Musician and attorney Steven Pittman and his dedicated group of volunteers are ginning up plenty of excitement and great music at the third annual Front Porch Jubilee this Saturday at the historic Clifton Cotton Gin in Hernando.
For the past three years, Pittman and his crew have staged one of the Mid-South's newest festivals, dedicated to preserving the American art form of traditional Hill Country Blues music along with crossover acts that include rock, country, bluegrass and gospel.
"Hernando is one of the earliest places where the Delta blues met country
and Appalachian music — eventually becoming Mississippi Hill Country Blues," Pittman said. "Just like driving up into the hills from the Delta, Hill Country Blues added jump and pop to the art form. It gave it more pace."
Pittman said the environment at the Front Porch Jubilee is like none other. "The Front Porch Jubilee is a great opportunity to have friends visit, to sit back in a lawn chair and take in some great music in a family-
friendly environment," Pittman said. "We're very thankful to all of our volunteers for their help in making this event a great success."
One of the featured acts at the music festival, held on the sprawling grounds of the old cotton gin where blues players nearby picked tunes on bottle-neck-style guitars, is Kenny Brown.
Brown studied the blues from masters like R.L. Burnside and Mississippi Joe Callicott.
He is introducing the art form to new generations. In addition to his annual Hill Country Picnic, Brown said playing the Front Porch Jubilee is among his favorites.
"They're trying to get something going with the music," said Brown, who will also be featured Friday night during an unveiling of his sculpted hands playing a guitar by noted Como sculptor Sharon McConnell-Dickerson.
"I went to Hernando High School and lived in Nesbit," said the rawboned singer with shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair. "When I lived in Hernando, there wasn't much there. There was Coleman's and the Dip and that was about it."
Brown said when he was a teenager, back in '73, famed Rock N' Roller Jerry Lee Lewis moved right around the corner from him. Brown grew up on Pleasant Hill Road and Lewis moved into a 30-acre spread off Malone Road.
Brown said he was honored to be inducted into the Hill Country Music Hall of Fame during the Front Porch Jubilee when Lewis was also inducted.
Lewis' Front Porch Jubilee Hall of Fame award now hangs proudly on the wall of his former Nesbit home, which is open for tours.
"They've had Travis Womack play there and of course Jerry Lee Lewis who, although he didn't play that night, was inducted the same night as me — that was an honor," Brown said. "I grew up just a couple of miles from Jerry Lee."
Brown said the Hill Country music is unique to North Mississippi.
"Most of the stuff I play is from the Hill Country," Brown said. "A lot of people when I go around and tell them I play the blues, they think it is Delta blues. I play some Delta blues but it's mostly Hill Country blues. The Hill Country stuff is more of a rhythm thing. It comes from the old fife-and-drum bands. It's not so much about the chord changes but the rhythm."
Brown likes some of the more recent bands which have picked up the tradition. The self-titled "Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band" is among the headliners Saturday.
"There are a lot of guys playing it now," Brown said. "Some are good, some are not. I like the good stuff."
Brown is well on his way to becoming iconic himself.
His hands, strumming the strings of a guitar, are the subject of famed sculptor McConnell-Dickerson and will be included along with the life masks of Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland and other blues luminaries.
It was a weird experience having Brown's hands placed in a plaster mold.
"I stuck my hands in some stuff made out of seaweed," Brown said. "It got firm. She wanted me to hold my hands like I was playing guitar. I pulled 'em out and they put plaster in there. I guess they are going to bronze them or something."
Margaret Yates, DeSoto Arts Council Executive Director, said it's an honor to have Brown's hands become a eventual part of the display. On Friday night at 6 p.m., during a reception at the DeSoto Arts Council, the party moves across the street to 1 Memphis Street at 7 p.m., where a list of invited guests get to hear Brown play and discuss his craft.
"It's an art form that doesn't need to die out," Yates said.
The Front Porch Jubilee gets under way this Saturday, Sept. 30, from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. at the Clifton Gin on South Street. Every year, the Front Porch Jubilee brings the best musicians to Hernando for a rocking good time.
The "Gospel Music Morning" begins at 10 a.m. with Tommy Dunlap. Admission before noon is free and $5 starting at noon.
Among the performers at this year's concert is Woodstomp, Jack Rowell, Jr., DuWayne Burnside, R.L. Boyce, Grits & Soul, Cary Hudson, Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band and other acts.
Clark Beverage, Style Craft, Animal Medical Center and the Krewe of Hernando are among the sponsors. The venue is provided courtesy of preservationist and commercial real estate developer Jim Seay.
Seay said he was more than glad to provide the old gin as the setting for the festival.
"In the overall view of things, I want it (music) to be a part of the past, present and future," Seay said. "It gives me great satisfaction. It also provides a place where most people who know most people can gather and have a good time."
Amy Chatham, one of the Front Porch Jubilee's three original founders, said the proceeds from the festival will be used to purchase and renovate the former Von Theater on Center Street in Hernando where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Bond, among other musicians, once played.
"I think it can be used for theater, old movies and musical concerts," Chatham said. "There have been so many buildings which have been torn down. To be able to preserve that old theater will make us unique. It's about preserving history."
For volunteer Adam Lynch, the Front Porch Jubilee is about enjoying good music.
"It's for Hernando," Lynch said. "The idea to support the theater is great but to have this concert at this site is important, because this is where the music was made."
Lynch was referring to a Mississippi Blues Trail marker that stands nearby at the corner of Park Street and the side street connecting to Southern Street.
Volunteer Richard Floyd also chimed in his support for the festival.
"I love being here and being able to help out," Floyd said. "I really enjoy it."
Mat Fuchs, another loyal member of Pittman's crew, said the festival is helping to make some history of its own.
"I like to provide Hernando some cultural events," Fuchs said.
Fellow crew member Ken Ibsen grew up in Greenville where the blues is celebrated.
"So much of the music has fallen by the wayside," Ibsen said. "It's important to keep it in the forefront."
As for Pittman, who also has Greenville roots, blues and music in general are part of the natural scenery, vibe and feel of the North Mississippi Hill Country.
"It's harvest time in Mississippi," Pittman said. "You can feel it in the air. It's a special time when the days are cool and the strain of summer begins to release its hold. It's Jubilee time!"
This year's Front Porch Jubilee also features Host and Executive Producer of Nashville Entertainment Weekly, T.J. Cates.
Cates, who is a DeSoto County native, is also a record producer in Nashville.
"We're especially grateful to T.J. Cates who has gone out of his way to help with the Front Porch Jubilee with serving as our emcee this year," Pittman said. "A very talented guy and we're honored to have him."
The Front Porch Jubilee kicks off with its "Gospel Music Morning" beginning at 10 a.m. Admission free until noon and $5 after noon.
Lawn chairs or blankets are encouraged. There is free parking.
The venue is located at 426 Park St. in Hernando.
For more information visit www.frontporchjubilee.com or on Facebook at Front Porch Jubilee.
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.