Mississippi’s Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is the keeper of the Bentonia blues tradition flame. He follows such earlier practitioners of the country-blues style as Skip James, Jack Owens and brothers Henry and Dodd Stuckey. The uniqueness of Bentonia blues derives in part from open-tuned guitars and unpredictable performances.
Holmes’ fans include Dan Auerbach, the rock star who’s one-half of the Black Keys. In March, Auerbach produced and recorded Holmes’ ninth album, Cypress Grove, at his Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville. “I like to work with people who inspire me,” Auerbach said. “Jimmy inspires me. His music is rough and tumble, and it can shatter a lot of preconceptions purists have about Delta blues.”
In the wake of Cypress Grove’s October release, Holmes opened for the Black Keys in Washington, D.C., and for Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Through it all, his manager said, the 72-year-old musician stayed unaffected.
In addition to being an award-winning blues man known throughout the world, Holmes has operated the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Mississippi, since 1970. His parents, Carey and Mary Holmes, opened the business in 1948, a year after Holmes’ birth. Today, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker stands tall in front of the café’s baby-blue façade. Believed to be the oldest juke joint in the United States, the café’s main room is a 20-by-30 feet space featuring cinderblock walls, a concrete floor, the simplest of tables and chairs and a few ceiling fans. There’s also a soft-drink vending machine, snacks hanging behind the small service counter, Blue Front Café T-shirts hanging on the wall and an old jukebox in the left corner. “That’s about it,” Holmes said. “It’s 71 years old. I’m 72, so it’s just as authentic as I am.”
Holmes opens the Blue Front Café at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Sundays he waits until about two in the afternoon to open, even if he doesn’t go to church that day. “I respect the church hours,” he explained.
For much of his life, performing was a sideline to running the Blue Front Café and working for the Yazoo County School District as a parents’ advisor. Retirement from the school system in 2010 gave him more time for music. He’s performed throughout the world, including appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival and King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Have you changed anything at the Blue Front Café lately?
No. Nothing has changed. I’ve been rolling with it like this for 50 years, so I don’t see no need to change it. And plus, the state department of tourism [officially Visit Mississippi] and historians, they tell me to let it stay the same, because it’s original. They tell me don’t even take the spider webs out of the corner. I’m serious.
Your parents opened the Blue Front Café in 1948. Do you think of it as home?
This is where I have lived for 71 years. I go home to eat, sleep and take a bath, mow the lawn or something like that. But when you spend ninety percent of your time in any place, that’s where you live. And it’s been like that since I can remember.
You took over the café’s operation from your mother in 1970. You’ve run it for 50 years. Why has it been important to you to keep it going?
Well, the stuff my mom told me about the Blue Front itself. My daddy was a dirt farmer—a small farm. And after the farm got whatever harvest, and probably didn’t make no money, the Blue Front was a means of survival, putting food on the table. Across the years, when we didn’t have a hog to sell or a cow to sell, it was the Blue Front that kept food on the table.
What was life like when you were growing up in Bentonia?
My mother’s two sisters passed away at a young age. She didn’t want the kids to get separated, so she took them all in with us. And we were all raised like brothers and sisters. A total of 14 under one roof. Two bedrooms. We slept two at the top of the bed, two at the bottom part. And a lot of people wonder how did my mother did it. She was determined.
What did your mother sell at the Blue Front Café in those days?
The moonshine whiskey, the fish, soda pop. About this time of year, it was the moonshine that kept the Blue Front rolling. She did food, like burgers and hotdogs, but she’d tell me all the time she devoted her retail sales to moonshine, because it was more profitable. And this was the time of year, when it’s cooling down, those old timers drank beaucoups of moonshine.
Was music part of the Blue Front from the beginning?
Yeah, because this town was full of musicians. Guitar players, they would come in with their little guitars on their back and sit in. Two or three guys, they’ll get back there—they call it a jam now—and just take turns playing, having fun.
Is that what got you into playing music?
That’s part of it. I got interested in music because of the guy called Henry Stuckey. He started what they call the Bentonia style of blues. He was our neighbor. As a matter of fact, his guitar was the first guitar I put hands on. That was 1957. And I guess that’s what you call planting the seeds. In that same year, my dad got me a yellow plastic guitar with plastic strings for Christmas. He got this from a furniture store—it was just something they happened to have. That introduced me to the guitar. Then, by me being at the Blue Front with my mom, you got these old timers coming in and playing. All that kind of watered the plant.
You must have known Henry Stuckey very well.
He used to babysit us on Friday, until my mom and dad would close the Blue Front at 10 p.m. He would sit and play the guitar—for me and my brothers and sisters and his kids—until my mom and dad came home on Friday. Then he would leave, I guess going to the juke houses to play his guitar and just pick up nickels and dimes to help support his family. When he would leave on Friday, we wouldn’t see him no more until late Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. Playing for tips.
Jack Owens was another of the Bentonia blues musicians. Did you know him well, too?
In his later years, Jack would come to the Blue Front every day. I think it was divine. I don’t even know if he was aware of it. He felt like that [the Bentonia style of blues] was something that needed to be carried on. And it would bother him when I couldn’t pick up on it. He didn’t read music. He couldn’t tell me it was an A chord or a D chord or C. He didn’t know none of that. He told me, “Boy, just watch my fingers. You got to learn this. Watch my fingers.” That’s what I did. I picked up things from other guitar players, but when it comes to the Bentonia style, I absolutely got that from Jack.
Because of the open tuning that the Bentonia blues-style uses, would you say the music is sad, mournful, lonesome?
People give blues a bad rap. I know a lot of blues songs, everybody’s happy. I know a lot of blues songs, everybody’s sad. It’s just all based on how you accept it.
Do many visitors from across the country and world come to Bentonia to see you and the Blue Front Café?
Oh, they come from all over to see this hole in the wall. And the most amazing thing, this is one of their main stops on their tours. I got enough sense to know that they didn’t leave Johannesburg, South Africa, just to come to Blue Front Cafe, but they said this was their main stop. Another long way, Sydney, Australia. They said they came specifically to see the Blue Front—but they went other places, too.
How do feel about the international fascination for the Blue Front?
A lot of people asked me, “Are you making any money?” I said, “Well, everybody knows money’s good—but my greatest reward is what I do, or what I possess that people appreciate. That’s more reward to me than money. When a person comes see me or comes see the Blue Front or asks me to play a tune for them, that’s a great reward.
Dan Auerbach, the rock star who’s famous for being a member of the Black Keys, produced your new album. How did that happen?
He tried for two years to get me to come record with him, but I didn’t do it. He said the best thing that could happen to me is if I come to Nashville to record with him. I had no idea what that meant to him, but then the album proved that. And to show you how I am just a regular person, he had scheduled to record for three days. I hooked it up for him in three hours.
You got straight down to business in the studio?
I didn’t pretend. I did what I do. I did what God has blessed me to do. Play the guitar and sing. Listen at me careful—whether it’s an interview or whatever, be yourself