“Jesus on the mainline, you better tell him what you want. You better call him up and tell him what you want…” —“Jesus on the Mainline,” from Can’t Stay Long by Kenny Brown

What Reed Turchi wanted was to stay upright. But after Kenny Brown had told him he needed to “ride the horse and not the saddle,” Turchi had started riding bareback. He’d fallen face-first into the dirt four times already. They finally called it a day after the fifth. Brown laughed. “We’re going to have to stop until we can get a video camera down here.” They needed to get back to work, anyway.

Brown is a blues legend, but he keeps a low profile. He and his wife Sara have a farm to run, so he doesn’t often play in public anymore. For the past year, when Turchi hasn’t been in school at UNCor helping out around the place, he and Brown have been sitting together on the front porch, Turchi with his recording equipment, Brown with his acoustic guitar and lap steel, recording Devil Down Records’ fourth album.

Turchi founded the label in 2010, when he produced Come and Found You Gone by Mississippi Fred McDowell (see Endeavors, Fall 2009, “Bill Ferris and the Gut-Bucket Blues”). Serious blues fans loved it. It was even on the ballot for a Grammy. After Come and Found You Gone, Turchi got in his car and drove from Chapel Hill to the hill country of north Mississippi to get to know some hill country blues musicians and record their sounds. That’s where he met Brown.

Hill country blues is different from the blues down in the Delta, Turchi says. There’s a family resemblance, sure, but each kind has its own soul. The Delta blues has roots in solo performances—a single musician (usually a man), singing and playing an acoustic guitar. But Hill country blues stems from gatherings of fife and drum players. It’s more beat-driven—the drums set the rhythm for the flute-like fife, the slide guitar, and other instruments.There aren’t as many chord changes in Hill country blues songs—they’re usually wrapped around a steady, repetitive rhythm, a groove.

Turchi was a stranger in Mississippi. And while it’s tough to hollow out a spot for yourself with the locals in any new town, getting close to musicians is an especially delicate business. They tend to be secretive about their tricks and techniques, Turchi says.

Take Little Joe Ayers, for example.“Little Joe plays a unique style,” Turchi says. “No one else alive really plays at all like him. The couple of people who did are dead.” Ayers’s music is hypnotic and repetitive, the way John Lee Hooker, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough (with whom Ayers played for years) played when they were still alive.

Whenever someone asks Little Joe for guitar lessons, he gets cagey, Turchi says. “It’s like, ‘You have to play like you play, not like I play,’” Turchi says. “If someone asks him directly to show how he plays a riff, he’ll kind of do riffs around it and never play the riff by itself. He might even throw in another note or some other chords around it to make it sound different.”

Turchi’s first conversation with Ayers was a little like that. They’d sat down for lunch at a gas station so Turchi could interview him about his music. Ayers deflected Turchi’s first few questions and sat like a stone before finally interrupting.

“Look,” Ayers said. “Say I’m sorting through a bunch of gallons of milk and you’re my assistant and I’m supposed to train you on how to do it. If you ask me the trick to finding the one bottle of spoiled milk in the whole refrigerator, I’ll stand there in front of you and go through every bottle until I find the one that’s spoiled. Even though I know the whole time where exactly that one is. And if you look away, I’ll just go get it.”

The moral of the story, Turchi finally figured out, was to never ask musicians direct questions about the way they do things. Unless you want to get sent around the bush.

Plenty of blues musicians have gone sour on outsiders from big universities after too many decades of academics going into the communities to record music and giving nothing in return. But Turchi’s persistent and he works hard, whether it’s shoveling ditches on Brown’s farm or helping Ayers navigate publishing rights to his songs.

“I think a lot of it is really being willing to help and not shying away when you’re asked for something in return,” Turchi says. “I do a lot of work with the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, I do a lot of work with the Browns. I don’t make much money on the CDs, if any. The business is built in a way that gets the artists a lot of the money and covers the cost of production.”

Devil Down Records’ newest album, Kenny Brown’s Can’t Stay Long, is split into two discs. On one—labeled “Money Maker”—are live recordings from the 2010 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic (“so you get some sounds from Potts Camp, Mississippi, sprinkled in with it,” Turchi says). On the other, “Porch Songs,” are the recordings Turchi made on Brown’s front porch. “It’s thebest acoustic solo album you’ll ever hear,” Turchi says. One song, “World War I,” was originally written by Brown’s friend Mississippi Joe Callicott during the draft of World War I. This is the first time it’s ever been released on an album. This fall, Devil Down Records will release an album of Little Joe Ayers’ music, too.

“I think being able to actually help and stay around, stay committed to it, is the biggest way to make a difference,” Turchi says. “All my contacts with everyone there are based on music or music business. But obviously their lives are not just music. Especially folks like Kenny. It’s romantic to think that he’ll sit around and strum all day out on the porch, but no, he’s got other stuff to take care of.”   

Reed Turchi is a senior majoring in American Studies and is head of Vinyl Records at UNC (see Endeavors, Fall 2010, “For the Record”). Devil Down Records (www.devildownrecords.com) founded the Sounds of the South Award, which allows a UNCundergraduate to record musicians in any genre of Southern music and to submit a copy of the recordings to the Sounds of the South archive at the UNC Southern Folklife Collection. Turchi’s work is funded by a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and a JNO Award in Entrepreneurial Studies.