The blues is Mississippi's lingua franca. It's rooted (while transferred from far away Mali) in our arable soil. Though the famous players may have left to electrify it in Chicago or orchestrate in Los Angeles, that music still and will always be identified as ours.
Two Blues-related singer/songwriters sat down with Signature after their triumphant night at the Best of the Pine Belt Awards in June to discuss their roots and exactly where they will be guiding us next. Chad Cox leads the duo Mississippi Shakedown like a ringmaster tossing out scintillating riffs for drummer Zachary Smith to volley back and forth to him.
Thomas Jackson is a mainstay of Hattiesburg. The stalwart veteran performer plays solo and with a band, crafting songs with the elegant touch of a woodworker.
After numerous local releases, Jackson decamped to the famed Studio in The Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana, to record his most personal and professional album yet -"Bridgeburner." Following that success, Jackson wrote and recorded "No Pardon" in those same studios last year. The single (which is available on all services) took home the coveted "Song of the Year" prize at the Pine Belt Awards.
SIGNATURE: Do each of you remember that first gig?
JACKSON: My first gig was in Downtown Hattiesburg at a long forgotten coffee shop. I was scared to death. It was probably around 1996.
COX: The first Shakedown show was at the Keg in 2009. I had only been playing guitar for a few months and suddenly we had hours to fill. So we played the same set - no one seemed to notice! The music back then was mostly local jam bands with a rock ‘n’ roll underbelly. Today, there seems to be kids playing a lot of different styles. Also, at that time you could fall in love weekly with a band you never heard of playing at all the different places around town.
SIGNATURE: Writing songs and playing songs are two different tasks. Basing your music in Blues, would you say the parts have to fit together? In addition, do you feel it evolving as you play it for yourself, for others?
COX: I didn't really relate to the Blues until I lost my family. Originally, I fell for the stories of Robert Johnson, Junior Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Then I heard the music and it was the rawest thing I ever heard. So I just had to get a piece of it. Today, I understand how its sound is in direct correlation with tragedy, loss of love, greed, jealousy and general hard times. But when you hear that groove and Junior Kimbrough is howling "Baby Please Don't Leave Me," it is undeniable.
JACKSON: When I write a song, I don't worry much about the genre. I just work with lyrics, chords and melody. To me, the genre classification has more to do with studio production. "Bridgeburner" has a very Country/Americana feel to it – because that is what the producer wanted. With a different producer and musicians, those songs could have been completely different. When I play live, songs definitely evolve and change.
SIGNATURE: Chad, Mississippi Shakedown took to the road pretty quickly and it seems that you learned a lot from those out-of-town shows and the homecomings that followed. What do you seek in the influences you carry with you and those you are discovering today?
COX: I think traveling and meeting other crazies is one of the best parts of doing this. We have shared shows with so many interesting people that I am sometimes more influenced by them as people. Bands from all different regions influence me and our friendships too. People like Johnny Calvin in Oklahoma, North by North from Chicago, and Young Valley from right here in Mississippi. It's a pleasure getting to know so many creative people.
SIGNATURE: Thomas, how do you approach writing a song? Has it grown more workmanlike over the years? Or do you just pluck things out of the sky when they strike you as worthy of writing or singing about?
JACKSON: I've never been a prolific songwriter, but I have reached the point where if I want to sit down and write something - I can. When I started out, I just put chords together by ear. Now I know a lot more music theory and I feel that I am a better writer because of it. Pretty much all my songs used to be about romance and relationships. Now that I have settled down with the love of my life, there is a lot more variety in the subject matter of my songs.
SIGNATURE:Chad, Shakedown is all about the groove - maintaining it, riding it, controlling it. When you and Zach hit on something - do you know?
COX: New songs always start with a concept that feels just right. Later those songs evolve a lot based on the type of crowd we are playing in front of that night. New ideas come along - and sometimes something has to be changed. Honestly, just trusting your gut has a good track record.
SIGNATURE: As a seasoned performer in Hattiesburg, Thomas, you have seen the scene grow for a while. Where do you find we are now? How would you characterize the music of this city?
JACKSON: First, there are definitely a lot more places to play than there used to be. I think the most important thing for musicians to know is to simply - be yourself. Everyone seems to think of me as Blues and Americana musician. But that is no conscious effort on my part. This is the way I sing and talk. Being in a band in Hattiesburg, is just as cool as being in a band in Austin or Denver or whatever town is cool this week.
SIGNATURE: Thomas, is there a song you are most proud of?
JACKSON: I honestly believe that "No Pardon" is the best thing I've done so far.
SIGNATURE:What can we expect next from each of you?
COX: Shakedown will continue to open for cool groups and pay our dues. We have decided to put out a record that is part studio/part home recordings that will be very raw. Expect "Still Ain't Tight" within the coming months.
JACKSON: Mark Jeter and I are releasing one song at a time. "No Pardon" was released last year. We are currently preparing "Memory Lane" for release this year.
For more information (including his awesome artwork) on Thomas Jackson, visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/thomasjacksonart. For more on Mississippi Shakedown, visit their Facebook page @themsshakedown.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. At other stations of life, he has been a musician, writer and much more. However, he would much rather talk about music.