The Black Keys featuring north Mississippi’s Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton

Brown and Deaton talk about music, memories and their partnership with the Black Keys.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem, Connor Peterson, and Joshua Black Wilkins

A new album by American blues rock band the Black Keys features north Mississippi musicians Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton.

“Delta Kream,” the Black Keys’ 10th album, came together in an accidental sort of way. Dan Auerbach, half of the Black Keys and also a producer, reached out to Brown and Deaton to play on a Robert Finley recording. An early finish to the initial task presented Auerbach with an opportunity and an idea: He’d get the other half of the Black Keys — Patrick Carney — into the studio as well, and the four would record an album of hill country music, including songs by late Mississippi bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Brown played guitar with Burnside for three decades; Deaton played guitar and bass for both Burnside and Kimbrough for much of the ’90s.

The resulting hill country blues album contains a dozen covers, including two of Burnside’s and five of Kimbrough’s. It was recorded in Nashville and released through Easy Eye Sound and Nonesuch Records on May 14, 2021.

“We made this record to honor the Mississippi hill country blues tradition that influenced us starting out,” Auerbach said. “These songs are still as important to us today as they were the first day Pat and I started playing together and picked up our instruments.”

Burnside was born in rural Lafayette County in 1926. He died in 2005. Kimbrough hailed from Hudsonville, Mississippi, and died in 1998. His style of guitar playing was said to be a perfect example of hill country blues. For years, Kimbrough operated Junior’s Place, a famous juke joint in Chulahoma.

Brown and Deaton, it could be said, studied at the stage of these Mississippi masters who were powerful influences on the two musicians from a younger generation. Brown was born in ’53 on an Air Force base in Selma, Alabama. He began playing with Burnside in 1971. Deaton was born in North Carolina but moved to Mississippi in 1994, directly out of high school. Deaton now lives in Oxford; Brown calls Potts Camp home.

INVITATION: How did your inclusion on the Black Keys’ “Delta Kream” come about?

KENNY: Eric called me and said they wanted me to come along to play on a Robert Finley recording.

ERIC: Kenny and I were hired by Dan Auerbach to play on a session for Robert Finley’s newest record, “Sharecropper’s Son.” We were hired for three days, but we finished the work on Robert’s record in one day. Dan suggested that we call Patrick Carney to come in for the remaining two days and that we could play some tunes by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. That was how “Delta Kream” came to be.

invitation: Do you have a favorite song on the record and, if so, why is it your favorite?

KENNY: I like pretty much all of them.

ERIC: I have a different favorite each time I listen to it.

INVITATION: If you didn’t have a way to play it for someone who’d never heard it, how would you describe Mississippi Hill Country Blues?

KENNY: It’s feel-good music.

ERIC: Hill Country Blues is a lot more of a deep, hypnotic groove than the more typical 12-bar blues music you hear in the Delta.

invitation: In addition to R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, who are important musical influences?

KENNY: Joe Callicutt, Johnny Woods, Fred McDowell, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters to name a few. It’s a very long list. Oh, and, of course, Elvis, Elmore James and I could go on and on.

ERIC: T-Model Ford, Rev. John Wilkins, Paul “Wine” Jones, Big Bad Smitty, Jimbo Mathus, Guelel Kumba.

INVITATION: Kenny, what’s one of your fondest memories of R.L. Burnside?

KENNY: Again, there’s so many; it’s really hard to pick just one. We were friends and played together for 30 years and traveled most of the world. But family picnics and Mississippi juke joints would have to be some of the best times.

INVITATION: Eric, what’s one of your best memories of Junior Kimbrough?

ERIC: Junior would often play his songs a lot longer at live shows than the recorded versions. I ended up with blisters on my fingers many times while playing bass with Junior. One night, he played the song “I’m In Love With You” for 38 minutes. A friend of mine timed it!

INVITATION: What’s next for each of you? What are you doing now musically?

KENNY: I’ve got a couple of projects. I’m trying to get recorded in the near future. And, of course, I am still doing gigs, which are coming back now the COVID risk has declined some.

ERIC: Live performance is finally becoming possible again. For the past few months, I’ve resumed playing shows. There’ll be more of that to come, including a festival in Switzerland that Kenny and I will be playing in early September, and a handful of shows we’ll be doing with the Black Keys in late September.

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