The Mississippi State Penitentiary, circa the 1940s, was known as Parchman Farm, a brutish institution that signified a last bastion of slavery, despite its federal proprietorship and the alleged misdeeds of the incarcerated. Delta blues legends and one-time guests of Parchman, Son House and Bukka White, sang of hard chain-gang labor. To the late legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, with his Prison Songs (Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm) anthology—and today, to musicians and scholars alike—Parchman Farm is as historically, musically, incorporeally linked to the blues as Mississippi’s fabled crossroads. Three such local musicians who have appropriated the prison’s moniker concur.
Parchman Farm (guitarist-vocalist Jeff Zentner, bassist Mike Henderson, drummer Sean Regan) take cues from blues’ history and spirit. But they also want to contribute to the blues legacy by capturing and conveying the human aspect. Their impetus has been a growing dissatisfaction with blues-by-numbers bands, groups that eschew innovation in favor of “paying tribute” by preserving an aesthetic as opposed to building upon it.
“Cheesy-ass Hawaiian-shirt-and-sunglasses blues ... bands that try to preserve the sensibilities of blues by laying cheesy slide guitar over generic rock & roll. They weren’t doing justice to the groove, the feel of this music.”
For that reason—and a notion that he couldn’t find like-minded musicians in Salt Lake City—Kansas City native Zentner had been playing solo around town until early 2002 when Henderson, then with once-local Zach Parrish Band, approached him when the two acts played together. The two hit it off musically, thrilling at each other’s grasp of, and devotion to, the blues. They commenced regular jam sessions, eventually adding Regan, Henderson’s battery mate in the ZPB and a former member of Fat Paw and Ponticello.
The trio took blues standards—mostly from the ’30s—and promptly claimed them for themselves by remaining loyal to the spirit while infusing the songs with sensibilities from other areas of blues (electric Chicago-style, trancey Delta beats) as well as elements of rock, country and bluegrass. Confident in the result, they committed five tunes to disc and started trolling for gigs.
To their surprise, the quickie demo bought them quick access to gigs at the Zephyr Club, Dead Goat Saloon and the Hog Wallow. Zentner says the shows have spawned a growing base of fans that encompasses blues purists, jam banders, rockers and punks that get off on the energy of the music (so much so, that even roots guitar hero Chris Whitley was moved to join them onstage last May).
“We’re not just the Monday-night Dead Goat crowd,” says Henderson.
That’s a point of pride; they’re expanding minds and appealing wide, a by-product/goal tantamount in importance to innovation and reverence. Blues music is real and ethereal, nurturing the skin and the spirit—that’s why it must continue and grow. Seeing the fruits of their labor is immensely satisfying and this week, Parchman Farm begins a Phase 2, releasing a proper debut CD, The Big Muddy.
The disc is 80 minutes of everything and one thing, a mixture of covers ranging from John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake Blues” to Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” to Ben Harper’s “Homeless Child” to Parchman arrangements of traditional tunes, into which two Zentner-penned originals, “Morocco” and “River Out to Sea,” are mixed. These tracks fit squarely together, such that the essence of Parchman Farm appears to live in the band. To an extent, it’s true. And to a degree, they agree.
“We accept that we don’t work in cotton fields, but we identify with the pain and the struggle,” says Henderson, pointing out how everyday struggles haven’t been eradicated since the time when Son House and Bukka White toiled at Parchman Farm. People still work hard for little reward, while making someone else richer and fatter. Parchman Farm, then, “is about people not making a living.”