Slow Lightning: Junior Kimbrough’s Blues

On July 13th 2015

I love falling asleep in thunderstorms. The rain drops thudding on the roof in quick succession with their dull, shallow weight. The wind whipping itself against the glass. The tension is perfect.

The lightning is often slow in these storms. It flashes deliberately, in slow-motion strobes that silently signal how far away the rest of the squall is. We’re all raised to start counting the seconds between the flash - one, two, three, four, five - and the sonic boom. Five seconds means it’s only a mile away.

At times, you can see the lightning even with your eyes closed. You know it’s there, you can feel its power in the air even with your eyes closed or the covers over your head. It has a certain kind of weight. A certain heft.

“Slow Lightning,” the last track on David “Junior” Kimbrough’s masterful first album All Night Long, was supposedly recorded during one of these storms down in the hills of Northern Mississippi. Except that rather than curl up and seek shelter, Junior kept jamming. Alone.

“The cotton rows and the empty stretch of two-lane blacktop made for a uniform landscape devoid of life, except for our steepled juke,” wrote producer, blues scholar, and journalist Robert Palmer in the liner notes. “The clouds rolled in suddenly, and as Junior was singing a slow blues, lightning struck the juke itself, causing him to trail off at the end.”

The juke Palmer mentioned was actually Junior's house. Well, it was an old abandoned church before it was Junior’s place. And because Junior Kimbrough was 62 years old and in poor health when All Night Long was released, he toured very little. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, and U2 all made pilgrimages to that sacred joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi just to hear Junior play before he died just a few years after this Fat Possum Records released this LP.

It’s astounding that All Night Long is just 20-some years old, because Junior revives a spirit similar to that for which Robert Johnson sold his soul fewer than 100 miles down I-55 and west on Mississippi State Road 6. There’s an old blues tradition on All Night Long, and it’s not Johnson’s two-minute, 12-bar blues, the Delta’s soulful blues, or Chicago’s modern, electric blues.

The blues that Junior played were some of the most sheltered from outside influence, like the folk songs Alan Lomax recorded in Appalachia and other small communities removed from urban hustle. In fact, Palmer once told The Memphis Flyer, "There were never any big plantations [in North Mississippi hill country] at any time. It's always been small farms, a lot of them black-owned, a lot of counties here almost entirely black. And the music up here hasn't changed as much as the music in the Delta. It's really stayed pretty much the same for generation after generation, and there's whole families of music-makers here that go back three or four generations."

These blues are sparse, constrained. They weave in and out of the I chord—the root—for entire songs, rather than pace chromatically down the neck of a guitar. They ramble and repeat in hypnotic, harmonic drones. Never once do these blues stop on a note of resolution; nay, they keep circling and diving back into each other like the way our lives keep going through every bump and bum note until they simply stop.

Junior’s contemporaries—neighbor, friend, and rival (not to mention VMP alumnus) R. L. Burnside, and “Mississippi” Fred McDowell—also played a similar style of blues, as they, too, came from these north hills. In fact, Burnside’s son plays bass on All Night Long alongside Junior and his son Kenny Malone on the drums. The trio recorded live—no tracks, no dubs, no re-taping when the tempo unintentionally speeds up or slows down—at Junior’s place out in the dirt and the hills of North Mississippi.

“Meet Me In the City” epitomizes these blues. Junior sings the same notes as he’s playing, begging, “Oh honey, don’t / Please, please don’t leave me right now / baby right now.” Sometimes when he misses a word, the guitar line fills in. And the words, so simple, but delivered with such elegance, convey that most primal sense of yearning and want.

But then, “Meet Me In the City” melds into the seven-and-a-half-minute “You Better Run,” an absolutely terrifying murder-rape ballad. The snare-bass drum combo sounds like a steam train churning and gaining speed. Junior’s talking blues overlap with his repeating riff, creating even more friction than what the simple, yet, horrifying lyrics narratively convey. Sometimes Junior throws down a solo, but even when he does, Burnside keeps playing the same inversion of the riff on the bass so that the spellbinding magnetism can continue.

Junior, for all his secrecy, still captivates listeners, arguably more than his fellow bluesmen and women from this region. He rarely gave interviews and when he did, he spoke enigmatically or abruptly. And with only three LPs for Fat Possum throughout the 1990s (All Night Long,Sad Days Lonely Nights, and Most Things Haven’t Worked Out), as well as one posthumous release (God Knows I Tried), he offers listeners, fans, and devotees, so very little material from which to derive meaning.

Just when you think you’ve reached a point of understanding with Junior’s music, these blues roil your thoughts in circuitous motions until you find yourself thinking about something else entirely, rather than the record at play. His blues precipitate those not-quite-lucid thoughts that invade your brain in the fleeting moments before sleep takes hold.

So when you drop the needle, let Junior’s blues lull you like the rain against your roof. Unless, of course, the slow lightning startles you awake and enlightened first.

Hilary Saunders writes things, often about music. Follow her on Twitter @Hilary_Saunders.

 

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