The Local Voice

North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic Artist Interview: Shardé Thomas


Shardé Thomas will play with The Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band at the Hill Country Picnic stage Saturday, June 25 at 3 pm.

Hill Country Blues evolved from drum and fife over time. What are some differences between the two?

I would say the feeling of drum and fife music is different from just having a guitar, drummer, and singer. And of course, the history—the stories are similar, but to me the feeling that you get. You might hear the same song played by guitars and keyboards, and then with the fife and drum band you get a totally different experience.

You have spent much of your time educating people about this style of music and its history. How does that feel for you as an artist and as a descendant of this art form?

It feels amazing, but nervous at times because, being the only fife player left, and of course the youngest, and of course a female in the hill country, and it’s a lot of weight on my shoulders. I have a lot of people looking up to me, but I’m grateful that I get a chance to actually share my granddaddy Otha, and the history of fife and drum music, because a lot of people don’t know the stories. When they get a chance to hear the real deal from me, it’s amazing to share that with them and just give it to them raw.

You say that you’re the last player. Do you feel there’s any interest from young people or other musicians to carry on this tradition? Do you have students?

I’m afraid of it dying off, but my niece is interested in playing it. But of course, everybody says they want to play fife, or they want to play drums but … they don’t have the passion for it. I haven’t really run across any family members with the passion to become a fife player. Right now, sadly, I’m the last living link.

Do you think having the family lineage is necessary for an artist to play that style of music authentically? Or do you think someone from a different background could also learn it and carry it on?

I would say both. With someone in the family, I guess it would be stronger because of the history behind it versus someone who doesn’t know or understand the history. If either decided to do it, I would want them to do it with passion and love and give 1000%.

Do you feel like you are making this style of music your own, or do you try to stay as authentic and traditional as possible? Or do you feel like you’re evolving it?

Both. I want to keep that traditional feel to it. But you have to change with the generations in order to keep up. It’s cool to play traditional songs in between sets, but to keep it going, to keep it pushing, to keep young people involved, you have to keep up with today’s society. I’m always putting my feel to the songs. And my drummers, they put their feel to the songs to keep it fresh. If not, it’ll always die out.

Earlier you mentioned being in this industry as not only the last of your art form, but as a woman in what is, essentially, a boys’ club. What is that experience like for you? Do you feel you’re treated differently, or do you ever feel like you’re held to a different standard?

I would say I’m treated differently in a good way. Sometimes at the festivals being the only female on the lineup, I definitely push myself to earn my position. of the Fife Master or the Hill Country Queen. I like to earn those titles. So, if I think the men on stage are giving 50% or 100%, when it’s my I give 1000%. I always try to push myself to either be on the same level or try to exceed it.

Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic June 26, 2019. Photograph by Jean Frank.

Who are the artists in your band?

Chris Mallory, Michael Wooten, and DeMarcus Bowden.

Tell us about the annual Otha Turner Family Picnic. What that’s like?

It’s the weekend before Labor Day, August 26 and 27, the “goat picnic.” It started in Otha’s backyard as a small family gathering, and it got out by word of mouth and made it overseas, and different countries and different cities nationwide, worldwide. We still do the goat picnic every year for two days, Friday and Saturday, to keep his tradition going. It’s a free event. We have all different types of live bands come out and show their support and play, and we have barbecue goat and catfish, and of course The Rising Stars play every hour. We try to keep the family feel to it. All ages are welcome. It’s good to see the kids show up for their very first time. I love to see that experience and the expression on their face when they try the goat or when they hear the drums for the first time. It’s the event that Otha started to raise money for his kids for their school clothes or school supplies back in the day, and we want to keep it going for the community, for the family, and of course for the music.

It will be in Coldwater, Mississippi, at The Shrine Club on 51. We have it in a big field outdoors, and of course the inside is open to the public, where we have food and drinks if you would like to come in and have a seat and eat a sandwich, or just cool off from the outdoors.

People have their tents set up, and their lawn chairs, and they’ll be laying out on the on the grass just enjoying the music.

You have collaborated with many musicians over the years. Who is your favorite person you’ve collaborated with or worked with?

I actually have two. The first one is Eric Clapton. I went up to New York City to do a record with him. When I found out, I did not know who he was. At that time, he was in a cell phone commercial, so [that’s how I recognized] him. We linked up in in New York, and he is a cool guy. He’s very laid back, very funny to be around, and we just had a blast in the studio. We got to know each other and it was an awesome time.

The second one was Bobby Rush. He’s kind of like my Uncle Bobby. He saw me grow up from a tiny little girl to the young woman that I am today. We’ve worked [together] in the past, but we got a chance to bond and have a connection when we did the Voices of Mississippi in New York at the Lincoln Center. That was an amazing show. I was sitting on stage with legends. I was with Ruthie Foster, Bobby Rush, the North Mississippi All Stars. I was just living in the moment, soaking it up, and [we] got a chance to play together and just show out together on stage. That was a highlight for me.

That sounds like an amazing experience. What was the crowd like? How did they receive the music?

They was loving it! They was going crazy.

Bobby Rush is so much fun to watch perform. I’ve seen him many times over the years and he always puts on a good show. What else do you have coming up?

The Rising Stars are going on a world tour starting the end of this this year, so we’re excited about that. We don’t have that many details on it just yet. We’re not sure what country we’re going to, but we’re on the lineup for the American Music Abroad World Tour, so we’re super excited.

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