North Mississippi Hill Country Blues
By T.E. Mattox
here is a raw and relentless style of blues that came drifting out of
the hills of Northern Mississippi more than a century ago. Actually
'drifting' isn't the proper descriptive terminology. The blues that
originated in that region screamed and stomped its way out of
those hills and have been lovingly described by generations since as
'hypnotic,' 'possessed,' 'powerful,' 'tranced'
and 'driven.' Lineups vary, but usually range from a solo guitarist
pounding out time on a footboard to a guitarist-drummer tandem capable
of generating the melodic tenor of machined pistons. And as far as proximity,
the closest you'll ever get to a brass section is a fife or the occasional
Most of the originators are gone but the names are legendary;
McDowell, Burnside, Hemphill, Belfour, Kimbrough, Turner and T-Model
Ford. Fortunately, the present day wave of Hill Country players has
a number of shining lights; Sharde Thomas, Trenton Ayers, Chris Chew,
The Dickinson's; Cody and Luther, and the Burnside prodigy, Duwayne,
Garry and Cedric. The list is vast, but for my money none are breaking
brighter than Lightnin' Malcolm.
Constant touring and mentoring from many of the aforementioned
originators, Malcolm gained some serious national attention in 2009
when playing with drummer Cedric Burnside in support of the album, '2
Man Wrecking Crew.' That same year he was nominated and won the
'Best New Artist' honors at the Blues Music Awards.
When I first ran into him at a
music festival in Southern California, he was on-the-road again
in support of his latest release 'Renegade.' His drummer at the
time was another young player with advanced North Mississippi credentials;
Junior Kimbrough's grandson, Cameron.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
.the older you get,
you know what licks go straight to people's hearts,
what licks go straight to their spines and their nervous systems."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Having just witnessed their intense hill country set,
I noted how wonderfully reminiscent it was of the late, R.L. Burnside.
Lightnin' immediately smiled and simply said, "He was one of
my favorite inspirations. He was a great guy and we made pretty good
friends. He was always very encouraging to me. I remember a couple of
times when he was getting really sick and he was laying in bed and he
would hold my hand. He would hold my hand, just looking at me. We didn't
talk about it, but I knew what he was saying. He was saying, 'Keep this
keep the sound goin.' It runs very deep."
Lightnin' and 'Stud' feeling it. Photo
credit: Donna Deady
If you ask Malcolm about his blues he'll tell you "I
like the old fashioned music, the roots
way back to the roots.
The type of blues I like is really almost ancient. You know the boogie,
like the John Lee Hooker Boogie Chillen-type, just a couple of
notes that's got this universal beat. You know I listen to a lot of
different music too, but that's like my foundation. So I kind of mix
it all together, but I try to do it in a way where it won't get watered
down. It keeps the root!"
The same applies to his writing style. "I try
to make everything, every song I try to write, I try to make it where
the words really mean something. It can also mean different things to
different people." He adds, "And I just try to make
sure it's got a badass guitar riff you can dance off of, and then the
rest can take care of itself."
Lightnin' is the first to admit his love for the blues
runs soul deep. "It does, I mean you have to love it. As soon
as I heard it, I loved it. When I was a little kid, the first thing
I heard was Muddy Waters and it just stopped me in my tracks, 'Oh man,
what is this?' From that day to this day, that's been my whole life."
Deeper Than the Blues
Malcolm's mindset about the music is never more apparent
than when he speaks of his relationships and lifelong friendships with
a number of the hill country originators. "I wanted to be around
guys I could learn from and they were the best. I knew they weren't
gonna' be around forever so I tried to take as much time as I could.
It was genuine
It wasn't like I was gonna' make a bunch of money
hangin' around those guys, but the friendship and the love of the music
and they loved me back, they saw something good in me, you know what
They would talk to me about stuff, not necessarily
about guitar licks and music even, but about life. The deeper stuff,
you can't really show somebody how to play it. People say, 'Man, show
me how you play that song?' You already know how to play the notes,
but making it come to life on the dance floor, that's a different story.
To play the deep blues like that, you've got to understand some things
about life. That's why the older you get, you're fingers might not move
as fast but you become more effective because you know what licks go
straight to people's hearts, what licks go straight to their spines
and their nervous systems. It's like you can get a direct connection
to people, the older I get, the more experience I get, the more gigs
I play, the more songs I write, the more I learn how to do that better
with actually less notes. You just find the right notes, you've got
your little secret codes in this universe if you pay attention and listen
with your heart, you can find 'em."
Plumbing the depths with Lightnin' and Stud. Photo
credit: Neil Lardner
Lightnin' has played with multiple drummers throughout
his career and is currently partnered with T-Model Ford's grandson,
'Stud.' "From the time he was like one year old until he was
7 or 8 Stud watched me playing drums with T-Model, and he would get
on my lap and I'd show him how to hold drumsticks; we are so connected
because of that history. You know the drums are a very, very important
part of the sound. You're only as good as your drummer; I think Keith
Richards might have said that. And by him watching me so many years
playing with T-Model, he knows the kind of 'drive' that I like, you
know? Hit just the right notes and then you get elevated and the next
thing you know you're playing some licks you never thought of
it just comes out." But Lightnin' cautions, "Sometimes
you can reach for it too fast, when you should just stay the groove
and wait for it to come to you."
It's a real family tradition. "Yea, yea... keeping
the family store open for business." He says, "I know
T-Model would be extremely happy. You know me and T-Model really loved
each other, we went all over the world together and had times I could
never explain to people. And Stud was his favorite, he just loved Stud."
Since we first met a few years ago, Malcolm found love,
got married and just recently became a father. Has it changed the way
you approached your craft? "It's really upped my game."
You can hear the change in his voice. "I feel like I was
It's almost like going from black and white to color. Everything I write
means so much more and especially the music. I've noticed, we just recorded
a new record the last few weeks and I can hear it in my licks
it's by far the best I've ever played and I know it's from the baby
being born. I've got some serious things on my mind and it comes through
in the medium. There's a fire in there. I know everybody always says
that, but I think its way hotter."
Lightnin' and Cameron Kimbrough 'in the pocket.'
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
We talked about the impact R.L. Burnside had on you,
who were some of the other players that influenced your blues? "Fred
McDowell, was one of the biggest." Lightnin' says. "I
didn't know him in my lifetime, but his records and stuff. I mean, there's
so many, John Lee Hooker
CeDell Davis, Big Jack Johnson, Sam Carr
on drums was one of my biggest influences. T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour.
the way he had a huge sound on the guitar, like a
Delta orchestra, when he got in the zone. Big Jack Johnson had a big
influence as a person
as a man and a musician."
I confessed that CeDell Davis was one of MY favorites,
playing the slide with his silverware. "Butter knife!"
Lightnin' corrects me, "I lived with CeDell for awhile, man.
CeDell was one of the guys that really educated me."
You're about ready to hit the road with your pals, the
North Mississippi All-Stars
and Robert Plant!!! I know you've
known the Dickinson's for some time, but how did you meet Robert Plant?
"He came to see me play a couple of years ago, right before
Stud started playing with me, when Cam was still playing. He came and
saw me one time in Clarksdale and we hung out for a minute and I gave
him a CD. I hoped he liked the show, but I didn't know, and he said
he really dug it. And the All-Stars put out their 'World Boogie' record
and they were coming to Memphis and set up a session and had a song
called, 'Goat Meat' that I wrote. And I had to do the singing
with Robert Plant in the studio. He was playing harmonica, but he made
me sing. Ain't that something, one of the best singers in the world
in here and I gotta' do the God-damned singing." (laughing)
(As you read this the North Mississippi All Stars with
Lightnin' Malcolm will be touring Europe for most of the summer in support
of Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. Check your local
listings for time and place.)
Malcolm admits it's a real kick to play with his All
Star buddies. "It's been a good teamwork, a good all-around
thing. I love playing with them guys they've got a good sound and they're
well-respected in the music industry and they're good guys and lots
of fun to play with. My primary job is playing the bass with them and
it's more fun than playing the guitar in some ways. You can get into
a groove and become like an animal sometimes, it's crazy."
I don't think a lot of people realize that you and Cedric
Burnside were like the anchors on the Big Head Blues Club
100 years of Robert Johnson sessions. "Man that was
awesome." Lightnin' says, "I was like the music director.
Basically you had Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the rock band and
you had the old cats like Hubert
and I was almost like the translator. Because they kinda' spoke different
languages. It was really fun for me, because I got to play a bunch of
stuff on that tour that I've never hardly ever played. On my own tours,
I may do a couple of R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough or T-Model Ford,
but not too many covers. Especially like Robert Johnson type stuff,
but I do know how to play it from my teenage years. But to play it with
Hubert and Honeyboy
that was the last tour of both of their lives.
a year they were both gone, and they really went out in style. That
tour, we were playing big theaters and really good towns and they had
a good band and worked up the songs good and traveling on a tour bus,
they were traveling in style. It was a lot of fun man.
I sat up on the tour bus, me and Honeyboy and Hubert,
especially me and Hubert because he didn't sleep that much and we'd
stay up all night talking and he'd tell me stories and stuff. I played
some of the best guitar of my life, we'd just look at each other and
he'd just smile at me and he had a way of making me feel so good about
what I was doin.'"
I'm thinking that's probably the same thing Howlin'
Wolf said for more than 25 years.
Your CDs 'Renegade' and 'Rough Out
There' added a number of unexpected elements to the traditional
hill country blues. You seemed to explore more musical genres and branched
out a little. "I did a lot more; at least I wanted to anyway.
I love Hank Williams, I love Bob Marley. Bob Marley is one of my favorite
musicians of all time. Those last two records, especially 'Rough
Out There' they're really varied and have a lot of different styles.
And I think that's a good thing. Sometimes people in the business, they
respond with, 'just play the hill country stomp records.' Which I do
love and I could do that and it would be safer. But when you write songs
and put them out there you take a chance that people may not like it,
especially when you stretch out. I'm hoping people like it
if I can be true to myself
I feel real lucky because I'm my own
worst critic but I don't like to do just exactly what people expect."
Was that incentive to start your own record label? "Yeah,
Shakedown Records. Guerilla warfare business at its finest."
The tour will take up most of your summer, but what
can we expect in the future from Lightnin' Malcolm? "Just keep
working and keep moving forward and making our music, and keeping the
old sound going, too. It feels good to find a balance in the new music
we write and the old music tied in
and try to make the words mean
something. So we'll just keep writing and keep working
. keep growing."
Check out Lightnin' Malcolm's music at www.lightninmalcolm.com
or the latest on his tour dates with The North Mississippi AllStars
No good can come from this
Blues and Lives Well-Lived; Honeyboy
San Diego Blues Festival; Big
Daddy Kinsey, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin; 2013
San Diego Blues Festival