My first contact with the Mississippi Grammys came during a trip to Tunica. An area casino had recently hosted the event—an annual spring occurrence since the spring I moved to Mississippi (2007). Didn't I know? Hadn't I heard?
I hadn't. Which shamed me, I admit, a little. Then again, the official Grammy Awards come and go each spring without my knowing, either. As a kid, I followed the Grammys. But they descended into circuitous industry curio around 1989, when Jethro Tull beat Metallica's ...And Justice for All for Best Hard Rock/Metal album. A dozen years later, after Steely Dan vaulted Kid A by Radiohead and Beck's Midnight Vultures (not to mention You're the One and The Marshall Mathers LP) for Album of the Year, I waved my TV remote in surrender.
Besides, Grammy live performances always felt like CliffsNotes of the songs they honored: digestible, meant to be palmed. How can music be palmed?
This year's Mississippi Grammys were held June 7 at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. I knew a bit more about it than I did back in Tunica. This year's headliner would be B.B. King. B.B. King is eighty-five, and I'd never heard him live. As a Mississippi resident, this is akin to confessing, say, that I'm a fiction author who never read all of Moby-Dick, which...I also haven't done.
This, I admit, shames me greatly.
The event's precise title: the Fifth Annual Mississippi Grammy Legacy Celebration. "Mississippi," as Mary Peavey of Peavey Electronics pointed out, "has more Grammy winners per capita than any state in the union." In the Grammy ceremony's 53 presentations, Mississippi musical acts have won over 50 trophies (B.B. alone has landed 15). From Leontyne Price to Sam Cooke to The Staple Singers, Mississippians have harvested 8% of The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Awards. The golden gramophones weren't all tallied during the headiest heyday of blues, soul, or country: since 2000, dozens of performers with state ties have been Grammy-nominated.
The gala commenced with Governor Haley Barbour remarking about music, more as a catalyst of commerce than culture. "Music is an important and powerful economic engine in our state, one with a global reach," he stressed. "Music in all forms is one of our most vital exports."
University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra music director Jay Dean kicked off the concert, conducting a sextet of string players in a quicksilver set of tango. Shannon McNally followed, her supple voice proving as capable channel-yodeling Jimmie Rodgers as covering Tammy Wynette's anthem of tolerating peccadilloes, "Stand By Your Man"—playfully, but without leaning on irony. Founders of North Mississippi Allstars played excellent numbers that would fit fine with their Robert Plant tour. Jimbo Mathus (of Squirrel Nut Zippers) joined in the jam, remarking briefly on the value of Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum. While Mathus was a bit apologetic for "speechifying," I enjoyed his earnest appeal on a night when remarks seemed weighted more toward the laudatory than the searching.
These Legacy Celebrations honor Mississippi's slew of Grammy winners and nominees: prior artists who have performed include Mavis Staples, Cassandra Wilson, Brandy, and the late, legendary blues pianist Willie "Pinetop" Perkins. Though Meridian-based Peavey Electronics CEO Hartley Peavey doles out trophies, this is no evening of competition or meandering acceptance speeches. The night is a little bit concert, little bit education (thanks to interstitial video installations), and a lot of cultural tourism.
That was the idea when D. Craig Ray, then the Mississippi Development Authority's director of tourism, discussed "a music tribute to the state, highlighting all our great artists" with Barbour. Sold on the idea, the governor contacted Senior Executive Director for The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter, Jon Hornyak. Invigorated by the sheer breadth and volume of the Grammy Awards connection to Mississippi musicians, Hornyak negotiated an agreement for the state to use the Grammy logo, name, and title.
By the gala's midpoint, though, we started getting musical CliffsNotes. Several young singers collaborated with arranger Benjamin Wright on fine covers of Mississippi-based tunes. Bit by bit, the songs became excerpts, and those excerpts' execution grew slicker, sudsier, following the pattern and patina of award shows. Admittedly, much of the crowd (at least the VIP/high-roller section) ate up the jukebox musical style. Still, it frustrated me to witness the Allstars or McNally's sharp musicianship fetch far less exuberance than the Jersey Boys–style revue. Just because this is what the masses expect to feast on doesn't mean it should be the entrée. A young man belted a stirring version of "A Change Is Gonna Come," earning every thump of applause. Only...why wasn't he listed in the program by name? If promoting musical future is part of the raison d'être, why relegate budding musicians to anonymity, like the legion of uncredited background singers from dusty records of decades past?
I'll play devil's advocate with my qualms: this is a fundraiser. Those wishing to engage in all festivities (read: pre- and after-parties) pony up $1000 a pop. But in a first, the general public this time around could purchase $50 tickets to the standalone concert. Ray estimated the audience of just under 1,000 was almost triple the crowd from the inaugural event. And as Hornyak rightly points out: "Sponsors and people who pay $1000 make the whole thing possible."
Nevertheless, as the revue segment morphed into a skit involving "James Brown," a performer wearing a blown-out Afro wig, aping the Godfather's moves, it was hard to shake a querulous feeling that aim had strayed. What did James Brown have to do with Mississippi? As college pals in the 1960s, Barbour and an event producer brought Brown in for a performance. Does that really reflect Mississippi's musical heritage, or a need to embrace specific nostalgia? This was the point where culture and commerce seemed not only to have trouble seeing eye-to-eye, but be gazing in different directions entirely.
Thankfully, B.B. righted the ship.
After a video covering B.B.'s career, highlighted by King's anecdote of writing an early jingle for the tonic Peptikon, his stage march began. It was a bit like waiting for a ferry to dock. Emerging from his dressing room, he settled into a wheelchair throne, rolling across the wings, chatting and joking, individually, with a receiving line of the gala's musicians. The crowd watched each moment on JumboTron...then clapped...paused...chanted....
No exhortation had an effect on his methodic progress. "I love when a man makes me wait," emcee Joey Lauren Adams ad-libbed.
Frankly, so did I.
When B.B. did emerge, in a tux and purple-spangled jacket, he gave a loose, mischievous set. Expressive and commanding, but also as desultory as he wanted: commenting on throat drops, problems with cords, etc. The stiff slickness of the concert's midsection was wiped away by his organic grace and growl. The room ran on his clock, and he knew it. Bobby Rush joined in, bantering, trading giddy laughs, and leading B.B. into accidental innuendos. "They told me I can't stay out here long," King argued at one point. "And since I'm old, it takes me longer to get off."
Laughter, growl, riff, and flourish: the energy might be diminished, but the fullness of spirit was evident. "Go to B Minor," B.B. implored his backing band, just when it seemed he was playing possum. An instant later, "The Thrill Is Gone" began. Then it ended, and King ambled off, one deliberate step and wave at a time. It may have been a condensed version of his prowess, but it sure elevated itself from the realm of reductive CliffsNotes. It made me want to dig into another chapter.
Photos courtesy of Peavey Electronics Corporation.