty feet from the front door of the Blue Front. More than a few blazing performances were drowned out by the rhythm of a passing freight train shaking the juke at its foundation.
At these times, Jimmy would simply set the guitar aside, shrug and advise, "Let the train go by."
When the sound of the engine finally faded into the ether minutes later, he would quietly pick up his guitar, lean into the microphone and deliver another stunning performance.
For those used to the frantic pace of the modern world, this process can seem arduous, even maddening. But as the music on this disc proves, if you want something real, sometimes you have to wait for it.
released June 1, 2007
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes - guitar and vocals
Lightnin' Malcolm - drums (tracks 2, 5, 6 and 9)
Bud Spires - harmonica (track 7)
Produced by Jeff Konkel
Recorded and mixed by Bill Abel, Big Toe Porta Studio
Production assistance by Jerry Konkel
Mastered by Mark Yoshida at Audiographic Masterworks
Art direction and design by Joey Grisham
Cover photo by Joe Rosen
Additional photography by Gene Tomko
Tracks 1, 3, 7 and 8 recorded Nov. 17, 2005
Tracks 2, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10 recorded Aug. 10, 2006
All tracks recorded at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Mississippi