The first time the

up

-tempo notes of hill country blues hit the ears of R.L. Boyce, th

e sound was coming

from a mule-driven wagon headed down old Compress Road in Como, Mississip

pi, 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-teen

age 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 p

la

ying 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 t

hat have since transitioned

into computer-driven, automated work for Como-area farmers in recent years. For Boy

ce, 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 197

0s rural Mississippi.

Sure, guys were making musical moves an hour north in Memphis, but t

he 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 int

ently, 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 aft

er a jam session with son of

Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson and North Mississippi Allstars fron

tman, Luther Dickinson.

͞

I was playing right on Otha

͛

s porch right next to Luther,

͟

he says.

͞

And I said to mysel

f

͚

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 fo

r the juke-joints and

the house parties that became night clubs after 8 p.m. Despite that, Bo

yce

͞

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 Nashvil

le, 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 t

he world.

͟

This time, Boyce had found a home on Waxploitation Records, sharing a lab

el 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 o

nce 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 n

ature 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.

 

Hill Country Cool

Tracing the musical journey of Como-based Bluesman R.L. Boyce

 

Story by Casey Hilder | Photos by Jess Williamson

 

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