Album Reviews

Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes

It Is What It Is

Artist:     Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes

Album:     It Is What It Is

Label:     Blue Front Records

Release Date:     06/17/2016

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When we referenced this as a “studio” album two months ago upon Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes’ release of Live at Briggs Farm, we were only half right. This is the inaugural release for Blue Front Records, and appropriately, is recorded inside the Blue Front Café, the oldest juke joint in Mississippi, which is owned and managed by Holmes. As such, its cinderblock acoustics, Holmes’ foot tapping on the concrete floor, the click of the ceiling fan, and the roar of the train whistle, aptly as he concludes “Slow Down,” all serve to provide an intimacy not found in studio recordings. No, there is not a live audience, but when you listen carefully the personal connection is right there – it’s as if Jimmy is in the same room sitting in a wooden chair playing for you.

The Blue Front Café is located in Bentonia, MS and Holmes is today’s leading progenitor of the Bentonia Blues, a unique style of guitar open D-minor and E-minor tuning. It was developed by Henry Stuckey, who learned it from British soldiers from Trinidad who were stationed in France with Stuckey during World War 1. Stuckey brought the style back to Bentonia and taught it to the legendary Skip James, Jack Owens, Jacob Stuckey, Bud Spires, Cornelius Bright, Tommy West and others. As the style evolved through collaboration among these players, the lyrics and music took on a haunting, dark, quality that to this day remains mesmerizing and trance-like. It is what it was and is what is still today.

Holmes’ parents, Mary and Carey Holmes, started the Blue Front Café in 1948, the year after J. Holmes was born. Stuckey lived next door and his was the first guitar J. Holmes ever held. He is regarded as the last bluesman Stuckey taught. Stuckey, unfortunately, was never recorded, but his legacy carried on. J. Holmes also received tutelage over the years from many of the aforementioned players with Jack Owens indelibly saying “Watch my hands, boy. Watch my hands.”

This is as raw as the country blues gets. There’s nothing pretty about any aspect of Holmes’s delivery but it’s so genuinely authentic that it’s beautiful in its own way. Jimmy’s emotive voice changes dynamics in concert with the opening electric old Harmony Stratotone, and as the album unfolds he plays a smooth sounding 12 string, and his staple acoustic Epiphone which he handles with finesse or grit, in synch with the tune. He even uses the harmonica in a rack on a couple of tunes, thereby accentuating the slow mournful, dissonant uniqueness of the Bentonia style.

This will be a big year for Holmes. The 44th Annual Bentonia Blues Festival began on June 13 and runs through tomorrow. He will play the Briggs Farm Blues Festival (July 8-10).

– Jim Hynes

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