Jimmy "Duck" Holmes didn't really know who Dan Auerbach or the Black Keys were when Auerbach approached the 72-year-old Mississippi bluesman about making an album. Those involved with the project feel pretty certain that made things all the better for Cypress Grove, whose track "Train Train" is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Sept. 13).
"I'm kind of old-fashioned, kinda laidback. I didn't know the importance of it," says Holmes, who resides and maintains the Blue Front Cafe — said to be America's longest-running juke joint (since 1948) — in Bentonia, Mississippi. "[Auerbach] was twisting my arm, trying to get me to come and make an album. I'm old. I don't need that. I just play."
Auerbach, who's releasing Cypress Grove on Oct. 18 on his Easy Eye Sound label, knew plenty about Holmes and the school of Bentonia-style blues that he's keeping alive at the Blue Front.
"He doesn't know who I am, but that's not a pre-requisite for me to work with somebody," Auerbach says. "I love the fact that he's steeped in so much history. His parents opened [the Blue Front], and he still opens it every day and plays himself there. That city has a distinct style of minor key blues. That's where Skip James is from, where Jack Owens is from. [Holmes] plays in that style, so it's really interesting."
The Cypress Grove sessions took place over a couple of days during May at Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville with a crew that included guitarist Marcus King, Sam Bacco on drums and Mississippian Eric Deaton, who worked with the late Jr. Kimbrough, on bass.
"I wanted [Holmes] to feel very loose, almost like a jam session at a juke joint like Blue Front Cafe," Auerbach says. Clearly it was no stretch for Holmes. "That's my nature when it comes to old school blues. That's what I do," he says. "They wanted to rehearse; Man, I don't rehearse. Just tell me what you want to do."
Holmes is equally casual about writing, including songs such as "Train Train." "I don't reach into a hat and pull a rabbit out. Everything I sing about, either I've experienced it, or I know someone who did," Holmes says. The train, of course, is a recurring theme in the blues — "It's a way out," Holmes notes — and Auerbach is satisfied that "Train Train" takes you there.
“There's something so powerful about it. It goes beyond. There are special voices that really make it sing,” Auerbach adds. “Not everybody has that gift. Jimmy's got that gift. His big, booming voice just jumps out of the speakers — on that song, especially."
Holmes is well aware that Auerbach's notoriety and Easy Eye's distribution means Cypress Grove can expose Bentonia blues to a wider audience, something the elder statesman considers nothing less than "a designed plan of God."
"I was introduced to guitar by the guy who invented the Bentonia sound, Henry Stuckey," says Holmes, who also still operates the Bentonia Blues Festival, which his mother Mary started in 1972 on the family farm near the Blue Front. "I think it was divine intervention; From the bottom of his heart he wanted me to learn the Bentonia style of blues. He was like, 'Come on, let's play some.' He couldn't read [music]; He just said, 'Boy, watch my hands. You got to learn to do this.'"
He'll be doing it in front of larger audiences now, too. Holmes is slated to open some shows on the Black Keys upcoming tour and has also been tapped by Jason Isbell. And, not surprisingly, he's unfazed by the prospect.
"They asked me if I was nervous. Nervous about what?" Holmes says. "I play for one person the same way I would for a thousand. I'm playing and telling some true stories, just like I do at the Blue Front. It's just a good time."