Mississippi Folklife announces the new Fall 2021 Issue: Performances and the Pandemic.

Kenny Brown + Andrea Staten

Kenny Brown + Andrea Staten

Kenny Brown and Andrea Staten participated in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2020-2021 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This grants program supports the survival and continued evolution of community-based traditional art forms. During the apprenticeship, the master artist teaches specific skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to the apprentice, who is an emerging artist of the same tradition. Participants are awarded $2,000 to assist with the teaching fees for the master artist and other expenses such as travel costs and supplies. To learn more about the program, click here.

Introduction 

In Holly Springs National Forest, Kenny Brown and Andrea Staten play Hill Country blues together on Kenny’s front porch. Kenny learned and performed with great blues musicians throughout his life, and he values passing on his knowledge, stories, and technical skills. In addition to his commitment to apprenticeships, Kenny and his wife Sara organize the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic every year, inviting musicians and festival-goers to come celebrate the Hill Country blues tradition.

Master Artist: Kenny Brown 

Kenny Brown. Photo by Adam Smith. 

When Kenny was ten years old, he would visit every day with his next door neighbor, blues guitarist Joe Callicott. Joe taught Kenny to play slide by laying the guitar in his lap and pressing down on the strings using a pocket knife. His first exposure to Hill Country blues music was a few years prior.

“I was probably six or seven years old and I heard music coming down. I grew up in Nesbit right there on Pleasant Hill Road, and it was a gravel road at that time... I heard this music and it kept getting closer and closer and finally, I was standing out on the hill looking, and I saw a truck coming. It ended up that there was a fife and drum band in the back of a truck, and that was the way they advertised that there was a picnic going on because so many people didn’t have phones that they would ride around the area playing music... They turned in right across from my house and that was the first time I’d ever heard it. Turned out it was Otha Turner or Napoleon Strickland, one of those guys, and their band, and they would go all weekend a lot of times.” – Kenny Brown

Kenny continued to learn from everyone he met including Hill Country blues musicians Johnny Woods, Junior Kimbrough, Bobby Ray Watson, and especially RL Burnside. Kenny explains that in the 1960s when he was a kid, it was not common where he lived for white people to be socializing or playing music with Black people. As a white guitarist playing traditionally African American blues music, Kenny says “The songs I was learning weren’t popular songs. When people found out you play guitar a little bit, [they ask] do you know any Beatles songs or Rolling Stones? No, I don’t.” Kenny admired RL’s music, and RL invited him to come to his home and play with him when he learned Kenny was close friends with Joe Callicott.

Kenny is especially known for his use of the slide on his finger, a skill he picked up from Bobby Ray Watson.

With RL Burnside, Kenny played at juke joints, toured, and recorded with Fat Possum Records when he was not doing construction work. “Sometimes I wonder if it was a curse or a blessing,” Kenny says. “A lot of people think the blues is the devil's music, I've heard that before, I don’t think it is. No, I don’t know if I’d ever be happy working in a bank or something like that or being some businessman. I love the outdoors and I love playing music, especially the blues.”

Apprentice: Andrea Staten 

Andrea Staton and Kenny Brown performing at Proud Larry's in Oxford, MS. This performance was a part of their apprenticeship coursework, and it marked the final event of their apprenticeship together. Photo by Lisa Chandler.

Andrea Staten grew up in Charleston, MS and listened to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and music influenced by the blues. She picked up her guitar when she was young but did not play regularly until after she moved to Oxford, MS and attended the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in 2012. There, she met and had her first guitar workshop with Kenny Brown. “The other people giving lessons that day included the late David Kimbrough Jr., who was Junior Kimbrough’s son... and also Garry Burnside and Duwayne Burnside. All of them just blew me away,” says Andrea. “I didn’t really understand what Hill Country blues was, but I knew that it was a lot of fun to play.” She has immersed herself in this music ever since.

Apprenticeship Experience 

People ask Kenny Brown all the time what makes Hill Country blues distinctive. The music of this blues genre focuses more on rhythm rather than chord changes, creating a groove that Andrea describes as "hypnotic." The emphasis on the percussive rhythm comes from the fife and drum music in this region. During their apprenticeship, Kenny taught Andrea how to keep the beat of the music with her thumb, percussively hitting the top strings of the guitar and manipulating its sound using a slide. Kenny is especially known for his use of the slide on his finger, a skill he picked up from Bobby Ray Watson. Andrea learned several challenging techniques that improved her playing such as when to start and mute a note with both the left hand and right hand towards the bridge of the guitar. Andrea joked, “Kenny once told me, I can show you everything I know in twenty minutes, but it will take you twenty years to learn it.”

“There are not many people that come around anymore. Nowadays with the internet and YouTube... There is a world of knowledge there and all the information is there. Everybody’s got videos teaching you how to do stuff, but there’s something about, you know, I don’t think they learn the respect as they would if they were sitting with an older person learning from them. Just to pass it on to someone else, keep it going.” – Kenny Brown

Andrea learned several challenging techniques that improved her playing such as when to start and mute a note with both the left hand and right hand towards the bridge of the guitar.

During their apprenticeship, Andrea would go to Kenny and Sara’s house. Kenny would sit down with Andrea to show her how to play songs. Although the pandemic risk disrupted their schedule at times, they would try to meet once a week. “Being secluded has been a challenge,” Andrea explains. “Typically, there would have been plenty of times when we would have seen each other out and about at festivals… That's been a challenge, not seeing people that we typically are used to seeing at festivals and gigs and house parties and impromptu things that just didn’t happen this year. That’s something personally I’ve grieved.” Kenny hardly performed because of the pandemic, but he explains that despite these losses, it was still nice to get together with Andrea to play.

Audio: In an interview with Jennie Williams, Kenny Brown and Andrea Staten discuss their apprenticeship meetings and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on their apprenticeship and the larger Hill Country blues community.

Conclusion

After traveling the world with RL Burnside during his music career, Kenny created the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in 2006 to honor the music and musicians of the tradition. “It’s like a big family reunion,” Kenny explains. With living Hill Country blues musicians present to teach workshops to carry on the tradition, that exposure is how musicians like Andrea got their start. Though they had to cancel the 2020 event due to the pandemic, they hosted it this year on June 25-26, 2021. Andrea and Kenny look forward to learning and playing together as music venues open again.

This video documents Kenny’s and Andrea’s performance at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, MS. This show was a part of Andrea's apprenticeship training with Kenny. Video courtesy of Kenny's wife, Dr. Sara Brown.

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Jennie Williams

Jennie Williams

Jennie Williams is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. She has served on panels for the folk arts programs at Mississippi and Michigan, and has volunteered or worked professionally for public folklore organizations that include Maryland Traditions, Traditional Arts Indiana, the NEA, and Smithsonian Folkways.