Memphissippi Sounds: Blues at a 21st Century Crossroads

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Cameron Kimbrough and Damien “Yella P” Pearson are Memphissippi Sounds.

(Photo: Akarsha Kumar)

The debut release by Cameron Kimbrough and Damion “Yella P” Pearson, Memphissippi Sounds (Little Village), establishes the singular duo’s distinctive genre: Kimbrough’s hill country drone meets Pearson’s Beale Street blues in songs infused with R&B and spiced with the poetry of straight-out-of-Memphis rap.

Opener “Who’s Gonna Ride,” launched with harp-driven blues you might have heard 40 years ago at the legendary juke joint run by Cameron’s granddaddy Junior Kimbrough, speeds straight to 2021 with an invocation of “I can’t breathe” that practically spits out the clincher: “Get cha foot off my neck, boy.”

Though they speak truth to power, Kimbrough and Pearson also write plenty of songs about every bluesman’s favorite subject: women. “After you get through getting your neck stepped on, you need a little love,” says Kimbrough, who was raised in rural Potts Camp, Tennessee, with a population of about 500, but now lives in Memphis. Case in point: “You Got The Juice,” a boudoir call-and-response on which both singers whisper sweet little somethings into your ear buds. Yowser!

Kimbrough and Pearson sat down for a conversation via Zoom last October, when they talked about everything from their own “driving while Black” encounters to their remarkable bond as collaborators.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DownBeat: Memphissippi Sounds wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t met onstage on Beale Street one magical summer night in 2017. How did you both end up in the club that night?
Damion Pearson: Another hill country player hired both of us to play a pickup gig. I was called to play harmonica and Cam was on the [drum] set.
Cameron Kimbrough: I had never even heard Damion’s music. He was onstage when I walked in, checking the levels.

DownBeat: Checking the levels — a professional!
Kimbrough: [laughs] Yeah! And I made up my mind, that night, we gotta do some jamming together.

DownBeat: Both of you are singers and multi-instrumentalists. But you’re also incredible songwriting partners. Did you start collaborating right away?
Pearson: Yes. Because musically, it just flowed. The second time we played together, Cam called me out of the blue for a two-hour show, and we didn’t have any songs. So we were just throwin’ it down on stage, but there was a vibe from the very beginning.
Kimbrough: Yeah, there was. Backstage, after the show, when the guys asked what our names were, I said, “I don’t know. This is just the second time I’ve met this guy!” [laughs]

DownBeat: “Who’s Gonna Ride” sets the tone for the album and brings it into the present. How did that come about?
Pearson: The lyrics I wrote in the midst of the pandemic, where I was just thinking about some of my experiences with the police. I’ve had several! One of the first was when they changed a law and said three or more people gathered together can be considered a gang. And I have four brothers, so just walking home, we’re a gang. And the police would stop us. Ask us what we were doing.

You learn very early on that anything can happen, bad things go down with the police, and seeing what happened to George Floyd really touched me. The whole world was marching for George Floyd, and I wondered what the impact would be if the same thing happened to me. “Who’s gonna ride with me?” was a personal question. Like, dang, what if something like that happened to me?

DownBeat: Have you also had encounters with cops, Cameron?
Kimbrough: I’ve had several. But I don’t even want to get into talking about what should have been really innocent encounters.

DownBeat: Yeah, driving while Black. Did you both work together on the music for “Who’s Gonna Ride”?
Pearson: Yeah, we do on every song. It’s like we’re talking to each other.
Kimbrough: It’s a conversation.
Pearson: Playing with Cam, I stripped down, and I’ve been learning so much. Cam kind of showed me a different sound. Deeper and more bluesy.

DownBeat: Yeah, that hypnotic hill country drone digs deep. You recorded this at the famous Sun Studios, right?
Pearson: Yeah, it’s pretty surreal. So is how well it’s been received, because a lot of what’s on the album just came off the back porch. And when we got in the studio there just happened to be microphones there.

DownBeat: And now your back-porch conversation is going out to the world. What do you hope to achieve?
Kimbrough: I want the world to be inspired and the youth to be inspired by what we’re doing, and make us a household name.

DownBeat: Worthy goals, all. And the Yella P Manifesto Damion wrote for the album will help you reach them. Can you send that out to DownBeat’s readers, Damion?
Pearson: Memphissippi Sounds: A voice for the blues people, the sons of sharecroppers. A voice for the marginalized. An escape from the mainstream. A swim in muddy waters. A testimony to time, grit and grime. A healing sound. A mantra. A shot in the dark. A real awakening. A sign of the times. DB



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On Sale Now
July 2022
Sean Jones
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