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

RL Boyce + Kody Harrell

RL Boyce + Kody Harrell

RL Boyce and Kody Harrell 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

During their apprenticeship, Hill Country blues musician RL Boyce taught Kody Harrell about the music-filled picnics and parties in the North Mississippi community as they played music on RL’s front porch. Kody wanted to learn about these social events that brought so many families together and was an integral part of the tradition from the 1960s and 1970s to today. RL shared with Kody memories of how he would play at Junior Kimbrough’s club, then go over to his uncle Othar “Otha” Turner’s picnic to play with Luther and Cody Dickinson and RL Burnside’s family. At these gatherings, RL would sit in with whoever might jump in to play. Even though these small parties and picnics have now grown into full-sized festivals, that feeling of a closely connected music community is still present in North Mississippi today.

Master Artist: RL Boyce

RL Boyce at the RL Boyce Picnic & Blues Celebration in 2018. Photo by Maria Zeringue, courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission. 

'Everybody calls RL’s music ‘the endless boogie,' says Kody. 'It gets your foot tapping and gets your head bobbing.'

Growing up in Como where he still lives, RL Boyce could hear Mississippi Fred McDowell playing music on his porch five miles north. He was not old enough yet to go to the parties, so RL would climb a tree and sometimes skip school so he could watch Fred play. Later in the 1970s, RL played a big bass drum with his uncle Othar “Otha” Turner’s fife and drum band. They would play together for hours at picnics, back when the jams were relaxed and musicians could jump in and out whenever they wanted to play.

“Blues is blues. It’s what you put it in. It’s what you get out of it. You know, when you do blues, for some it makes the world feel good - the whole world, make it feel good. Do it your own style, whatever kind of music you play.” - RL Boyce

According to RL, Hill Country blues is party music. “It’s kind of like a community music that everybody can get into and everybody likes,” Kody describes. It lingers on a one chord groove that musicians can join in and play on for as long as twenty minutes if they want. “Everybody calls RL’s music ‘the endless boogie,’” says Kody. “It gets your foot tapping and gets your head bobbing.”

RL has played with the Kimbrough family, the Burnside family, Jessie May Hemphill, James “Son” Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf, Luther Dickinson, and several more, in addition to recording and touring around the world. His solo album, “Roll and Tumble” on Waxpolitation Records was nominated for a Grammy in 2017. “They all ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ What I got you can’t take it,” RL explains. “I got it in my fingers. Whatever I play, it’s going to sound good.” 

Apprentice: Kody Harrell

Kody Harrell performing at the RL Boyce Picnic & Blues Celebration in 2018. Photo by Maria Zeringue, courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission. 

Kody Harrell originally moved to the Oxford area from southern Mississippi to attend the University of Mississippi in 2010. During his first two years of college, he saw Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars perform several times at The Lyric in Oxford. In 2012, at the Dickinson’s annual show, he remembers thinking, “I want to play just like him.” He listened to more blues music and learned about RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Otha Turner, musicians who influenced the tradition of Hill Country blues. In 2015, Kody attended a guitar workshop at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic with Luther Dickinson, Duwayne Burnside, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, and Kenny Brown. He has been playing music with the community of Hill Country blues musicians ever since.

Kody met RL at a couple different events, but he caught RL’s attention when he played at Duwayne Burnside’s birthday party. RL invited Kody to play at his house anytime, and he told Kody, “I’ll show you anything you want to know, you can’t play just like me, but I can show you everything you want to know.” Kody now works full-time as an engineer at a manufacturing company, and continues to play music with RL. “I still got more to show him,” RL says. 

“Do your own style, you can’t do nobody else’s style.” - RL Boyce

Apprenticeship Experience 

RL and Kody at the RL Boyce Picnic & Blues Celebration in 2018. Photo by John Shaw. 
 

RL set out to teach Kody his own guitar playing skills, and to tell him stories about the musicians and picnics where Hill Country blues music was played in Como. RL’s techniques are his own, such as “slapping the fretboard.” Kody explains this special technique:

“RL has a unique way of slapping the fretboard with his fretting fingers on his left hand and getting a harmonic note to ring out. Usually guitar players just fret the notes they play and that’s it, but RL does this slapping technique where he's kind of muting the strings. But, he does it so fast it's more of a slap that lets a harmonic ring out. It's classically RL, even Luther Dickinson points out that technique.” 

RL insists that no musician can or should play the same way as another. “RL plays like RL Boyce,” Kody says. Even traditional Hill Country blues songs like “Poor Black Mattie” are all played differently depending on who is performing them. “I can’t play like you, you can’t play like me,” explains RL. “Find your style and hone it. Whatever you want to do.” Kody had to “catch his style,” meaning he had to watch and learn in order to play it in his own way.

“[RL] does it all by ear. And that’s one of the big things that I’ve learned from [RL] is that you can’t get all the answers like you’re reading a textbook or something. you have to learn how to hear it and how to pick it out by ear. So, I love that about playing with RL. That’s about the most organic way that you can play. Just listen and then pick it up and go with it.” - Kody Harrell

When the pandemic started, Kody was not sure at first if they could get together for their apprenticeship. Tours, shows, and large music gatherings where they would normally perform were cancelled. Once a week, they would sit together masked outside in RL’s front yard to jam. Although they were not able to do everything they had planned, they spent most of their time talking one-on-one. A big fan of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Kody would ask RL what it was like to play with him and what Hill Country blues music was like “back in the day.”

Conclusion

Hill Country blues is now often played more for large festival audiences. While there used to be music played somewhere every weekend, the public is welcome to hear the music at events like the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic and the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival where hundreds of people gather from all over the world. RL Boyce hosts a weekend festival for his birthday every year in August. RL and Kody wanted to prepare for the party during their apprenticeship, but it unfortunately had to be cancelled. They plan to continue to play together and hopefully host music for RL’s birthday in August 2021. RL and Kody agree, “It’s not over just because the apprenticeship is over.”

In an interview with Jennie Williams, Kody describes what is special about their community of family and friends who are connected through their love of Hill Country Blues.

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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.