Celebrating the City with Soul
By Meghan Holmes
Photographs by Marianne Todd
The Jackson Rhythm and Blues Festival celebrates five years this August 18 and 19 when more than 30 performances happen across five stages inside the city’s downtown convention complex. The festival brings nationally recognized acts to Jackson, like this year’s headliners Ludacris and Fantasia, while also acting as a platform for lesser known musicians to perform with A-list talent. The end result is a compelling mix of the traditional blues and soul sounds expected in Jackson along with contemporary hip-hop, jazz, funk and pop.
Yearly performer Bobby Rush represents the quintessential bluesman on the festival’s lineup. He arrived at the Iron Horse Grill for this issue’s cover shoot wearing a black t-shirt, white slacks and black suede boots. When it was time for photographs, he slipped on a black, rhinestone studded sports coat. “People accept me for who I am and what I do,” Rush said, settling into his chair after posing for a selfie with two departing customers. He reflected on his Grammy win for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2017.
“I haven’t crossed over, but I have crossed out,” said the 83-year -old performer. “I remember when people wanted to hear my music but not see my face. I had to perform behind a curtain, and my family couldn’t come to some of the clubs. Those things have changed. We aren’t where we need to be, but things are a lot better.”
Rush’s music incorporates several genres including Cajun, reggae, funk and blues, producing a distinct sound that’s given him staying
power throughout several decades. He acknowledges borrowing from many cultures to create his songs, but emphasizes that Mississippi birthed the blues.
“People ask me the difference between Mississippi and Chicago blues, and I say guys left here and then got slick with it, but it ain’t nothing but Mississippi. When you learn better you do better, and they learned some more notes up there, but it was just us turned upside down,” Rush said.
Rush was born in North Louisiana, but has lived in Jackson for decades, recording with Malaco Records in the 1980s as part of Jackson's distinctive blues sound, distinguishing it from Delta and Hill Country music. Rush and musicians like him, who often came to Mississippi’s capitol from the rural Delta, were part of a thriving scene that influenced scores of younger musicians, some of whom now perform at the festival, like Eddie Cotton, Jr.
“When I was 17 years old, I saw Bobby Rush on the Capitol Street Stage at the 1987 Jubilee Jam, and I’ll never forget it,” said Cotton. “It’s that thing. The music is as funky as the show. I’d never seen anything like it close up. Certain musicians you have to see live, like Jimi Hendrix. I’d put Bobby in that category. Some musicians express the licks through their body.”
Cotton, a minister’s son, grew up playing in church and later studied musical theory at Jackson State. From a young age he recognized the close ties between the blues and gospel. “At Sanctified Church on Sunday we’d go get the blues guy who had played at the club the night before when we didn’t have enough musicians,” he said. “Black church and the blues are the same; the words and intention are just different.”
Cotton points to contemporary technological advances he incorporates into his lyrics, like cellphones, that distinguish his songs from traditional blues, but ultimately express similar emotions. “Either way, my woman is talking to another man. The times have changed; the technology has changed, but the situation hasn’t,” he said.
Growing up in Jackson offered Cotton opportunities to see visiting musicians from around the state. “I had uncles who would take me to see people from all over Mississippi. Jackson was like the hot bed, where musicians eventually migrate. The style is mixed with jazz and all the gospel cats,” he said.
Many of Jackson’s notable performers come from musical families, where everyone plays in church and influences mingle. One of the festival’s younger performers, Jarekus Singleton, grew up with a minister grandfather who was ordained at the same time as Eddie Cotton’s father.
Singleton’s great uncle Emmett, who went by Uncle Honey, instructed Cotton. “My dad would drop me off and Uncle Honey got me started. Later I taught Jarekus’ uncle my style, and he taught his style to Jarekus, and we all ended up influencing each other. The styles are kindred,” Cotton said.
In 2008, Singleton was living in Lebanon and playing professional basketball when an ankle injury led to his return to Mississippi. “All I knew was basketball and music, and a lot of times I still think of myself as a basketball player. I look at guys like Bobby and Eddie and see them as the musicians, not me.”
After returning to Jackson, Singleton naturally turned to family members he grew up playing with, including his cousins Ben and Constable Sterling. “I started playing bass with Jarekus six or seven years ago,” said Ben. When we were growing up we played in our grandfather’s church five nights a week. He was strict and didn’t want us listening to anything other than gospel, but by the time we were in middle school our uncles were helping us sneak off and go to shows.”
Some of Singleton’s other influences include B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Twista and Jay Z, reflective of his penchant for integrating different contemporary styles into traditional blues. “I’m inspired by the masters, but I’ve always wanted to create something as original and new as what their music was like in that era, which means also looking forward,” Singleton said.
Performers like Bobby Rush appreciate their role in today’s popular contemporary music, influencing performers like Singleton while continuing their own blues traditions. “Even the rappers got that stuff from James Brown and people like myself. Without these older generations of musicians there wouldn’t be 50 Cent; he’d just be a dime or a quarter,” Rush said, laughing. “I love looking at these guys though, like Eddie, and seeing how they’ve come up. It’s part of passing the torch.”
This year’s Jackson Rhythm and Blues Festival will also feature Jazmine Sullivan, Eric Benet, Ro James, Calvin Richardson, Doug E. Fresh, Dreezy, DJ Luke Nasty and dozens of other talented musicians.
“I’m so proud of the City of Jackson and the organizers who put this festival together,” Rush said. “The blues is a rhythm, and so is soul, and some places have the blues rhythm, and some places have the soul, but Jackson has both. It’s a special place.”
Friday August 18th
Doug E. Fresh
601 Live Band
Jason Turner Band
Nellie "Tiger" Travis
Saturday August 19th
DJ Luke Nasty
AJC & The Envelope Pushers
DJ Scrap Dirty
The Black Bettys
The Cash Box Kings