The first time the up-tempo notes of hill country blues hit the ears of R.L. Boyce, the sound was coming from a mule-driven wagon headed down old Compress Road in Como, Mississippi, in the early ‘70s. The man behind the music was “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, a former farm worker known for his signature slide-driven strumming on songs like “Shake ‘em On Down. Strumming, filling the air with his signature sound on the way to a house party at nearby Honey Dew Corner.
“He was the first bluesman I ever heard back then,” Boyce says. “Headed down old Compress Road. And I haven’t seen nobody yet who plays like him since then.”
Latching onto a catchy tune was nothing new for the then-teenage Boyce. Coming up under his uncle and last of the region’s storied fife-and-drum blues players, Otha Turner, music was a part of life. Boyce earned his early musical chops playing a big bass drum alongside Uncle Otha as a youngster, but Fred McDowell’s particular brand of lively, guitar-driven, “hill country” stylings struck a chord.
“The house was full of music back then,” he says. “I was already doing a little pickin’ myself back then. But the blues, though, it jumped right in my soul.”
Boyce, now 62, has lived a lifetime in the hill country blues scene since those fateful encounters in his younger years, though he didn’t always make money doing so. His resume includes time as a bulldozer and front-end loader operator, among other typical blue-collar farm jobs that have since transitioned into computer-driven, automated work for Como-area farmers in recent years. For Boyce, the blues provided a natural, simple escape from the day-to-day routine.
“Playing music was always easier, buddy,” he says. “I just do it because it’s fun.”
Hill Country Blues wasn’t something you could just tune into on the radio back in 1970s rural Mississippi. Sure, guys were making musical moves an hour north in Memphis, but the Hill Country Blues was contained to the hills of North Mississippi for several years. To get a taste of this particular brand of blues, Boyce recalls sneaking out to local house parties and listening intently, picking up and forming his own style to practice alongside friends and relatives.
“We used to sit on the porch together and it was blues, blues, blues,” he says. “I eventually ran up on [R.L.] Burnside and got to playing with him and Junior Kimbrough. We all pitched in on the music together and soon I caught on and went head-on with it.”
Boyce says that the decision to play for a living came several years later after a jam session with son of Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson and North Mississippi Allstars frontman, Luther Dickinson.
“I was playing right on Otha’s porch right next to Luther,” he says. “And I said to myself ‘Maybe I can get out there and do this’ and ain’t never looked back.”
Boyce’s hill country blend was a few shades different from what was big in blues at the time. Boyce’s blues aren’t the mopey hymns of a lost soul mourning over his losses. His work is for the juke-joints and the house parties that became night clubs after 8 p.m. Despite that, Boyce
“I played with Buddy Guy back in 1980,” he says. “I went to Chicago up to his club to open up with a couple of songs. Back then, I was playing with Otha and his daughter, Bernice. It was good times back then.”
Otha died on February 27, 2003, with his daughter, Bernice, passing just a day after. Four years later came the release of Boyce’s first solo album, Ain't the Man's Alright.
“A lot people think that’s my first album,” he says. “That’s just the first one they know about. I did about four or five CDs. We put out a few with Sean [Bad] Apple out of Nashville, Steve Tony, and [Big Boy] Martin Grant. Martin was my harmonica player back in the day and after he passed away, I said ‘let me try and do something on my own now.’”
Boyce credits independent label record producer David Katznelson for his return to the studio for his second album, last year’s Roll & Tumble.
“He came to me to do a little recording, told me to help myself,” he says. “So I jumped right in there and started recording. And whatever the good master above gave to me, I gave to the world.”
This time, Boyce had found a home on Waxploitation Records, sharing a label with Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, and Danger Mouse. Shortly after its release, Roll & Tumble was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album alongside the likes of Eric Bibb, Guy Davis and The Rolling Stones.
While the Rolling Stones would walk away with the Grammy for Blue & Lonesome, some might argue that between the clean riffs and crisp, mastered sound, there’s not a whole lot of “traditional” to be found in much of the album. In contrast, a British journalist once questioned if a party was going on the in background during the recording of Roll & Tumble. Boyce responded that it sounded like a party because the album, and hill country blues in general, is a party.
“I’m gonna get ‘em next time,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of new songs that I’m going to play out this year. Just hold on, buddy.”
The Grammy nomination came as a surprise to Boyce, who wasn’t even aware of the honor until the Jackson, Mississippi-based Clarion-Ledger newspaper contacted him for comment.
Today, the 62-year-old Boyce operates with a patience and easy-going nature that can only be cultivated in the South. Life in the hills of North Mississippi hasn’t changed much, though Boyce admits he hasn’t seen any mule wagons coming down Compress Road since at least the early ‘90s. He now plays alongside R.L. Burnside’s son, Cedric, and newly minted Southern blues artist, Lightnin’ Malcolm.
“Malcolm came all the way from L.A. just to come play with us down here in Como,” he says. “Now that he’s got down here, he don’t want to go back.”
In addition to working on an upcoming 2018 album, Boyce has hopes of instilling interest in his unique style of blues in the younger generation, much like Fred McDowell influenced him all those years ago.
“I lost a lot of good friends that played,” he says. “People like Leo “Bud” Welch, Bilbo Walker, all my good friends done left. I’m gonna put it in my hands and carry it on out for ‘em. I got a lot to teach for some of the young’uns about what to do, how to do it, and when you do it, how long to stay there. ”
He now counts his four grandchildren among his budding protégés.
“I’m gonna learn one of those how to do it soon,” he says.
The best place to hear Boyce play these days is right on his front porch, strumming his Oscar Schmidt guitar toward Honey Dew Corner and hoping to reel in anyone who might listen. You can also occasionally catch him at the odd annual get-together in Downtown Como or at the litany of Clarksdale’s modern-day juke joints: Red’s, Shack Up Inn, or Ground Zero. In addition, R.L. Boyce will appear at the 2018 Beale Street Music Festival for a Sunday, May 6 performance at the blues tent.
Hill Country Cool
Tracing the musical journey of Como-based Bluesman R.L. Boyce
Story by Casey Hilder | Photos by Jess Williamson