RHETA JOHNSON: Thacker Mountain Radio on the road created history

RHETA JOHNSON

RHETA JOHNSON

I’ve always wondered what it would have felt like to be in the Ed Sullivan audience, CBS’ Studio 50, on a simmering September evening, when a pretty down-home boy named Elvis sang about loving tenderly and brought down the house.

Or, imagine sitting unsuspecting in Ryman Auditorium on a warm June night in 1945 when Hank Williams loped onstage to change history.

I’ll never be any closer than a daydream to either of those experiences.

A Mississippi man named Castro Coleman came close to making up for all my musical misses the other night in an old school-turned-civic-center in this sleepy seaside town. First glance, he looked like a black Buddy Holly, big eyeglasses and neat business suit, almost a professorial look.

Then he rocked.

Thacker Mountain Radio, on the road from its home stage in Oxford to Ocean Springs, packed the house. The show routinely recruits great acts, both literary and musical. Emcee Jim Dees alone is worth the price of admission. He’s equipped with an edgy, kind of Bill Murray wit and shiftless charm. The house band is always excellent, too.

This particular night I especially wanted to hear John Sledge, a terrific essayist who lately has collected his newspaper columns about books and authors in “Southern Bound.” And I also was curious about Libby Rae Watson of Pascagoula. I’d heard of but never heard this pioneering white blues singer whose mentor was Sam Chatmon. Chatmon’s funeral in Hollandale remains another of my best musical experiences, homage paid at that service in heartfelt, sung tributes.

But I had never even heard of Castro Coleman, stage name Mister Sipp, the Mississippi Blues Child, until I read in that morning’s paper that he’d won this year’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis, taking top honors in a competition with 225 acts from 40 states, 16 countries and four continents.

They brought him on last.

Mister Sipp looked like he might lecture on the effects of nematodes or sell you burial insurance. Almost square. Then he sang – and played and danced and drew blood. It was one of those moments, the kind when you feel you must go home and write down the date.

I did. Aug. 9, 2014. I heard Mister Sipp, I’ll say 30 years from now, and the audience – a mostly white, polite, National Public Radio kind of crowd – went wild. Nobody could sit still. Old women were keeping time in their auditorium chairs. Ushers looked ready to go into crowd control mode.

I’ve heard B.B. King in the rodeo arena and Delta heat at Parchman prison, but this may have surpassed it. Mister Sipp has moves B.B. King couldn’t have made when he was 13. Mister Sipp, 37, makes a young Elvis look formal and stiff.

I thought about his performance all the way home. I’m the type who generally eschews live concerts because it’s easier to put my feet up and put on a CD. Too much trouble to travel. Tickets are too expensive. I hate crowds. On and on.

I miss a lot. But thanks to Thacker Mountain I can say I was there when Mister Sipp shook the bricks and reversed the tide in Ocean Springs.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson‘s most recent book is “Hank Hung the Moon … And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts.” Comments and questions can be directed to rhetagrimsley@aol.com.