Local Festivals

Published on June 10th, 2021 | by Nature Humphries


North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic Artist Q&A: Libby Rae Watson

The 2021 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic is just around the corner. Mark your calendars for June 25–26, and get your camping gear ready for a hot weekend of music, family, and Mississippi-flavored shenanigans just a short drive north of Oxford in Waterford, Mississippi at the Betty Davis Ponderosa. Tickets are $25 per day, with a $15 camping fee and a $10 cooler fee, and you can snag them online here until June 15. After that, all ticket sales at the gate will be CASH ONLY. So go ahead and get ’em early.

Read more about the Picnic here.

To get you all pumped up for the Picnic, we rounded up a few artists who will be onstage this year for a fun Q&A that you are going to love! First up, Libby Rae Watson!

Libby Rae Watson at the 2019 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Photograph by Jean Frank Photography.

Libby Rae and I exchanged emails first, followed by a phone conversation that left me in a happy mood the rest of the week. Libby’s charming demeanor and easy spirit has turned me into a fan for life. I’m just sad I didn’t discover her immense talent sooner. Read on, and I guarantee you’ll fall in love, too!

What is your favorite thing about the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic?

Aside from the music, my favorite thing about this festival is the sense of family! Every June, those in the know start making their plans for the Picnic. The excitement begins to build as soon as the schedule is released! It’s like a big reunion of the family you get to pick!             

What makes it stand out compared to other music festivals?

Again, the music, which is specific for that region of Mississippi, and the people who love and live that music. It creates a wonderful combination that’s like nothing else! It’s a collective heartbeat to those rhythms of the Hills! 

What can picnic attendees expect from your set this year?

I’ll be performing with Bill Steber, as I always do at the Picnic. Both of us have a varied repertoire, but I’m sure we’ll be heavy on Hill Country music. We both write and will include some of our own songs. We perform as a duo, and with other friends as The Stoop Down Rounders! Bill performs with his group, The Jake Leg Stompers. Also Bill teams up with Sammy Baker in their group, The Hoodoo Men.

LIbby Rae Watson with Bill Steber. Photograph by Peter Lee.

How many Picnics have you attended or performed? Would you share a favorite memory from picnics past?

This will be my seventh year, six of which I performed at. 

My favorite memory may be the first time I played in 2015. Bill Steber was on the festival as Bill and Friends. When I walked up he looked at me and said, “You got a guitar?!” I didn’t, but Luther Dickinson was there and had just played, or was about to. He handed me his guitar and then he joined in with us. I played a song I had recently written about Big Joe Williams. Luther and Bill joined in. Neither had ever heard it before and I barely knew it enough to perform in public, but Bill told me it made him tear up! It was all a memorable moment! 

I’ve also got other stories I can’t tell! There’s a lot of those!

Do you have any upcoming projects or shows? How can fans learn more about you?

I’ve always got various projects. I’m trying to set up some home recording gear. The Fall seems to be when everyone is having festivals again. I’ve been booked for several of those.
For fans, I have a website, www.libbyrae.com. The ‘gigs and what’s happening’ page will tell you the upcoming shows. Then there’s my Facebook music page, Libby Rae Watson/Musician.

What are your current favorite jams?

Jams? As in what am I playing or what am I listening to? HAHA! I’ve been working up some Jessie Mae Hemphill songs and writing some in that style. 
Lately I’ve been listening to Black Pumas, the Black Keys new cd, Little Joe Ayers, and some Jessie Mae. 

Tell me a little more about your first Picnic performance.

That first one was pretty memorable for me because I was just expecting to be a spectator, and didn’t even have a guitar. Bill looked like he was in a panic when he saw me, because he doesn’t like playing just totally by himself for very long. It worked out kinda funny … I played a song that I wrote about Big Joe. It was a song about the very first day I met Big Joe, and Bill had never heard it before. And he said, “When did you write that? Man, I almost cried!” And I was like, “Oh OK – keeper!” And it was just fun to have Luther join in. When I first met Luther, he was a little, like three or four years old. So that was a thrill, to see the legacy continue.

It’s great to see how this genre of music is like a family. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s not from Mississippi or doesn’t understand those ties we get. You know, you just can’t explain unless they’ve been there.

I talked to Luther yesterday and he was saying the same thing about how it’s generational. It’s amazing how that thread has carried on throughout time.

It really is, and it’s kind of humorous in a way for people like Kenny and myself. Cause I figure if we live long enough, we’ll be the old dudes that everybody wants to come ask questions and sit at your feet. You know—teach me something! Like I did to Sam Chatmon when I was that young. So it’s fun to see it. It’s fun to see the fire in some of the young people’s eyes still wanting to know that music. And that’s part of our job really, too, is to keep it alive. Otherwise it just disappears amongst all the other stuff out there to listen to these days. It’s noteworthy for sure, and a big part of our blues music comes from that. It’s raw and it’s pure and it’s rhythmic and it’s African. It’s just great.

And then the Hill Country variety has this kind of hypnotic quality.

That’s what I mean, that’s just an African beat. That feeds off the heartbeat. It’s something that you feel inside, and it’s familiar. And once you get into that groove, man, it’s all about it. It’s funny to hear people that don’t get it. There are those who don’t understand it. Nothing against them, but their brain ain’t functioning like mine, obviously!

I’m a Mississippi girl, and I’ll admit that when I first moved to North Mississippi, I didn’t get it. It took me a little bit. I thought,  well, they’re just playing the same chords over and over and they’re all playing the same songs. I think going to the Picnic for the first time was when it clicked for me and I had my “aha” moment.

It’s more about the wholeness of the whole thing, man. It’s the people, the music, the rhythm. Yeah. And I’ll tell you what. I hear people say that, and I’ve thought it at times, too. Oh, it’s just [everyone] playing the same. And then I started trying to learn it. I studied under Little Joe Ayers through a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission to learn the Hill Country stuff from him, and it is everything but easy. You know, there’s little flicks and little things you do. It’s not easy, you have to work at it. There’s way more to it than people understand if they don’t get it.

What was your background before you started getting into the Hill Country Blues?

I’ve always liked the Hill Country Blues, because back in 1978 I was hanging around RL Burnside and all those folks, Johnny Woods, Napoleon Strickland, and Jesse Mae [Hemphill]. So it’s always been a part of my life since my adult music turned towards Blues in general. My mentor for learning what I learned back then was a man named Sam Chatmon. He was one in a famous string band called The Mississippi Sheiks. And he was the last surviving member of that group. I knew Sam very well, so I knew that finger-picking style more because I learned it from him. And that was early on stuff that I learned when I was up in the hills when I was around Kenny Brown when we were both young, in our young 20s.

I bet you have some great stories!

Well, if I could remember them all! I used to have some great pictures and some great field recordings before Katrina. I was heartbroken about all that. History, gone—poof! Oh well, can’t change it.

What sort of home recordings are you doing?

I did a CD with a friend in Sweden named Burt Deivert when I toured over there, and he has a home system set up. Of course his is real fancy, but he told me I could do something pretty low-key and it would be good where I could email him tracks and we could do some work together. So, that’s what I’ve been setting up, which involved – hey! I needed a new computer because mine really had died anyway. Then that precipitates buying another little box, then you gotta buy another little thing, and then oh wait, my phone won’t work with this. So that’s kind of where I’m at now. I got everything all connected, and I know it works, and then I had to leave town. I’m hoping to work on that. And I do this little touristy artwork for the Shack Up Inn. I just make small little objects that they can easily buy and pack in their suitcase to take overseas or wherever they’re going. Nothing real big and fancy, but they sell, so I do that. And then just working up songs, and I’ve got a big yard, so keeping up all of that. It’s always something. I’ve been trying to a little bit more songwriting. I’m not really a big songwriter, you know, I write songs, but I’m not a real big songwriter like there are out there. But it’s always fun, and when I get one that I like it’s all I care about, and I hope someone else likes it. And if I like it, I’ll play it anyway. That’s what I’ve been working on, just trying to get my brain wrapped around some of that kind of stuff.

How old were you when you first started playing guitar?

Oh, a teenager. Fourteen, or something like that. I had a classical guitar my brother-in-law gave me, which was about the most impossible guitar for a young girl with small hands to play. But I just learned from friends, chords and stuff, hanging out, sitting around, that kind of thing. I was probably in tenth grade when I bought my first guitar.

What kind of music were you into back in those days?

Oh, I was a bonafide, Volkswagen, long-haired hippie chick, man! I was listening to all the British rock and the Southern rock that were doing songs from the Mississippi Delta that I didn’t really quite get yet. They were just doing old Blues songs, ya know?

My first year of college was at Southern [Miss], I was an art major, didn’t really like it. I just partied and went to New Orleans a lot.

[laughing] Yes, I had a similar experience as well.

What I ended up doing to make money was a dental hygienist. I did that for 30 years. My dad was a dentist, so it just seemed like the thing to do, you know. It was a good career. Lasted a long time and served me pretty well.

My name is Nature, and I was born in ’78. So, when I travel, people are often amazed that I’m from Mississippi. They’ll say, “Wait, your name is Nature, so your parents must have been hippies, right? But there weren’t any hippies in Mississippi!” and I just have to tell them that they have no idea what they are talking about! It blows my mind a lot when I travel that people just do not understand Mississippi. They just don’t get it. If you’ve never been here or spent time here…

Well all they know is what you see or what you read, which is not good, you know. Unless they’re into music, this isn’t a destination vacation. But even down here on the Coast … I live in Pascagoula, and there’s tons of things to do on the water. We’ve got beautiful scenic rivers, and the islands. Sometimes I just think it’s best to just not tell everyone everything.

Catch Libby Rae Watson and Bill Steber on the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic Stage Friday, June 25 at 6 pm.

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About the Author

Nature Humphries is Editor-in-Chief of The Local Voice. Nature is originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, but moved to Oxford in 2004 after spending time in the United States Navy. She has also worked in the restaurant industry for many years as a server and a bartender. Nature graduated from Ole Miss in 2007 with a degree in English and Modern Languages.

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