Blues Album Review: Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ “Cypress Grove” — Old Fuses With New

By Ryan Lee Crosby

In Cypress Grove, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’s deep Bentonia guitar remains pure and present, while his vocals, which have never sounded better, are solid and vibrant throughout.

Cypress Grove, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. (Easy Eye Sound)

In a small rural town called Bentonia, Mississippi, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, an elemental strain of American music continues to exists in a pure and vital way. Within the Delta blues canon, the sound of Bentonia is ethereal, haunting, and intensely personal, known for its brooding beat, open minor guitar tuning, and lyrical themes whose preoccupations revolve around wrestling with the devil, death, and hard times. In many ways, the music is as relevant today as when the region’s indelible songs were first sung during the Great Depression.

Originated by Henry Stuckey in the 1920s and made famous by Skip James during the 1960s folk-blues revival, the sound of Bentonia has been carried on by several other local artists, including Jacob Stuckey, Cornelius Bright, and Jack Owens, who often played with harmonica player Bud Spires. Owens passed the torch to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who is regarded as the last active musician in the lineage. Through Holmes, the music continues to generate an ever-growing fan-base of blues lovers that travel from around the world to hear the music played authentically — in Bentonia at the Blue Front Cafe, which is America’s longest running Juke Joint. Opened by Holmes’s parents in 1948 and under his watch since 1970, the Blue Front features Duck seven days a week, presiding over the space and playing for audiences on weekends, when he isn’t on the road.

Even at 72 years old, Holmes continues to expand his base of listeners. And he is poised for a breakthrough with this new album, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Cypress Grove is an inspired blend of new and old. Its production style treats Holmes’s music and its traditions with the utmost care and respect, yet it still takes some chances, widening the scope of what Holmes has recorded previously. It all comes out sounding like a great night at the Blue Front Cafe, which is a testament to both the strength of the man’s talent and the sensitivity of the accompanists involved.

The opening tune, “Hard Times,” is the perfect way to introduce Holmes’s music to new ears – just the man and his guitar, playing one of Bentonia’s signature anthems via the region’s distinctively eerie guitar tuning. Although the song has been recorded numerous times over the decades by Skip James and Jack Owens — and on several occasions already by Holmes himself — this performance’s crisp production supplies a winning intimacy. In his eight previous albums, Holmes has never been captured in such high fidelity. The result is a powerful shot of true Mississippi blues.

The second selection in the sequence, “Cypress Grove,” is another beloved song from the Bentonia tradition that dates back to the 1930s. Here it is given a fresh sound and modern context with minimalist percussion from Sam Bacco (who also holds the principal percussion chair in the Nashville Symphony), top-shelf Mississippi bass from Eric Deaton, and a tamboura-like drone from Auerbach on electric guitar and wah-wah. It’s a captivating listen — the groove is profound and the textures are inventive, the sound of Bentonia’s past and present thoroughly intact. Holmes, who will often play with whoever is at the Blue Front Cafe on any given night, sounds perfectly natural and relaxed at the center of it all.

Auerbach’s presence may be most strongly felt on the third track and leading single, “Catfish Blues.” Set against a heavy riff and infectious beat, the song features a melodic guitar solo that is psychedelic to the point of being transportive. In this blues standard, Holmes, Auerbach, and company manage to add some marvelously  unpredictable touches.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes in action. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Track 5, “Rock Me,” provides a true taste of what Holmes sounds like when laying it down at the Blue Front Cafe on a Saturday night, with a slippery slide guitar solo from Marcus King that gives the venerable blues track additional heft and momentum. Ultimately, Holmes’s guitar is the backbone of the performance, his wide open, wandering sound lending the proceedings a gentle drive as well as a personal touch. To those who know the style, Holmes plays pure, authentic Bentonia blues; but his individuality, in terms of timing and groove,  are on full display in “Rock Me.” As Holmes himself describes it, “I’ve tried to keep as much of what they (the old guys) passed to me as best as I could. But I don’t want to play like Skip James or Henry Stuckey.”

Track 6, “Little Red Rooster” must be the first Bentonia blues on record to feature a saxophone. Saxophonist Leon Michels partners with Auerbach in a unison countermelody to the scrappy electric guitar groove, which, along with Michels’s outro, supplies the song with a pensive coolness that is unlike anything else in Holmes’s discography. It’s a bold move, and it works well. Blues from Bentonia is known for its hypnotic, otherworldly, and moody sound. This song evokes those qualities in a manner that takes the tradition in a new, yet very natural direction.

Immediately following “Rooster” is Holmes’s rendition of his hometown’s most celebrated song, “Devil Got My Woman,” first recorded by Skip James in 1931. Here, the tune is given a rolling feel by way of a seamless blend of Holmes’s guitar, Deaton’s sympathetic bass, and sparse drums from Bacco. Deaton’s playing in particular is strong on “Devil,” subtly reinforcing the tune’s defining passion by latching onto the melodic hook amid the haze of notes on Holmes’ guitar.

Track 8 establishes another first for the Bentonia canon. “All Night Long” proffers a rumba feel that distinguishes it from any other Bentonia blues — let alone from any performance on Holmes’s earlier albums. The arrangement is so original it makes the tune sound brand new. This reflects both Auerbach’s production skill and Holmes’ spontaneity as a musician. The addition of Marcus King’s slinky slide guitar complements the beat, giving it a heightened buoyancy.

Most of the album consists of Bentonia traditionals and other examples of the blues, but track 9 is one of Holmes’s most original and memorable tunes, “Gonna Get Old Someday.” Holmes leads the band in with a scratchy electric guitar intro that brings out the lyric’s dark nature: “If you keep on living/man, you’re gonna get old/you’re gonna get old someday.” Deaton’s walking bass line gives the proceedings a classic blues feel before turning it around and reminding us that this is indeed a Holmes composition, as personal as it is universal.

Rounding out the second half of the album, “Train Train” evokes a quintessential Bentonia scene. Spending any time at the Blue Front Cafe means hearing the train that comes through the center of town both day and night. Here, the groove set up by Bacco, Deaton, and Holmes effectively captures that experience, complemented by guitar lines from Auerbach. The listener feels as if they were truly deep down in Mississippi.

The record closes with “Two Women,” in which Holmes’s risqué storytelling is supported by a moody and textured solo from Auerbach, all set to a mellow but funky beat. The effect is trance-inducing, a thoroughly addictive listen.

Cypress Grove is a superb contemporary blues collection, thanks to the thoughtful production of Auerbach and the contributions of the gifted musicians who are clearly focused on listening closely to Holmes. His deep Bentonia guitar remains pure and present throughout, while his vocals, which have never sounded better, are solid and vibrant. If you are new to the Bentonia tradition, this disc will serve as a marvelously accessible gateway. If you already know and love the style, Cypress Grove offers a respectful, yet inventive, experience that is both timeless and contemporary.

Ryan Lee Crosby is an internationally traveling singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and music teacher. His latest album, River Music, blends influences of Mississippi blues and North Indian raga. Crosby will be performing with his band at City Winery Boston on Friday, November 22nd. Tickets are available here.

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