When dusk falls in east Lowndes County Thursday, it will signal the start of a stellar night of music under the stars. The string lights will come on, the fire will crackle in the fire pit. Steve Ellis can pause, stand back for a minute and give thanks that it’s finally come to pass. Since he reworked “the Barn” behind his home on Mac Davis Road to host concerts just in time to coincide with a global pandemic, he may have wondered if it ever would. But with the advent of vaccinations, the light at the end of the tunnel is flickering a bit brighter.
After a year of canceled shows, this Thursday, May 13, will bring three of the most Southern-rooted and respected musicians in the industry to the rural setting outside Columbus. At 6 p.m., Mississippi’s own Cary Hudson will perform first, followed by songwriter, producer and musician Will Kimbrough, along with one of Nashville’s best-known drummers, Bryan Owings. Kimbrough and Owings both live in the Nashville area and each have collaborated with more artists than they could probably name. Lucky happenstance brought Owings on board to play Thursday alongside his long-time friend, Kimbrough. That delights local music buffs: Owings is claimed by Columbus. His late father, Bryan, was for many years a familiar and trusted face as meteorologist at WCBI TV. The younger Owings has deep ties to the city and tries to make it back to town frequently to visit his mother and brothers. Having musicmakers of this caliber available to local audiences is what Ellis envisioned when he started the Barn series. As the driving force behind WMSV 91.1 radio at Mississippi State before his retirement, he was well-positioned to launch the venture.
“We built what is currently our barn after one of the storms that came through about 15 or so years ago and blew down our old pole barn,” he explained. “We put a pavilion in the middle and a workshop on one end and outdoor kitchen on the other. The setting hosted a stream of family reunions and kids parties over the years. In its new chapter, it’s home to live music.
“We’ve only had two (concerts) in there, both Paul Thorn, in October 2019 and April 2021,” said Ellis. “We had four scheduled last year, but the pandemic took care of those.”
Dimensions under the roof are 40-feet-by-30-feet. The space holds 140 chairs, with room for a small stage. Additional seating can overflow onto the grounds outside the pavilion. Money raised from ticket sales pays for the artists (there are usually two at each show), and the sound technician.
Beverages, snacks and now hot dogs are offered to guests at no charge, but a donation jar at each concert benefits a different charity.
“Last month, we raised $700 for Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen,” Ellis remarked. “The charity for this next show is the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic.”
It’s not just concert organizers and music lovers relieved to see signs of life slowly returning to stages. Professional musicians have been still in the water for months.
“COVID pretty much wiped out live gigs,” said Owings. “There have been occasional recording sessions, but not so many gigs. It’s been rough. I don’t think anybody saw this coming. It just gutted the music business, and not just musicians, but club owners, bartenders …
Two performances Owings did do this past year were one with Emmy Lou Harris in late fall, and a benefit at the Ryman in December. While he’s been in the industry so long he is better able to ride out the pandemic, many are not.
“A lot of people have had it real bad. It’s been weird on a mental level. You’re used to playing gigs your whole life, and all of a sudden, it just literally stopped.”
In addition to playing in Emmy Lou Harris’ band with Kimbrough for about 10 years, Owings had long tenure with Tony Joe White, was in Delbert McClinton’s band, played often with Shelby Lynne and did about 30 gigs with the late John Prine before his death. Those to name only a few. COVID changed everything, but he hasn’t been idle. He has a Red Dirt Boys (Emmy Lou’s band) record in the mastering stage, due out this summer. He also worked on a project with Phil Madeira.
Kimbrough’s songs have been recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Little Feat, Todd Snider and Jack Ingram among many others. Born in Mobile, Alabama, he was a founding member of Will and the Bushmen and Bis-Quits. His collaborations include artists from Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell to Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Mark Knopfler. In 2004, he was named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association
As live music shows signs of revival, these musicians, whose lives are typically hustle and bustle, look forward to a night in the Mississippi country, with string lights, crickets, folks lounging in lawn chairs, open to whatever musical magic is created on stage.
“Will has a ton of great songs, and he is a great singer, guitar player and entertainer,” said Owings. “It’ll be loose and fun and good songs — a lot of spontaneity. It’ll be 99.9 percent in the moment, and that’s always more fun.”
Ellis said, “We’re really excited about having Cary Hudson, Will Kimbrough and Bryan Owings. I really think this is a musicians’ show. They are all so fantastic, and Will is one of the best songwriters around in my opinion. I know that many in our audience are working musicians who appreciate the talent we’re bringing in.”
How to go
A few tickets for Thursday’s show are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/4513702 ($30). Parking at 136 Mac Davis Road opens at 5 p.m. The show ends at 8:45 p.m.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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