I was visiting Oxford, Mississippi, in 1999, when I got invited to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in the tiny community of Chulahoma, near Holly Springs. I didn’t jump at the chance—I was with my husband on his book tour and was tuckered out. We’d married a few months prior, and we were young enough when the tour began that staying in a different hotel every night and eating out three meals a day seemed glamorous. By the time we’d reached Oxford, however, we’d partied with every Birkenstocked bookstore employee in the South, and we were jaded. All the clothes in my duffle were dirty. And tight. Our car smelled like Road Trip. But R.L. Burnside, a living legend, was supposed to be playing. Junior Kimbrough himself had died the previous year, rumored to have left behind thirty-six children, some of whom kept Junior’s Place running.
A blues music producer, Amos Harvey, drove my husband and me and some local bookstore folks past the graceful Greek Revivals of Oxford and out into the country. We crossed the Tallahatchie Bridge, eventually turning from a gravel road onto hilly Highway 4. We passed trailers sitting back from the road, leeching their power from light poles wearing boas of kudzu, sometimes a group of men standing around a fire in a can, though the temperature neared the century mark. Roadkill studded the gravel shoulder, stars above big as asteroids, one orange moon trailing us like a balloon lashed to our bumper. Although there was no road sign, Amos knew when to turn and pulled over where a long line of cars were parked.
Getting out of the car and seeing just black folks, I felt mighty white. About the whitest, in fact, I’d ever felt. But there didn’t seem to be any menace in the air. We slowly approached the juke, a rambling gray wooden structure with a tin roof. Someone said the building had been built 130 years ago and had first been used as a general store, then a horse stable, then a church. Large plywood boards had been added to make porches, and groups of people stood about, talking and passing a plastic milk carton, which they then passed to us, too. I swallowed, scorching my throat. White lightning. Soon we’d each bought our own. It came in reused Veryfine juice jars.
Inside was a pool table so close to the door that the players had to wait to shoot until we’d entered. Little alcoves branched off to the sides and were lined with the kind of couches that, once you sat in them, didn’t easily let you go. At the back was a jukebox, and to the right, under a few clip-on shop lights hanging from the ceiling, an area for the band. Elsewhere the lights were dim and the clothing bright—women accessorized with high heels and matching handbags, cleavage, spirals of gold chains. The men weren’t dressed in shorts or jeans like the guys I’d come with. They wore pressed trousers, leather shoes, and belts—a few in full suits, though it was so humid everyone was sweating, and the dancing hadn’t even started yet. The walls were bright, too, with murals—I guess you’d call it folk art, though the term has come to smack of a studied preciousness. These were genuinely expressive, but unsigned by the artists. There was a black Southern belle looking like Bo Peep with a pink ruffled hoopskirt and shepherd’s crook. There was a Diana Ross, glazed with glitter paint, taken from the pages of Ebony. There was a wonderful Oprah Winfrey, whom I remember as being dressed like the Virgin Mary. There was a Busch beer mural from the “Come to the mountains, come to the sea” era, and behind the instruments—two guitars and a drum kit, cabinet-sized speakers—was a giant seascape full of volcanic rock and crashing waves wearing mustaches of foam.
In the back left corner was the bar, a wooden board separating the clientele from the two large and sexy barmaids who’d fetch from the avocado-colored fridge a Bud or a Busch. Each beer cost a buck-fifty, which they’d slip into the purple Crown Royal drawstring bags they wore around their wrists.
That night the kitchen served two items: the chicken drumstick and the chicken sandwich. The drumstick was handed to you with a napkin wrapped around the bony end. The sandwich, which came on a paper plate, featured a piece of white bread topped with two drumsticks nestling inversely like new shoes, topped with another piece of white bread.
The two young men who had been up plugging in the amps picked up the guitars and played a few bars of a droning, propulsive funk blues. This is the heavily rhythm-oriented, hypnotic hill country blues the area is known for, pioneered by folks like Fred McDowell and made famous by Junior Kimbrough, among others. The Burnside family played here regularly, as well as others who’d found an expanded audience through the recordings they’d made for Fat Possum Records in Oxford.
Finally, R.L. came out. “Well, well, well,” he baritoned into the microphone, picked up his guitar, and sat down. He drank from a glass of whiskey that sat beside his chair. “This glass has a hole in it,” he said. “A big hole, right here on the top.” In the next moment the wallboards were thumping and the bass was so loud I could feel it throbbing in my breastbone. He was playing “Poor Black Mattie.” (“Need no heater fireplace by my bed,” Burnside sang, using his slide to drive the repeating guitar riffs, “Woman I got keeps me cherry red.”) The dance floor pulsed with couples—no stilted, single-sex clusters reminiscent of high-school mixers—and the dancing was provocative, talented, unselfconscious. Leaning against my post, I wanted to join but thought better of it, though my telltale foot was tapping. Behind me, a long, low voice crooned in my ear, “How ‘bout you and me join in?” I turned around to find a tall, thin man wearing the most lovely suit, dove gray pinstriped with plum. His shoes, belt, and tie were plum-colored. So was his jaunty fedora, which he removed and rested on a duct-taped chair. He nodded toward the dance floor, and he offered me his hook.
Yes, his hook. Should I dance with a man with a hook for a hand? Headlines ran through my head. I heard, states away, my mother gasp. “You can pretend I’m a pirate if it helps,” he said. He grinned and his gold tooth winked. What the hell: my husband didn’t dance unless Styx was playing. So I followed him onto the floor, where he laid that hook on my hip and spun me expertly. He spun me out and reeled me in. He dipped me down and shimmied me back up. He made the music inside me meet the music outside me: everything harmonized raucously for a blazing moment.
Then the music stopped, after just three songs. R.L.’s wife of close to fifty years was taking him home. “Awh, Mama,” he was protesting, but laughing. Someone said she’d objected to a song he’d played, or didn’t play. So his grandson Cedric climbed behind the drum kit and with Kenny Brown on guitar they picked up that emphatic, roiling rhythm full of one-chord riffs, and everyone danced again and drank moonshine until the moon wasn’t shining anymore.
Three years later I’d move to Mississippi, but I never returned to Junior’s. I couldn’t—it burned down in 2000. I’ve heard someone torched it, wrongfully thinking there was insurance money to be had, but I don’t know about that.
Every now and then, someone talks about rebuilding Junior’s. But some things can’t be replicated. They exist on this earth for a while, and then they’re gone. You can rebuild an Applebee’s or a Hilton Hotel bar. You can’t rebuild a Junior’s. You can’t rebuild that soul. I’m proud I can claim it: Children, I went there once. I danced a dance of great power and joy. This was years ago, before the flames came to embroider the blue gown of the Oprah Virgin Mary, before her brown hands blistered, before she cried her soot tears, her eyes cast downward to the clearing where R.L. Burnside used to play and where, once, a shop light glinted off a hook that gently, gently, gently brushed a lock of sweaty hair from off my forehead.