By Johnny Petersen
One of the contemporary legends of the blues style called “The North Mississippi Hill Country Blues” is noted slide guitarist Kenny Brown, born 1953. He currently resides in the middle of the Hill Country in Potts Camp in the Holly Springs National Forest. Legendary due his musical uprising with neighbor Joe Callicott and apprenticeship of R.L. Burnside.
When he was about ten, twelve years old Joe Callicott happened to move in next door. Kenny Brown who already had a longing to learn the guitar was encouraged by his older brother to go and introduce himself to the new neighbor whom the brother said played some guitar. After some hesitation he finally went over to Callicotts house. So he kept doing for some years. In the morning before the school bus arrived and then in the afternoon again.
This is Kenny Browns own words on how it all went about: “It began when me and my brother went around selling seeds for Sears & Roebuck and after selling a number of seed bags we were entitled to a prize. My brother chose a gun so he could shoot squirrels but I chose a guitar – a little plastic guitar, but it could tune up and came with a book, so I learned to play a little bit. One day when coming home from school my mama told me to go look on the bed. There was a real wooden guitar. I took a few lessons, learning basic songs like Mary Had A Little Lamb and Yankee Doodle Dandy, but was not doing so good and I was ready to quit. One day when I was sitting trying to play something my brother came and said, ‘Hey, you ought ‘a go over and see old Joe who’s moved in next door.’ I said, ‘Yeah, why is that?’ ‘Well,’ said my brother, ‘he plays guitar and he plays really good.’ I said, ‘That old man can’t play?’ ‘Yeah, he does,’ he said. So I went over and introduced myself to Joe and said I play a little bit. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘come on over and play.’ So then he took me in and every day before I got on the school bus and after school that’s where I went and hung out with Joe. That’s how I got on this path, playing the blues. Sometimes I wonder whether it was a curse or a blessing, I don’t know.” During his teens he learned more of the Hill Country style from such greats as Johnny Woods and Fred MacDowell, and is now considered one of the foremost slide players.
When Brown was 17-18 years old, he met R.L. Burnside. Brown tells me, “I met R.L. at a show where he opened for a rock band in 71 or 72, I introduced myself, told him I played some and liked what he did and would like to learn from him, he invited me to his home where we started playing 2-3 nights a week and on weekends. One day he said, ‘I know a little place where we can play and make some money.´ So one night we drove 30-40 miles, through the woods and finally came to a clearing with a big old house and we played for a while. This was the first time a got around black people drinking, everybody was hollering. After a while he said, Brown, ‘you keep on playing, I’ll go out back and gamble.’ I got a little scared, being the only white person around and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re gonna hang my ass.’ Anyway I kept on playing and they kept on hollering and hollering and after a white R.L. came back in, checking that I was alive, I guess. We went on playing and we’ve been doing that on and off ever since -71.”
Kenny Brown became a regular in R.L. Burnside’s band. With his ability to play in the same style he gave R.L. the freedom of interacting with the audience without having to think on his playing all the time. R.L. grew very fond of Kenny Brown, so fond that he even called him his white son. There goes a story that says that once the band got an invitation to come and play in Europe but when the organizer learned that Kenny Brown in fact was white, they cancelled the tour.
When asked about his guitars he tells that often he plays an old Guild from 1955, which can be seen on many videos. He also often plays a Gibson 335 that the company gave him as a thanks for a favor. On the question, “how many guitars do you own?” the answer is, “I haven’t counted but I have a couple of Strats, a Tele, a couple of flat top acoustics, a lap steel from 58 – a Gibson, an old National, a couple of Silvertones, one I was told was a 58 model and one 64 thin bodied arch top. I think that’s most of them.”
Kenny Brown and his wife Sara has been organizing the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, an outdoor blues fest, since 2006. She is taking care the formalities and Kenny brown is doing a lot of the carpentry, building the stage and such, (he used to be a construction worker) and of course he plays a lot.
Sara tells us, “In the mid-’90s the world discovered the power and distinctive sounds of North Mississippi blues via the recordings of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Otha Turner. These elder statesmen have all since passed, but their music lives on through their contemporaries, family members, and disciples. The festival, now in the planning stages for 2021, has been a tremendous success since 2006. It was the brainchild of Potts Camp resident Kenny Brown who has witnessed first-hand the world-wide appeal and influence of Hill Country Blues through his long tenure with R.L. Burnside. He wanted to see his own community host an event in which artists would be honored at home with the same high acclaim they experienced globally. Brown’s goals were solidified through the formation of the non-profit organization North MS Hill Country Picnic, Inc., The goal of the organization is to enhance appreciation and educate the general public about the native art form of North Mississippi Hill Country blues music through performance, preservation, and interpretation.”
There’s a lot of videos from the picnic to be seen on YouTube and there are three CD recordings from the picnic as well.
Since the mid nineties Kenny Brown has been visiting Scandinavia, giving concerts in Denmark as well as in Sweden. He has a strong link to many musicians there such as H.P. Lange, who use to be his host. He did record an album in 2003 with the late great pianist and guitar player Troels Jensen – the “Father of the Danish Blues”. Kenny Brown has recorded six albums and one single in his own name and appeared as guest on eleven other albums, like backing for Cindy Lauper as well as lead guitarist on an album with Junior Kimbrough. He appears on 36 compilations. Brown’s guitar playing was also featured in the 2006 film ”Black Snake Moan”, where he provided backing for star Samuel L. Jackson’s vocals. Today he joins in with the descendants of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough among others.
On our obligatory final question, “What international famous contemporary artist would you like to invite and jam or tour with?” Kenny Brown’s answer is, “That’s a tough one, there’s a bunch I would like to have play the picnic if we could afford it, and there’s a lot I would love to play/jam with, and a bunch I wish I had gotten the chance to play with or just set and talk to before they passed away.”