Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (left) contacted Mike Munson to come to Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Mississippi to record his new album in the oldest-running juke joint in the country.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
Down in the little town of Bentonia, Miss., there’s a small, unassuming building with the name “Blue Front Cafe” emblazoned on the front. From the outside, it’d be easy to mistake it for any other small-town bar, but for Winona blues guitarist Mike Munson, the Blue Front served as the backdrop for his first new album in almost five years.
Earlier this year, Munson took a trip to Bentonia to record his new album “Rose Hill” for Blue Front Records, a Bentonia-based record label created to preserve Bentonia Blues, during a two-day recording session inside the cafe, idiosyncrasies and all.
“It’s not like crafting a studio work. There’s no overdubbing, no second chances. No editing out people talking, or Jimmy [Holmes] moving chairs around. It’s all on there,” Munson explained. “This album is the sound of that day at the Blue Front. It’s a snapshot of not only what was musically happening, but listening to it, I can be transported back to that place.”
The last solo work of Munson’s to be released was 2014’s “Live at Ed’s,” recorded live at Ed’s (no name) Bar in Winona. Between then and now, Munson worked on projects for Great River Shakespeare, his other bands Land at Last and The Old-Fashioneds, and toured extensively across the country, but he said he went a long time without working on new music for himself.
“I asked myself, ‘What have I been doing?’ I felt like I hadn’t really been writing anything,” Munson said.
Then he got a call from Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Holmes, a veteran of the Bentonia Blues tradition, first met Munson during a trip through Mississippi. Munson explained that after attending a wedding, he wanted to take a road trip and stop by some of the blues landmarks in the South, eventually ending up in Bentonia, where one of Munson’s heroes Skip James called home.
“I bought my first Skip James record when I was in high school,” Munson said, adding that while looking for landmarks in Bentonia, he saw an advertisement for the Blue Front Cafe, the oldest surviving juke joint in the country. He decided to stop by, and found Holmes sitting on the step out front. “He looked up and said, ‘I’m the guy you’re looking for’,” Munson recalled. The two spoke briefly before Munson left. A few years later, in 2015, Munson got a call from a friend in Duluth to put on a show with Charlie Parr, himself, and a blues musician from the South named Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Holmes and Munson hit it off, and the next year, Munson was invited to play the Bentonia Blues Festival alongside Holmes. The festival is markedly different than the music festivals here in Minnesota, as its more a community event than anything, Munson explained. The Blue Front Cafe hosted music the few days before, and everything was free, with the purpose of bringing people together.
“The economy of music down there is just so different. It’s such a romanticized idea of what juke joints and blues is that I didn’t think it existed anywhere,” Munson explained. “The music is that place. It’s not manufactured.”
Those same sensibilities went into “Rose Hill,” Munson said. The title of the record comes from the dusty dirt road that Bentonia Blues great Jack Owens used to walk to his home. The idea of fusing Minnesota Blues with tradition went a long way in the new album, Munson said, with a combination of original tunes and Mississippi Blues classics. The album has songs by Owens, Holmes, and Booker White alongside seven originals, all recorded live in that small town cafe.
“There are a couple of songs on here that I’d call ‘Minnesota Blues’ that are a little different than traditional,” Munson explained. “The songs were written with what I’ve learned from these traditions mixed with my own experience.”
According to Munson, Holmes was a big supporter of his music. He said he was a great teacher of both guitar and Bentonia Blues, but he also pushed Munson to pursue his own voice and sound. The process for recording “Rose Hill” was quick, too.
“When the date [to record] was set, at that point, I didn’t have any songs finished. I had maybe a month to write,” Munson explained.
When he got to Bentonia, the recording process was just as fast.
“Like a lot of things in Mississippi, [the idea was to] just show up and do it. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the recording engineer, but I just showed up and started playing songs,” Munson said.
What he found in that process was how deeply entrenched the Bentonia Blues traditions were in the community. The Blue Front Cafe was opened more than 70 years ago by Holmes’ parents, who would serve during the day and host blues at night. They even offered haircuts during the weekdays.
“It was a place where you’d stop by once or twice a day to catch up with everyone, and on the weekends it’s a slamming juke joint,” Munson stated. “It’s kind of like if you mashed together Ed’s and Blue Heron, except they didn’t serve food and only served Budweiser.”
In the making of “Rose Hill,” Munson said he wanted to focus on paying homage to the musical roots of the area while also showcasing his own work. He used Bentonia Blues tuning, played traditional tunes, and gave back to the culture that taught him the ropes.
“Mississippi helped hammer home the reasons why [myself] and the community need music to be a central part of it,” Munson said. “The culture is so important.”