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Grammy Awards: Mississippi Night at the Grammy Museum: Fat cats and muffler guitars

February 13, 2011 |  8:52 am

"People have been talking this week about the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan," said Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Development Authority's Office of Film and Culture, from the stage of the Clive Davis Theater in the Grammy Museum on Thursday night. "This also would have been the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson."

Directing the audience's thoughts toward the legacy of the great Delta bluesman, Emling defined the mission of the second annual Mississippi Night, part of the museum's festivities for Grammy week. As one of several officials in the room repping for the state that calls itself the birthplace of American music, Emling had an agenda: convince the VIPs in attendance that a trip to the Deep South can still unlock the deepest meanings of America's greatest art form.

Mississippi Night, which Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli confirmed will be an ongoing annual event, brings bright young talent from the Magnolia State to Los Angeles to promote tourism and music-industry investment in the region. This year, much talk was of the Misssissippi Blues Trail, a statewide path of interactive markers tracing the development of one of contemporary music's fundamental styles. A film offered testimony from Mississippi native B.B. King as well as stars such as Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt about the continued relevance of the Delta region.

The loudest case was made, however, by the trio of musical acts who provided the night's entertainment. Touching on deep blues, atmospheric folk-pop, and gritty, wide-reaching rock, these artists were anything but mired in the past.

The Homemade Jamz Blues Band is a remarkably young sibling trio that has been taking the international blues festival circuit by storm. Fronted by 18-year-old Ryan Perry, a gritty shouter with flashy guitar skills, the group demonstrated a hopped-up approach to classic blues. Perry's younger brother Kyle was a fleet-fingered secret weapon on bass, while sister Taya, only 12, thumped the drums like a little Meg White. Dad Renaud Perry provided support on harmonica as Ryan strutted through the crowd, his trademark muffler guitar lighting up as he leaned in toward the ladies and showed his prowess.

Shannon McNally was as laid-back and pensive as the Homemade Jamz Band was hot. The singer-songwriter, a New York native, relocated to northern Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina drove her from her chosen home of New Orleans, and she spoke with amusement about the process of assimilation, noting that the skinny street cats she'd adopted from the 9th Ward soon grew fat from eating the big bugs and other critters in the fields near her home in Holly Springs. McNally sang material from the albums she recorded with the late hill country great Jim Dickinson, as well as "Thunderhead," a vivid song about childbirth from her new album, Western Ballad. Her heartfelt rendition of "Miss the Mississippi and You," first made popular by the state's favorite country son Jimmie Rodgers, showed her soul-deep affinity for her new environment.

For Jimbo Mathus, that connection is a given -- raised in Clarksdale and still hugging the border between the north end of his home state and Tennessee, the Squirrel Nut Zippers founder turned solo raconteur has spent his whole life becoming, as he put it, "fluent in this strange tone."

Mathus, who is a ripping guitar player, regaled the crowd with tall tales and his fractured country blues, first solo and then with help from a local band that included Zippers drummer Chris Phillips. The rollicking, too-short set offered strong support for Mathus' pitch to this music-biz crowd -- which succinctly said what the Mississippi officials had taken much longer to communicate. "Put us to work in Mississippi and in Memphis, Tenn.," he said. "We're the best, and we work cheap!"

-- Ann Powers