Born David Kimbrough on July 28, 1930, in Hudsonville, MS; died on January 17, 1998, in Holly Springs, MS.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, when white folklorists and rock stars brought men like Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell into the broader pop marketplace, the state of Mississippi has been a sort of blues museum. Visitors come from all over the world to see Sonny Boy Williamson's gravesite, the hotel where Bessie Smith died, or the crossroads where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. But unbeknownst to these explorers--with some exceptions, most notably New York Times music critic Robert Palmer--a thriving, moonshine-drenched blues scene was playing out in jukejoints throughout the area. The star was Hudsonville, Mississippi, native David "Junior" Kimbrough, whose trancelike blues were as distinctive as any of Johnson's spooked hollers. The difference was that Kimbrough, who grew up playing house parties with McDowell himself, didn't get discovered until the early 1990s, less than a decade before his death.

"See," Kimbrough said in a 1990 interview, later published in Guitar Player, "I have a different type of music from other peoples. They playing the other kind of blues, and I'm playing cotton-patch blues.... Ain't nobody now can play the blues that I play." More succinctly, rockabilly artist Charlie Feathers, who recorded and studied with Kimbrough in the 1960s, called his style "the beginning and the end of music," as quoted on the Onion's website.

The beginning and end of music turns out to be a low, repetitive guitar groove the roots of which twist back not only to Mississippi Delta heroes such as Johnson, McDowell, and Bukka White, but to Southern slave plantations and the mesmerizing drones of torn-apart African cultures. It is entirely uninfluenced by rock 'n' roll; when the Guitar Player interviewers caught up to Kimbrough, they asked whether he had played or even liked the music. Kimbrough's answer to both questions was a flat "no."

Kimbrough was born on July 28, 1930, in Hudsonville, near Como, where the elder McDowell had already begun his career. As a little kid, he played house parties, learning the music from regional stars such as Eli Green, Bud Lee Jenkins, and Kimbrough's brother, Peter. Unlike McDowell, these musicians didn't stray far from the Mississippi hill country, which centered on Holly Springs, near the Tennessee state line--and neither did Kimbrough, at first. In the 1940s, railroads in Marshall County, Mississippi, reduced service in the area, limiting travel for Kimbrough and future colleagues such as Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill. So where McDowell and the earlier generation of bluesmen were free to roam the area, and the country, Kimbrough stuck around.

As a young man, he ran his own parties and jukejoints, developing his distinctive style through long nightly jams. Before long, "Junior's Place" became a required destination for local partiers and in-the-know visitors; the two-dollar hooch flowed freely, and Kimbrough decorated the place with signs such as, "If you can't read this, get some assistance to help you read this." Kimbrough recorded only a few singles early in his career, including Philwood Records' "Tramp"/"You Can't Leave Me" and, later, High Water's "Keep Your Hands Off Her"/"Good Little Girl." Feathers, a white neighbor, took lessons from Kimbrough and recorded "Release Me" with him in 1969 (it opens 2002's You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough).

"Me and my sister, we used to steal our brothers' guitars out of the loft and started to play. When I first started playing, I had a wire on the house, a diddley bow. You know, a broom, they have wire on 'em? I put me three strands of wire on the house and cut me a piece of wood and run it up under them," he told Guitar Player. "I used a bottleneck. You know, break a bottle and put the neck piece on your finger, just like a slide.... I sung spirituals for eight years over in West Memphis. We had our own group named the Faithful Five. We went to a lot of places, singin'. Then I said, 'Well, I'm goin' back to the blues.' I went back to the blues, so everything you hear me sing, this is my own. I make up everything."

In the late 1980s, New York Times critic Robert Palmer visited Kimbrough while scouring the area for material for a blues documentary, Deep Blues, named after Palmer's landmark 1981 book. Palmer wound up recording several of Kimbrough's tracks for the soundtrack album, which sold very few copies but circulated through the underground and became incredibly influential. Picking up on this was Matthew Johnson, a punk-rock fan who, like many white explorers before him, decided to perform his own Mississippi-blues search and help present deliberately raw local talents to the world. With the help of high-profile fans such as New York City punk Jon Spencer (head of the Blues Explosion), Johnson's Fat Possum Records introduced Kimbrough, Burnside, T-Model Ford, and Asie Payton to national record stores.

Kimbrough epitomized Johnson's philosophy. "The further the blues gets from Mississippi, the worser it all seems to get," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in a 1999 story about Ford. "The whole concept of 'the blues' has just been so cheapened by the music that's out there now. Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd? Man, if they were my kids, I'd beat 'em in the yard in front of all the neighbors. And meanwhile, all these guys down here are getting neglected."

Palmer wound up producing several revelatory Kimbrough albums, including 1995's All Night Long, with Kimbrough's son Kenny Malone on drums and R.L.'s son Garry Burnside on bass, and 1994's Sad Days, Lonely Nights, which isn't as down-home but reinvents the blues standards "Crawling King Snake" and "Old Black Mattie." Both albums are classic blues, as foot-stomping as John Lee Hooker's The Real Folk Blues and as bleakly soulful as Son House's original Mississippi Delta folk ballads.

Critics noticed immediately. One Down Beat review of All Night Long described the music as "a fresh blast of raw-boned brilliance" and "serious celebratory sounds perfectly suited for all-night sessions on sawdust floors." Of Sad Days, Lonely Nights, Rolling Stone raved: "It's a galvanic revelation these days to hear music sprung so cleanly from its roots."

But the hipster fame, recording contract, and prominent slot on 1995's traveling Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan did little to improve Kimbrough's lifestyle. He was severely injured in a 1997 car accident. Sleeve photos of him in You Better Run: The Best of Junior Kimbrough are almost as depressing as his music; Kimbrough leers shirtless from behind an old car door, cigarette and pot belly barely drawing attention from the dark circles under his eyes, his furrowed brow, and his deeply etched forehead.

He died of a heart attack in early 1998 in his longtime companion Mildred Washington's home, a public housing apartment in Holly Springs. According to Anthony DeCurtis's You Better Run liner notes, Kimbrough claimed to have fathered roughly three dozen children. A few months after his death, his jukejoint burned down, destroying decades of photos, instruments, and other heirlooms. "It was almost like we seen our dad die again," Kimbrough's son, David, says in the liner notes.

by Steve Knopper

Junior Kimbrough's Career

Recorded first single, "Tramp"/"You Can't Leave Me," for Philwood Records, c. 1968; appeared in Deep Blues film documentary and soundtrack, 1992; signed with Fat Possum Records, released debut album, Sad Days, Lonely Nights, 1994; released All Night Long, 1995; released Most Things Haven't Worked Out, 1997.

Junior Kimbrough's Awards

Rolling Stone magazine, Best Blues Album of the Decade for All Night Long, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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