This isn’t the sort of article I usually post on Medium, but my Medium pal and occasional commentator on my ramblings, Bonnie Barton, has written a fair bit recently of her upcoming move to Mississippi after many years in Texas.
I’ve had to uproot myself several times over the years, and every “big move” keeps me on edge for a while until I work my way through a swirling mix of hope and anxiety, nerves and optimism, disquiet and confidence.
So just in case she’s going through something similar, it seemed an appropriate time to reciprocate the kindness Bonnie showed me when I’d just started sharing my innermost thoughts in a public forum.
I don’t know Bonnie personally. We’ve never met or spoken. For all I know, Bonnie isn’t even her real name (“No” certainly isn’t my real first name…).
But if Bonnie reads this article, I hope she sees it as an affectionate tribute to her excellent Mixtape series where she unearths some truly great songs and brilliant musicians under an overarching theme. She’s well worth a follow if you’re not doing so already.
So, in words as close as I can get to the style of one of Bonnie’s own Mixtape articles, here’s a quick run-down of some of the phenomenal musical talent to come from Mississippi over the years by way of a warm musical welcome to life in the Magnolia State…
B. B. King
Mississippi isn’t known as the Home of the Blues for nothing. I could write a whole article just on famous Blues musicians from Mississippi.
But no article about musicians from Mississippi would be complete without a doff of the cap to B. B. King.
B. B. King has won more Grammys than most world-famous musicians have managed Top 10 singles. In no small way, B. B. King influenced the musical development and playing styles of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix…alongside my own personal favourite axe-man, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
Here’s B. B. King, well into his 80s when this was recorded, showing us all how the Blues is done. You know you’re in the presence of greatness when a guitarist as great as Eric Clapton is happy to play a supporting role to one of the greatest guitar players there’s ever been…
Mississippi John Hurt
Ok, I could have chosen Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf before leaving the Blues for other musical pastures. But it seemed somehow appropriate to choose a less well-known, but no less pivotal, name in the musical history of Mississippi…who, as a bonus, has the state’s name incorporated into his moniker.
After many years in total obscurity, Mississippi John Hurt was “discovered” by the mainstream music industry when he was pushing 70 years old. When you listen to the song below, you’ll recognise just how good he was.
And although fame came late in life for him, when it might have been kinder to come earlier and spare him some hard times along the way, at least Mississippi John Hurt died knowing he was a star, praised to the rafters by the most popular artists of the early 1960s folk revival for the inspiration they drew from his work.
Mississippi John Hurt’s style greatly influenced Bob Dylan, amongst many others. Here he is with a great live performance of “You’ve Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley”…
From Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Bobbie Gentry went from being on nobody’s radar screen whatsoever to topping the charts around the world with “Ode To Billie Joe”.
A million miles away from the Flower Power style that dominated the pop charts of 1967, “Ode To Billie Joe” was eerie, brooding, spooky and mysterious.
Just what was going on mid-way across the Tallahatchie Bridge? We’d never find out for sure…although we all had our theories…
“Ode To Billie Joe” is a wonderful story-telling song, packed full of the sort of little details a best-selling novelist might pick up on. But that level of texture and background in the lyrics of a pop song was as unusual in chart-topping songs of the 1960s as it is today.
This is a stand-out composition which has stood the test of time. Here’s Bobbie Gentry with “Ode To Billie Joe”…its immense power lies in its apparent simplicity…
Next up is Faith Hill. One of country music’s all-time best-selling artists, both for her own work and for her collaborations with husband, and best-selling Country artist in his own right, Tim McGraw.
With 5 Grammys and 15 CMAs to her name, Faith Hill is a musical powerhouse. But what I’ve always liked about her was the way she worked the word “centrifugal” into her big international breakthrough hit “This Kiss”.
That’s not a word that makes its way into all that many pop songs…or, I suspect, any other pop song…and I’ve always loved her for that.
“This Kiss” is a great song even without that rather unusual word…but with that very un-poppy word in there, “This Kiss” becomes a work of great beauty.
Technically, I realise it was Beth Nielsen Chapman, Robin Lerner and Annie Roboff who worked “centrifugal” into the song as they, rather than Faith Hill, wrote it. But I could imagine other artists asking for the word to be replaced with something a good deal easier to sing. So the fact Faith Hill took the challenge on anyway earns her my admiration.
Frankly I’m not sure what the video director was smoking when he put this one together, but Faith Hill seems to take the creative concept in good part…I’m not sure I’d have been so gracious in the same circumstances.
Here’s the very lovely (and centrifugal) Faith Hill…
Tammy Wynette was known as “The First Lady of Country Music”…and that’s probably a fair description.
In the UK, where country music is a lot less popular than it is in the US, Tammy Wynette was one of the few country artists most people could name back in the 1970s and 80s.
Her crossover hits “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” and “Stand By Your Man” did well in the UK pop charts and she played an important role in popularising the country music sound over here, paving the way for others to follow.
In more recent times, Tammy Wynette’s biggest hit “Stand By Your Man” has come to be pilloried by some for what’s seen as its advice to “stick by your man no matter what”.
I always thought that was a little unfair. “Stand By Your Man” could be taken as simplistic “how to” advice every woman was expected to meekly follow.
Equally it could be seen as a commentary on how unreasonable society’s expectations were on women who deserved a lot better in life, but whose unstinting support had always been taken for granted by the men in their life and society at large. I’ve always leaned towards the second interpretation myself.
However, Tammy Wynette’s real moment of recognition in the UK was her role in one of the most bizarre musical pairings of all time…when she featured on The KLF’s “Justified and Ancient”.
I don’t know what The KLF were smoking when they came up with the idea of pairing hip-hop and country music, but, unlike whatever Faith Hill’s video director was on, I’ve got a much better idea in their case.
The KLF’s avant-garde, anarchic and subversive approach to making music was the stuff of legend, even by the avant-garde, anarchic and subversive standards set by the champion pill-poppers who ruled the British music industry in the early 1990s.
It doesn’t get much more anarchic than pairing one of the biggest names in Country music with hip-hop samples, African-style choirs and a dance beat, supplemented by pedal steel guitars, for example…but that’s exactly what you get in “Justified And Ancient”.
Not only is the underlying concept behind The KLF collaborating with Tammy Wynette bizarre, the accompanying video takes the concept of “bizarre” to a whole new level…one which even Faith Hill’s video director would struggle to reach.
Here’s The KLF and Tammy Wynette with “Justified And Ancient”…see if you can work out what they were all on as this concept started to come together…
Of course, we couldn’t take a musical journey through the state of Mississippi without considering Tupelo’s most famous musical son, Elvis Aaron Presley.
Nowadays we think of Graceland and Memphis when we think of Elvis, but Elvis and his family didn’t relocate to Memphis until Elvis was in his early teens. Mississippi was where he was born and raised.
So much has been written about Elvis and his songs that I don’t feel the need to say much more about him here. But he deserved the moniker of “The King Of Rock And Roll” more than anyone else.
For all his immense vocal talents, and the amazing songs funnelled his way by some of the best songwriters of his generation, the Elvis song I like most of all is a very un-typical song of his…the Mac Davis composition “In The Ghetto”.
This is a great “circle of life” song and a rare foray into social consciousness by one of the greatest musical artists who ever lived…
Take a look at you and me
Are we too blind to see
Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way?
Those words are as important today as they were when they were written back in 1969…
Jerry Lee Lewis
With apologies to Jerry Lee Lewis’s passionate fans, Elvis probably pipped him at the post in the “impact on popular music” stakes. But Nesbit, Mississippi’s Jerry Lee Lewis was about as pivotal an artist as it was possible to be in the early days of rock and roll.
His personal life attracted a good deal of press attention, very little of it flattering, and there were times Jerry Lee Lewis could perhaps have handled himself better in the public gaze. But his musicianship is beyond doubt.
Another scion of Sun Records, and a label-mate of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis earned the nickname of “The Killer” for his wild stage performances. And his nickname also made possible one of the greatest album titles of all time when his 1993 retrospective collection was released under the name of “All Killer, No Filler”.
A true rock and roll pioneer, here’s Jerry Lee Lewis with a typically energetic performance of one of his signature songs… “Great Balls Of Fire”…
(The audio is not great on this, and I don’t know how those young people stayed sat down with all the energy in the room, but as a piece which captures the mood as rock and roll took over the world in the late 1950s, this video is very much worth a watch…)
Bringing our musical journey through Mississippi to a gentler close after the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis leaves the stage is Meridian’s Steve Forbert.
Steve Forbert is best known for his “Jack Rabbit Slim” album. As a songwriter, his songs have been covered by the likes of Rosanne Cash, Keith Urban and Marty Stuart. But in his own right, Steve Forbert is probably better known for the charming “Romeo’s Tune”.
“Romeo’s Tune” made number 11 in the Billboard Hot 100, but didn’t trouble the UK charts in the slightest. Thankfully, in the days when radio programming was done by humans rather than algorithms, it was picked up anyway and became something of a turntable hit through the 1980s.
DJs liked it, even if the pop charts didn’t, so you can still hear “Romeo’s Tune” now and again on oldies stations in the UK 40 years or so after the song’s initial release…something of a rarity for a song which didn’t chart first time around.
There’s something very endearing about “Romeo’s Tune” that I can’t quite put my finger on. All I know is that, whenever the piano intro for this song comes on the radio, I know I’m in for three very enjoyable minutes in its company.
Here’s Mississippi’s very own Steve Forbert to sing it for you…
Have a great time in Mississippi, Bonnie. I hear it’s home of “The South’s Warmest Welcome”, so I’ve a feeling the next chapter of your life will turn out just fine…