There are two kinds of mud in the American South, and two kinds of worlds built atop them. There’s the delta mud, the black, rich, organic mud that’s great for farming. Great farming makes for big farms, and big farms lead to big money. Big money attracts banks and banks attract more money, and it’s money that builds cities: most of the great cities of the South are built on the black mud of its rivers. But there is also the red mud, the older mud, the rusty mud carved eons ago into low rolling hills. A mud that’ll still grow anything, just not as quickly, and mainly ends up raising pine trees and kudzu. This is the mud of the rural South, the poorer South, the South isolated into little towns at the intersections of cracked pavement two lanes. But if black mud built the economy of the South, red mud built its culture.
Culture is an elusive thing as it is mobile and fluid. A culture can’t be simply defined or pinned down, at least not a healthy culture, because a healthy culture is always changing. The best thing to do for culture is to celebrate it, to get together with the people who create it and see what they are doing. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, held every June at the foot of a hill south of Holly Springs, MS, is one such gathering. This is a music festival, sure, but it’s not some big affair. This is a relaxed scene of coolers and shade tents, blankets and folding chairs. The term “picnic” is apt. It’s constituency is mostly local, though its reach is global. This global reach is thanks entirely to the musical heritage of this part of Mississippi, home to the hill country blues, a slow, swaggering, rhythmic affair made famous and perfected by the Burnside and Kimbrough families. They are still at the center of the picnic, though acts who play the small stage are as varied as the scene.
The music is played in rather short sets, a dozen or so acts a day for two days, beginning at noon and ending at midnight. It is universally good: there are no headliners to speak of, no acts booked to drive ticket sales or stir nostalgia in a coveted demographic. The acts are chosen by their representation of hill country music. But the music isn’t necessarily the point: it’s the excuse. It’s the excuse for this community to get together and celebrate what they have created from literally nothing and brought out into a world that proved hungry for their product. Other places export the goods of factories, farms, and ports, but this part of north Mississippi has only the hill country blues, and the Hill Country Picnic honors this region’s number one export: music.
The music echoes from the stage against the side of the hill before being absorbed by the surrounding pine forest. Under this is a swell of voices punctuated by the crack of beer cans opening. It is always hot, but the heat creates a community, and people share beer, ice and shade freely. The community is the best part about a good local festival. The community is, after all, what gave birth this music, what these people gather ever year to honor. So the cars drive up the red mud road and park in the pine grove. People pitch tents in the shady gully and pick steel guitars in the cooler air. Musicians rotate on and off of the stage, guesting with each other, jamming here and there to classics four (or more) generations old. The mud washes down the hillside and colors the feet of people in cutoff jeans and people in expensive fishing shirts. The music is everywhere, conversations start and stop with the beat, with an inspired portion of guitar work. Whatever you do at the Hill Country Picnic you can do with the confidence that you are contributing to something larger and more important than yourself. You are celebrating a way of life… No… You are celebrating an expression of a way of life that is slowly disappearing into something else, something more connected, more homogenous. You are part of a special moment, and, when the sun goes down and the day’s heat breaks, when grandparents hobble up the stage to guest with their grandchildren you realize that this is far better, far bigger, than any festival you’d ever heard of before.