Interview with Jeff Konkel of Broke and Hungry Records, the Quintessential Delta Blues Label

Jeff Konkel has been running Broke and Hungry Records for several years now, bringing exposure to some of the greatest talent from the land where the blues began, the Mississippi Delta. In the delta, there’s a lot of music. One can almost always go to a juke joint or a bar around town and find blues like many have never heard before… which is the problem; too many people have never heard it. Thus, Broke and Hungry was founded to bring the delta to the masses, so to speak, which they’ve done an incredible job of. We sat down with Jeff to discuss delta blues, the amazing artists, and making an award-winning Blues documentary on the Mississippi Delta.

Jeff, tell me a little about Broke and Hungry Records. How did it begin?
M for Mississippi
M for Mississippi

I started listening to prewar blues when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Then in the mid-1990s, I began making regular pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta, and that’s when my interest became an obsession. Through those visits I really started connecting the dots between the music and the culture that surrounds it. It’s also when I became aware of just how vibrant the existing Delta blues scene still was. And thanks to labels like Fat Possum and Rooster Records, I could hear current rural blues artists from Mississippi even when I was back home in St. Louis, Missouri.

Unfortunately by 2005 neither of those labels was very active in blues. During that year a number of great blues artists like R.L. Burnside, John Weston and Paul “Wine” Jones passed away, and I began lamenting the fact that other bluesmen like them would soon follow suit without ever having been recorded.
Then one night after one too many beers at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, a juke in Merigold, Mississippi, I had the hair-brained idea of starting my own label dedicated to recording these artists. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I jumped headlong into the void. A few weeks later I registered Broke & Hungry Records as a legal entity and a couple of weeks after that, we recorded our first disc, Back To Bentonia, the debut album by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Can you tell me about the artists that are recording under Broke and Hungry; Pat Thomas, Duck Holmes and the like?
Our focus has been to draw attention to artists who have been underexposed. To that end, most of the artists we work with are men who have never recorded and who have rarely performed outside of jukes or small local gatherings. Despite their talents, these aren’t “professional” musicians. All of the artists on our roster are Mississippi born and raised, and most have very rural backgrounds.
So, there are a number of similarities among our artists, but plenty of differences, as well.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a quiet, introspective guy. In addition to running his juke joint, the Blue Front Café, he spent several decades working for a local school district. He’s an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of man, not at all the kind of hell raiser that some people expect a rural bluesman to be. As he once told me, “I play blues, but I don’t live a blues life.”
Pat Thomas is a whole other matter. Where Jimmy keeps farmer’s hours, Pat is sometimes up half the night, either working on his art – drawing and sculptures, mostly – or howling at the moon. Pat has a lot of manic energy and his enthusiasm is infectious. Whenever I visit Pat at his home, he conducts a tour of the place to show off whatever he’s been collecting or any artwork he’s been doing. He’s a lot of fun.
You made the award winning M For Mississippi, a documentary about the Mississippi Delta. Can you tell us about filming and the trip through the Mississippi Delta?
M For Mississippi was a cooperative project between Broke & Hungry Records, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art and Mudpuppy Recordings.
It was filmed over the course of a week in the spring of 2008. It’s follows Roger Stolle and I on a road trip through the Delta and the Mississippi Hill Country as we visit a dozen or so blues artists in their homes, in juke joints, in cotton fields.
Roger – who owns Cat Head – and I have been friends for several years. We had been looking for a way to collaborate on a project, and we wanted it to be something that reflected the craziness of our previous travels in the region. The end result was M For Mississippi.
We carried a very small team from location to location: In addition to Roger and I, we brought along cinematographer Damien Blaylock, our co-producer Kari Jones and audio engineer Bill Abel. The entire film was shot with one camera. There were no do-overs, no second takes. We captured what we could and then headed down the road to the next location. We spent months honing our vision of what we wanted to capture, but once the camera started to roll, it was anyone’s guess what would happen. It was a bit nerve wracking but also pretty exhilarating.
Afterwards we sifted through about 30 hours of film and whittled that down into a 90-minute movie. We released it on DVD just six months after we started shooting. It was an intense period.
I know things can get a little crazy down in the delta, especially around the musicians! Tell me about your experiences around guys like T Model Ford, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and the like?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, Duck is pretty down to earth. When he and I travel together, it’s usually a pretty low-key journey. We talk a lot about his family, his upbringing, his music.
With guys like T-Model, however, things tend to get a little more interesting. He’s 90-years-old now (or so he claims), but he’s as wild and wily as ever.
Roger, Kari and I traveled with T-Model, Robert Belfour and L.C. Ulmer over to Norway in 2009 and, we just couldn’t keep up with those guys. Despite a combined age of almost 240 years, they just never stop. At one point I thought there was going to be a knife fight over some woman. It’s always something.
One of my favorite memories from that particular trip was from the plane ride over. We hit a patch of very, very bad turbulence. Passengers were screaming and hugging one another. It was pretty scary, really. Afterward I said to T-Model, “That was a little bumpy.” He turned to me with an incredulous look on his face and said, “That? That wasn’t bumpy. Riding a mule is bumpy.”
He never ceases to amuse me.
What is your take on the Delta Blues from a contemporary standpoint? Is the torch still burning?
The blues isn’t going anywhere. It’ll continue for generations to come, and the influence of the Delta will continue to play a big role. But we are in a precarious period when it comes to traditional blues in Mississippi. There aren’t a whole lot of young musicians who are picking up the tradition, particularly in the black community.
Most of the artists I work with are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Guys like Terry “Harmonica” Bean and Pat Thomas are a little younger, but they’re both approaching 50.
Fortunately, there are a few examples of younger musicians who are making their way through the ranks, like guitarist Anthony “Big A” Sherrod and drummer Lee Williams.
It’s hard to tell what the future holds, which makes our mission to promote the music all the more urgent.
What kind of plans does Broke and Hungry Records have for the future?
Right now we’re putting the finishing touches on a new two-CD label retrospective called Mistakes Were Made: Five Years of Raw Blues, Damaged Livers & Questionable Business Decisions. It’ll feature tracks from each of our releases, plus a treasure trove of unreleased cuts. It adds up to more than 100 minutes of music, half of which has never before been released. It’ll be released in early 2011.
In the spring we’ll reissue a deluxe, remastered edition of our first CD, Back To Bentonia by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. In addition to new art and liner notes, it’ll feature several unreleased tracks from the sessions.
We’re also hoping to move forward with a project for Three Forks Music, the new cooperative organization that brings together the M For Mississippi labels: Broke & Hungry, Cat Head and Mudpuppy.
2011 should be a pretty productive year for us.
You can find all of the Broke and Hungry artists, their albums, and the award-winning M for Mississippi on the Broke and Hungry website! Any fans of delta blues will love the extremely talented artists on their roster.