If you’re familiar with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or any kind of American roots music at all, then you’re familiar with Delta blues. That music – honed in the Mississippi Delta in the early decades of the 1900s by Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and dozens of others – has informed everything from folk to rock to metal and beyond. But not too far to the northeast, where Mississippi meets Tennessee, lies the birthplace of another wholly different, wholly underappreciated genre: Hill Country blues. This genre – a stark, rhythmic strain of blues popularized by Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough – has a nearly unparalleled modern proponent in Markus James.
James, one of today’s most distinctive blues guitarists and songwriters, had been playing West African-inspired blues-based music in the mid-’90s, even traveling to places like Mali to work with local musicians. But he then discovered the connections between that West African blues and Hill Country blues, and thus his signature style was born. James puts that style into action on his newest album, Head for the Hills, recorded in Hill Country with local players (including Junior Kimbrough’s son Kinney). “Having recorded in all kinds of rough environments in West Africa,” James said, “I felt right at home setting up mics on a porch, hanging mics from barn rafters, in a carport, and just rolling; and this seemed perfectly normal to them as well.”
James’ new video for “Just Say Yes,” with lighting as stark as the music and propulsive drums front and center, nicely represents the Hill Country attitude. If you want to check out a wonderfully different kind of blues, or if you want to lay eyes on a cigar box guitar (think Bo Diddley), watch the video below: