“There is a kind of trance-inducing drone quality to these blues that seems to draw upon the music’s deepest West African wellsprings.” – Andy Schwartz (NY Rocker)
Hill country blues, named after the hilly region in North Mississippi, is a form of Blues music emphasizing a steady, hypnotic groove, sparse, percussive and highly energetic guitar riffs and often features meandering song structures with unconventional and usually fewer chord changes as compared to the related Delta Blues.
Although the relentless, driving rhythm of hill country blues has famous forerunners in Mississippi Fred McDowell and even in the more boogie-influenced John Lee Hooker, the greater Holly Springs area of Mississippi is considered to be the genre’s cradle. The former neighbours Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, as well as Robert Belfour, are among its main protagonists. Often serving as dance music for locals and being played acoustic as well as electric, hill country blues has an unrefined, rough edge to it and stayed a rural and largely un-recorded phenomenon for decades as it developed after the great migration movements of blues musicians to the larger cities.
Although there are some of R.L. Burnside’s tracks recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1970s, it was the label Fat Possum Records which ensured the genre’s preservation and greater popularity by publishing a row of albums starting in the early 1990s, with most of the artists well over sixty years old and already having performed for decades. Among these nowadays classic albums are Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long (1992) and R.L. Burnside’s Too Bad Jim (1994). Compilations like Burnside’s Mississippi Hill Country Blues (with tracks from the 1960s to the 1980s) have helped to document the genre’s development and history. The genre proved to be able to cross-fertilize when Buddy Guy was invited to record an electric hill country blues album consisting almost entirely of songs written by Junior Kimbrough. The resulting Sweet Tea (2001) introduced Chicago Blues-style soloing to hill country blues which is commonly devoid of guitar solos altogether.
Possibly due to its gritty sound and because of its “discovery” coinciding somewhat with the blues-oriented Garage Rock Revival of the late 1990s and early 2000s, hill country blues had a considerable impact on acts of the Alternative Rock and Garage Rock scene. While the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion recorded a whole album with R.L. Burnside, titled A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996), acts like the North Mississippi Allstars and the early Black Keys draw heavily from the genre, continuing its influence on blues music.