Hill Country bluesman R.L. Boyce earns Grammy nomination

William Burgess
Hill Country Bluesman R.L. Boyce’s “Roll and Tumble” garnered a Grammy nomination.
Photo by William Burgess

R.L. Boyce’s picnic party became larger this week when his album “Roll And Tumble” picked up a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.

The 62-year-old Hill Country bluesman is from tiny Como, Mississippi, also the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, pioneer of the hypnotic musical style.

“I’d set around the porch and watch him play and I said one of these days I’ll be just like him,” Boyce told Tahoe Onstage.

[pullquote]There’s nobody like R.L. He’s like a pied piper. A magical guy in the Hill Country.”[/pullquote]“Roll and Tumble” is a collection of 2007 informal recordings from Boyce’s front porch and producer Luther Dickinson’s studio. It include appearances by drummers the late Calvin Jackson and his son Cedric Burnside, and Lightnin Malcolm, who played bass lines on his guitar underneath Boyce’s percussive leads.

“R.L. is the most improvisational musician I know,” Lightnin Malcom said. “There never is a set set with R.L. but there are certain guitar patterns. He’ll make up these amazing songs. That was a magical band of guys who have that feel. Calvin Jackson had that amazing feel for that older school blues.

“Me and Luther and Cedric, we know how to go into that world like it’s a telepathy. You’ve got to feel the artist that you are backing up. You’ve got to know that person and their personality. And then all of a sudden, it’s the easiest thing in the world. You have to be confident and sensitive at the same time.”

In his early days, Boyce played drums and drove the car with Gravel Springs Fife and Drum Band fronted by his uncle Otha Turner. He also played drums and recorded with Jessie Mae Hemphill. But the Hill Country blues are more about performances than records. Youngsters such as Luther and Cody Dickinson and Lightnin Malcolm learned the feel of the music at house parties.

“Luther got to be great because I trained him,” Boyce said. “I played on the porch every Saturday night and Luther just came out. He was a good student.”

Lightnin’ Malcolm makes his way into the crowd at the 2017 Sonoma Blues Festival.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

So was Lightnin Malcolm, whose playing and singing style mirrors Boyce’s.

“He needed a place to stay, I said, ‘OK, You can play your guitar and help yourself,’ ” Boyce said. “He wasn’t bothering me in no kind of way. And he would get on that thing night and day. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d still be playing.”

“The first time I met him it was at Otha Turner’s picnic,” Lightnin Malcolm said. “Me and R.L. hit it off like long lost brothers. He’s a real gentle soul. There’s nobody like R.L. He’s like a pied piper. A magical guy in the Hill Country. Totally improvisational, very gentle and very spiritual, doesn’t force nothing but when you least expect it, he’ll make up the most amazing song that you’ve ever heard.

“Before I was on tour all the time … we could go from location to location and party for four or five hours and wear the people out and go somewhere else. We might ramble from Wednesday to Monday going from house party to house party. Calvin Jackson used to roll with me on all that kind of stuff. We weren’t making a lot of money but we were having the time of our lives. We’ve be playing these country parties and the women would be all dressed up, dancing, looking good and made you play the guitar like you’ve never done in your life.”

Boyce said he gave Malcolm his nickname.

“In those days, if you walked on the stage with a cup of water, they’d look at you like what kind of drugs is this kid on,” he said. “You’d take a couple hits of crazy water, or holy water, white lightning.”

The blues Grammy Awards often go to the best known artists and bands, often bands that have diverted from their regular style to make a so-called blues album. Such is the case this year with the Rolling Stones “Blue and Lonesome,” also nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album.

However, this is the second year in a row, Hill Country blues has receive a Grammy nomination. In 2016, Luther Dickinson was nominated for his album “Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II).”

It all goes back to Mississippi Fred McDowell, who died in 1972 at the age of 66.

“Aw man, he was tough,” Boyce said of McDowell. “I used to hear him miles and miles down the road coming in on the weekend. He’d play his guitar on a wagon on a Friday night. You could hear him four or five miles coming down the road. He played at a lot of house parties.”

R.L. Boyce took the flame and passed it to the next generation, and musicians such as Dickinson and Malcolm know and appreciate the history.

“Mississippi Fred was maybe the greatest musician of all time, in my opinion,” Lightnin Malcolm said. “He was a source of electricity of life. And the only person I’ve heard get close to Mississippi Fred’s rhythm is R.L. Boyce. To me, that really makes R.L. special.”

-Tim Parsons

Related story: Rolling Stones will be tough to beat.

  • 2018 Grammy Award nominees
    Best Traditional Blues Album
    Migration Blues — Eric Bibb
    Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio — Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio
    Roll And Tumble — R.L. Boyce
    Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train — Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi
    Blue & Lonesome — The Rolling Stones
    Best Contemporary Blues Album
    Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm — Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
    Recorded Live In Lafayette — Sonny Landreth
    TajMo — Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’
    Got Soul — Robert Randolph & The Family Band
    Live From The Fox Oakland — Tedeschi Trucks Band

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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