Mississippi’s Jimmy “Duck” Holmes plays the raw country blues style identified most famously with his Bentonia bluesmen predecessors, Skip James and Jack Owens. Bentonia musicians tune the open strings of their guitars to a minor chord. The innate sadness in minor keys gives the music its characteristically mournful sound.
Holmes, the owner-operator of the Blue Front Café, Mississippi’s longest-running juke joint, has long deserved an audience. The 72-year-old has released albums before Cypress Grove, but this latest project was produced by a rock star. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the producer of Dr. John’s Grammy-winning 2012 album, Locked Down, led the Cypress Grove sessions at his studio in Nashville. Auerbach also plays electric guitar for album, joining a small, complementary band that effectively builds on Holmes’ deep-blues foundation.
Cypress Grove opens with Holmes’ solo acoustic rendition of the Skip James classic, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” Down-on-the floor, deep-in-the hole blues though the song is, Holmes finds a modicum of hope in the beaten-down darkness. He also swears that if he ever gets off the greasy floor, he’ll never fall so low again.
In contrast to “Hard Times,” other tracks groove hypnotically on the strength of Holmes’ guitar and Mississippi bass player Eric Deaton and Nashville drummer Sam Bacco. Above subterranean rhythms, Auerbach adds distorted neo-psychedelic guitar lines to “Catfish Blues” and Marcus King plays gliding, reverb-heavy slide guitar for “Rock Me.” Although several of the album’s songs seem to drop over a bluff rather than end in a premeditated fashion, Holmes and his star-aided new album are indeed living blues.