Junior Kimbrough was born in 1930, years before such blues greats as Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. What sets him apart is that these other gentlemen had careers established as early as the 1950s; Kimbrough’s debut album came out in 1992. Until then, if you wanted to listen to Junior Kimbrough you had to go see him, and not on no national tour… at his own juke joint, Junior’s Place, in northern Mississippi. Many did, however, including the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, and U2.
I first heard Kimbrough shortly after his death. A compilation album was released in 2002. You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough is plagued by all the same shit that seems to bemoan most compilation albums. Junior recorded only a handful of albums, but each was considerably different in its quality of recording equipment, musicianship, and songwriting. You Better Run challenges the listener with 12 incongruous performances (all brilliant when separated from each other, but bewildering on one sustained listen). Junior wasn’t the final great innovator of the blues, as my father had said when he sent me the CD (he called Kimbrough as important an innovator as Charlie Patton). I thought little of his music.
I visited Junior Kimbrough’s grave in the summer of 2006, on my way to someone else’s, while crossing from Tennessee into Mississippi. The back of his tombstone read, JUNIOR KIMBROUGH IS THE BEGINNING AND END OF ALL MUSIC. The phrase struck me as outlandish and pretentious, so much so that I bought his second album when I got to the next big town later that afternoon. I made sure to buy his least favorably-reviewed record, the one with the lowest star rating at All Music. I’d heard the “Essential” collection. I wanted to hear his most inessential recording.
Sad Days, Lonely Nights is a masterful album. Recorded with his house band, the songs have a live show feel and blend into each other in a haze of sustained chords, baselines, and cymbal rides. Most tracks stretch beyond six minutes. When one song ends, it’s never entirely clear if a new song has started or the previous song is being repeated. Kimbrough may not be the end of all music, but he is the end of the blues. If WC Handy gave us well-crafted, classically structured 12-bar blues, Kimbrough falls into the tradition of the unpredictable stylists. He finished what Blind Lemon and Charlie Patton started and what Leadbelly, Fred McDowell and Hound Dog Taylor continued – the blues has its polish and its violence, and Kimbrough’s music personifies the latter.