Rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers referred to his friend, fellow musician, and teacher Junior Kimbrough as “the beginning and end of music.” While Feathers was famous for his idiosyncratic theories about music, his assessment of Kimbrough highlighted the fact that the bluesman’s music was almost a genre unto itself. David Kimbrough Jr. was born in Hudsonville, Mississippi, just north of Holly Springs, on 28 July 1930. His father, three older brothers, and a sister were blues musicians. At age eight he learned guitar from his father, whom he cited as his most important influence, and he was soon playing and singing for friends and family. He recalled that musicians who visited the family home included Fred McDowell, Eli Green, Johnny Woods, and early blues pioneer Gus Cannon.
As a teenager Kimbrough sang in a gospel group, and by the late 1950s he had formed the first incarnation of the Soul Blues Boys, who played at weekend functions in the area. Kimbrough’s early electric band was relatively rare among traditional North Mississippi blues artists, and performing in this format differentiated his music from that of other locals such as R. L. Burnside and Mississippi Fred McDowell, who played largely solo or in duos. Feathers, who farmed on the same Hudsonville plantation as Kimbrough, called Kimbrough’s music “cottonpatch blues.”
In 1968 Kimbrough recorded a session for the Memphis-based Philwood label: a single issued under the name “Junior Kimbell” included a cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” The following year Feathers, who had recorded at Philwood around the same time, recorded with Kimbrough at Kimbrough’s juke joint. The song “Feel Good Again” appeared in 1986 on a limited-issue 78 single on the Perfect imprint; it later appeared on the Revenant Charlie Feathers CD Get with It.
Kimbrough was otherwise not recorded during the great wave of field recordings in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1982 he was recorded by Sylvester Oliver of Rust College, resulting in a single on the Highwater label. Kimbrough subsequently gained recognition in blues circles and began appearing at festivals. Several of his songs from a 1984 festival appearance in Georgia appeared on the LP National Downhome Blues Festival, vol. 2 (1986).
In 1984 Kimbrough began hosting Sunday afternoon house parties, which soon became a popular local institution, and in 1991 he opened a juke joint in Holly Springs. Kimbrough gained more exposure in 1992 when Oxford’s Fat Possum label recorded a CD, All Night Long, at Kimbrough’s new juke joint in Chulahoma, located on Route 4 about ten miles southwest of Holly Springs. Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, who also recorded a CD for Fat Possum at the juke joint, played at Junior’s Place every Sunday evening, often accompanied by their children. Kimbrough usually played in a trio, accompanied by his son, Kenny Malone (aka Kent Kimbrough), on drums and Burnside’s son, Garry, on bass. Rock stars made pilgrimages to the club, which was oddly shaped and adorned with folk art, and it eventually became a popular destination for University of Mississippi undergraduates.
Kimbrough typically performed original songs that were longer than ten minutes each, and writer and critic Robert Palmer, who produced All Night Long and Kimbrough’s second Fat Possum CD, Sad Days, Lonely Nights, emphasized his music’s droning and hypnotic qualities. Kimbrough’s music did not sell very well, but it was embraced by critics and many fans of alternative music who appreciated his music’s unorthodox qualities and bought into Fat Possum’s marketing strategy of offering “Not the Same Old Blues Crap.”
Kimbrough performed on a few national tours, including serving as an opening act for proto-punk icon Iggy Pop, but he was otherwise not very interested in traveling outside the area. He continued to host his Sunday evening gatherings and made two more CDs for Fat Possum. He slowed down for health reasons in the mid-1990s and died of a heart attack on 17 January 1998.
After his death, Fat Possum issued a greatest hits package and organized a tribute record consisting of alternative rock bands covering Kimbrough’s songs. One of Kimbrough’s sons, David Malone (aka David Kimbrough Jr.), has recorded several CDs and consciously pays tribute to his father’s music, and Kenny Malone usually sings his father’s signature “All Night Long” when performing.
- Anthony DeCurtis, You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough (2002), liner notes
- Sylvester Oliver with David Evans, Do The Rump! (1997), liner notes