Juke Joint Festival is a Celebration of Town’s Turnaround and the Music That Made it all Possible – Photos

May8,2024

In this era of cookie cutter festivals, often run by large corporate entities, it’s nice to know that they’ve been keeping it real down in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Their Juke Joint Festival, held every April, is truly a joint effort from a dedicated community that has been doing it right for 21 years.

There is a bond that develops between a disparate cast of tourists, musicians, and the local townsfolk of Clarksdale, who always roll out the red carpet for blues lovers. And there’s something about playing at the Crossroads that brings in a consortium of fantastic musicians who flock to Clarksdale from far-flung places like Colombia and down under. Along with their passports come the stories.

Described as “half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta,” Clarksdale’s most recent Juke Joint Festival drew folks from all fifty states and every corner of the world. For many of the attendees, this isn’t an April one-off as people are already jockeying for accommodations in 2025 and beyond!

The Juke Joint Festival is also billed as “Clarksdale’s and Coahoma County’s biggest blues and business week of the year” and it’s clear that the community is doing everything they can to make all festival attendees feel welcome and appreciated. From the committee member’s heartfelt speeches on opening night to great service at places like The Den Again, it’s these types of connections that make this Juke Joint Festival so special.

Roger Stolle
New Roxy crowd

But naturally, the main draw is the music. And there’s something about playing at the Crossroads that brings in a consortium of fantastic musicians who flock to Clarksdale from far-flung places like Colombia and down under. Along with their passports come the stories. There was Lil G from Australia, who is all of 12 years old and bowled them over at the Holy Moly and guesting on other stages.

Carlos Elliot hails from Colombia and plays some mean hill country blues, along with Pennsylvania native Bobby Gentilio. This hard-working crew was all over the festival and played inspiring sets everywhere from the Shack Up Inn and Wade Walton’s Barber Shop Stage to participating in an RL Boyce tribute show at the iconic Red’s Lounge.

Bobby Gentilo
Carlos Elliot

This was the first Juke Joint without the irascible Red Paden, but he continued to loom large in the minds of all who knew him. His namesake juke was run by his son and Red received many remembrances and shout-outs throughout the course of the long weekend.

With Clarksdale being the birthplace of the blues, there were many famous names playing in and around town including various Burnsides and Robert Kimbrough Senior. These scions of Hill County blues legends had gigs everywhere from Red’s and Bluesberry Café to the Bank and the Jesse Cotton Stone stage.

Robert Kimbrough Sr.
Duwayne Burnside show

After stints in Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco and other points on the map, Blues Hall of Famer and harp whiz Charlie Musselwhite now calls Clarksdale his home. He was spotted tooling around on a golf cart before his Friday night gig at the New Roxy, where he appeared with Kirk Fletcher. He later played with daughter Layla, who came up from New Orleans to perform for appreciative audiences.

Charlie Musselwhite
Charlie and Kirk Fletcher
Layla Musselwhite and Charlie

The busy Musselwhite also joined hill country blues legend Kenny Brown at his daytime gig at Wade Walton’s barber shop stage on Saturday. Brown later wowed the crowd at the Shack Up Inn’s Juke Joint Chapel, where he showcased the guitar skills that he learned at the hands of his adopted “father,” RL Burnside.

Kenny Brown

Lightnin’ Malcolm is another artist who was schooled by hill country legends like Burnside, T-Model Ford, and Robert Belfour. Lightnin’ also has an incredible work ethic and was seemingly everywhere at the Juke Joint Festival, including playing drums for Harrell Davenport on opening night and closing out the Shack Up Inn on Sunday. He was frequently joined by singer Prayer Bailey, and they did a version of “Hound Dog” that would make Big Mama Thornton proud.

Lightnin’ on drums

Although his only set was in front of the Paramount Theater on Saturday afternoon, guitarist Keith Johnson certainly made his mark on a large gathering of music lovers. The great-nephew of Muddy Waters worked the crowd as he put his own spin on Waters’ classics like “Mannish Boy.”

Keith Johnson

Delta and hill country blues are always a big draw at the Juke Joint Festival, but other genres are featured as well. The Den Again was the place to be for Depression-era Hokum and Piedmont blues – as well as a stand-out version of “Angel of Montgomery” via LaLa Craig.

Little Joe McLerran
Boy drummer
LaLa Craig

“The Queen of Avant Soul” Candice Ivory treated the New Roxy crowd to some throwback blues with her tribute to Memphis Minnie following Thursday’s opening ceremonies. She was accompanied by the always masterful Mississippi Marshall.

Candice Ivory
Mississippi Marshall

While there are many seasoned musicians who play the Juke Joint Festival every year, it also serves as a launching pad for a wave of new blues artists. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram came out of Clarksdale and was a frequent guest at many of the local fests. Although Ingram didn’t appear there this year, Harrell “Young Rell” Davenport showed a blues maturity that belied his seventeen years of age. Davenport played the New Roxy on Thursday night and was back there on Friday to open for Musselwhite and Fletcher.

Harrell and Charlie

With so much great music to take in, it still seems like Sunday morning comes down much too quickly when it’s Juke Joint time. Fortunately, the magical music continues throughout that day as well. The Cat Head mini blues festival is always a “can’t miss” event for many.

The Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band always manages to get the Cat Head crowd energized and this year was no exception. This three-piece blues band out of Brown County Indiana put on an incendiary show that included Breezy Peyton’s fiery washboard antics.

The Sunday mini blues festival is always held in front of Roger Stolle’s Cat Head Record store, which was one of the early keys to Clarksdale’s resurgence. Deak Harp was another of Clarksdale’s pioneers and his harmonica shop was hopping throughout the weekend. And then there’s the club that started it all: Ground Zero, which was founded by Morgan Freeman, Howard Stovall, Eric Meier and the late Bill Luckett twenty-three years ago.

Of course, with so much going on all over town, it’s easy for FOMO to kick into overload during a Juke Joint weekend with our one regret being we didn’t get to see as many acts as we’d like. But, like so many others who get a taste of the Clarksdale, Mississippi musical magic, we’re bound and determined to return each year.

Yes, this festival is special. It’s a celebration of a town’s turnaround and the music that made it all possible. It’s a reunion of sorts, too. Since so many head to the legendary Crossroads each year, there is a bond that develops between a disparate cast of tourists, musicians, and the local townsfolk of Clarksdale, who always roll out the red carpet for blues lovers. And we’re ready as anybody can be for the 2025 edition, which will be held the weekend of April 12th.

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