Robert Connely Farr Blends Bentonia & Hill Country Blues On ‘Country Supper’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Bentonia-styled blues was first laid down by artists such as Skip James, Henry Stuckey, and Jack Owens in the 1930s and kept alive principally by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and a few others that frequent Holmes’ Blue Front Café, which Holmes’ family opened in 1948. And now, Holmes is the elder, mentoring the next generation. In fact, the opening “Cypress Grove” is the title of Holmes’ most recent album, the one produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Songs also appear on this effort from fellow Mississippian Robert Connely Farr’s Country Supper from another Auerbach produced artist, the late Leo “Bud” Welch – “Girl in the Holler” and “I Know I Been Changed.” Other influences, though not as writers of the songs, are R.L. Boyce, a leading practitioner of that region’s mesmeric style of music once personified by the late R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Yet the principal influence in Farr’s sound is that of Holmes, who has been mentoring him since 2017.

“What’s ironic is that I spent my years growing up aching to leave Mississippi, and after I graduated from college, I left the country,” says Farr, who now lives in Vancouver, B.C. But on a road trip with his father in 2017, they pulled the car over, on a whim, in front of Holmes’ Blue Café, America’s oldest juke joint. Holmes was inside, quickly learned that Farr was a guitarist, and took him underwing. Thus, as referenced, the album starts with the slow grind of “Cypress Grove,” originally penned by Skip James, which wraps a tale of searching for life’s balance around the kind of North Mississippi trance rhythm Farr learned from . The song is already getting airplay, thanks to the raw appeal of Farr’s core trio, which includes drummer Jay Bundy Johnson and bassist Tom Hillifer. Interestingly, his own “All Good” carries that same Bentonia style as the Holmes tune that follows, “Must’ve Been the Devil.”

Beyond the chance encounter with Holmes, another poignant story underlies this effort. “In the three-month period when we were recording Country Supper, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to survive,” Farr attests. “I had quit drinking, but I had just had an emergency operation due to cancer. At the same time, my band and I had been traveling to Mississippi to play, and the music I heard there, what I was learning from Jimmy and R.L., was echoing in my head, creeping into my songwriting and playing, even offering me a different perspective on life. I had also just read a biography of Charley Patton, and the scenes it painted of the parties he used to play, called country suppers, were so inspiring … and sometimes so crazy and violent. It reminded me of that Deep South atmosphere… my home was showing up in my music. All of that created this emotional and creative lightning, and we immersed ourselves in it.”

These “elder” Mississippi blues songs essentially provide the skeleton of the album which Farr fleshed out with nine originals of the 16 songs. It’s his fourth solo album and was recorded in Vancouver in two marathon sessions that yielded nearly 30 songs. He feels that Country Supper is a much more personal album than Dirty South Blues — and was especially pleased to record it with his decade-long band. Nonetheless, Dirty South Blues, his third album, was a breakthrough, earning Farr nominations for Songwriter of the Year and New Artist of the Year in Canada’s prestigious Maple Blues Awards. The album also won extensive airplay and raves from many outlets.

Farr adapts the raw, primitive style of Mississippi blues, using his guitar pumped through a beaten-up 1960s Harmony amp to perfectly underscore his lyrics and echo the cadences of his influences. “Train Train” (one runs behind the Blue Café adding a special ambience to the concrete structure) is the other Holmes tune that Farr chose to record. Farr continues to be rather awestruck with his roots, learning that Charley Patton and the Mississippi Sheiks’ Bo Carter also hail from Bolton, MS. “When I was growing up there, I had no idea this music even existed,” he admits. “I didn’t start listening to blues until I lived on the other side of the continent, in another country.”

There’s more here than just raw blues though. He transforms Welch’s “Girl in the Holler” into a roots rocker. His heavy sound in “If It Was Up to Me” has traces of outlaw country and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Farr’s reference to the personal nature of the album is best embodied in two autobiographical songs – the country heartbreaker “Bad Whiskey” — where fourth bandmember Jon Wood lends keyboard and steel guitar — and “I Ain’t Dyin’.” The former provides a harrowingly genuine perspective on alcoholism from the inside, full of regret, loss and defiance. And “I Ain’t Dyin’” has practically become an anthem for Farr, whose struggles with alcohol have been replaced in recent years by a battle with cancer. Both have, at times, brought him close to the grave.

Raw, authentic, trancelike, and practically a debt of gratitude to the music of his birthplace, Farr carries on as a torchbearer for the state’s original music. So be it, that he now lives in Canada. This music transcends boundaries and if one looks hard enough, much of it originated in Africa anyway. Let’s hope that Farr stays healthy. His mission is important.

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