When music fans talk about underground sounds they’re usually referring to indie rock, electronica, crunk or some other cutting edge form.
But now blues has become a new force in the international music underground — deep, dirty, old-fashioned blues from the hills and Delta lands of Mississippi. But this blues has a new-fangled twist, incorporating influences of punk rock, Sonic Youth-style dissonance and even funhouse mirror versions of other roots forms like bluegrass and old-timey mountain music.
Community Web sites like MySpace and LiveBluesWorld have become the jungle telegraph for these bands and their fans, as well as more traditional outlets like college radio and fanzines. But the human nexus for hundreds of these groups is an unassuming music fan from Minnesota named Chris Johnson. As the founder and driving wheel of the Deep Blues Festival, which will convene for its third year July 15 through 19 in Minneapolis, he is in regular touch with the new generation of underground blues bands and their fans throughout the world.
“The blues is not dead, and there’s a lot of potential for the blues to grow and be a thriving genre again,” said Johnson. “The variety and musicianship of the bands that have played the festival is amazing — from one-man bands to goth country blues to apocalypse blues to all kinds of duos and hybrids. Jack White, when he did Son House’s ‘Death Letter’ years ago with the White Stripes, was one of the first of the younger guys to really incorporate elements of dissonant, punk-informed rock into blues. Now there are people doing this in every corner of the western world.”
The one common denominator these musicians share is a love for the blues albums produced in Mississippi in the ’90s by the Fat Possum label. Those recordings, especially the early albums by R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, capture a form of the music rarely heard before Fat Possum made recording contemporary North Mississippi and Delta artists its mission.
“What excited me about this music was that it was so different,” said Johnson. “It was raw and immediate and went all the way back to the roots, and artists like R.L. and Junior had so much character.”
And yet, because of the music’s deep roots, its primal link to popular rock and roll was also obvious, so Johnson, like many others, was able to make the connection between bands he’d grown up hearing, like Z.Z. Top, to the rhythmically intense sounds of Kimbrough and Burnside.
Next came his discovery of artists like the Black Diamond Heavies, Scott H. Biram, and Bob Log — younger independents making music under the influence of Kimbrough, Burnside, and their hill country kin, including Jessie Mae Hemphill and Othar Turner. So Johnson, a former insurance man, was inspired to become a festival promoter.
“I have no other experience promoting shows, so it’s been a real learning experience and I’ve made mistakes,” said Johnson, “but I’ve also had hundreds of people shake my hand and thank me for doing this, so I know this music is really reaching people.”
This new, raw strain of hybrid blues offers deep roots to fans of traditional music. And while Burnside, Kimbrough, Hemphill and Turner are now dead, T-Model Ford, Kenny Brown, Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, and a handful of other Mississippians soldier on.
To younger audiences raised on indie-rock, “this music is different from the Chicago blues, 12-bar shuffles and Stevie Ray Vaughan imitators they grew up hearing,” said Johnson. “It’s raw, primal and exciting, and it moves you with its honesty. If people are willing to open themselves up to something different, they’ll be rewarded.”