The inaugural release on the brand new label, Blue Front Records, is a keeper by many a bastion. Forever immortalizing the famous Bentonia, Mississippi juke joint started by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ parents in 1948 and polarizing the blues greats who have performed and still do at the world’s oldest standing juke joint; It Is What It Is is a ‘Bentonia Blues’ time capsule in its rarest form. From Duck’s fortuitous finger style picking and leaning on both his trusty acoustic guitar and conversely plugging in and turning up the amp to divulge succulent licks and trance-like chordal pickings, this offering runs the foundations of the blues like a swamp rat at a winterized chicken shack.
I’ve said it before and will again, it’s a blessing to hear high quality blues records in 2016, with half the year over we’ve been blessed with punk blues gems, and legendary life-long bluesmen records alike, but Holmes’ record seems to be carrying another torch. One less travelled, less looked for even. I keep my ear to the concrete for new to me artists and always dream of one day stumbling upon the last octogenarian Mississippi blues hound, still picking away un-wavered by modern technology and self-indulgence, caring more for the melodies or lack thereof shooting rampant from the belly button of a Sears mail order guitar than wanting for wifi or some corny pay channel show that’s all the rage. It’s a hankering for this way of life and song that brings the blues nuts out of the wood work. The purists and the virgin ears each treated to the ultimate form of American music, a style of music mostly penned by folks taken to America against their wills for that matter.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is cut from this cloth. Leaving his own stain on a style of blues music brought to the world by Henry Stuckey and a penchant for the tuning and tribal incisors he learned from Bahamian and Trinidadian British soldiers while serving in the first, World War. He brought this tuning and craft back and personally taught it to the great Skip James and the impeccable Jack Owens. After taking over the family business in the form of the Blue Front Café from his parents in 1970, a kinship was built between Holmes, Owens, Jack Spires, and Tommy West. The café being a place to bounce songs and licks off one another and ultimately becoming the living preservation of Bentonia blues it is today.
Duck’s record is marinated in spirited minor open tunings and his ghost-like delivery is addictive if not obsession worthy. Setting things off with a nod to “Buddy Brown”, the amp is up and the distorted cacophony of tone and vocals stops the listener in their tracks. Not treading on uncharted waters the record rises and falls, each song falling between the 4 and 6 minute mark with ample time to take it all in and process what you’re mentally digesting – 9 songs and 47 minutes of humid, hard hitting blues, harrowing harp work, and an unearthly cool possessed by Duck. The greatest point of the record is the ending build-up to the 8th track “Slow Down”, a warning song of sorts from the protagonist that ultimately culminates with the howling of a passing train whistle at just the perfect time, if it wasn’t planned by those involved it was surely planned by God above. It’s just too perfect — It Is What It Is, available now on Blue Front Records.
Originally published at Glide Magazine 7/25/16