Blues, books and Bulgaria: Old-school bluesmen, UM writer-in residence appear on Thacker tonight

Posted on Jan 24 2019 - 5:50am by Kassidy Desnoyer

The 2019 spring season at Thacker Mountain Radio Hour will kick off at 6 p.m. tonight at Off Square Books with Ole Miss’s Grisham Writer-in-Residence Garth Greenwell and blues musicians Watermelon Slim and Ben Wiley Payton.

Jim Dees, host of Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, introduces a performer at the 2018 Double Decker Festival. Thacker will host their first show of 2019 tomorrow night. File photo by Christian Johnson

Those in attendance will get a peek at Watermelon Slim’s new record. He said he will perform the title song from his award-winning 2007 album “The Wheel Man” and debut two songs from his new album “Church of the Blues,” which comes out Friday.   

Watermelon Slim began his musical career at an early age, but he said it wasn’t until his mid-50s that he decided to ditch being a truck driver and take one more swing at a musical career.  

“I was a very late-blooming musician,” Watermelon Slim said. “As far as being a bluesman, I had to get into my 20s, after I had been in Vietnam, before I began to understand what it really meant to be that.”

Watermelon Slim said that playing music is still a learning process.

“I’m still learning, and there’s no walking back from it,” he said. “I do write and sing in most American genres of music, but I fit best under the big tent that is the blues.”

Payton, a Mississippi native and folk singer, will be returning to the Thacker Mountain stage tonight. Payton said that during his childhood he listened to and was inspired by Mississippi blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and John Hurt.

“(Johnson and Hurt) had a wide vision,” Payton said. “Their arrangements and stylistic musical exploration appeal to me. They were real inspirations to me as I made being a blues musician a full-time career.”  

When not on the road, Payton plays locally in Jackson and at venues across the state, with country-blues fans coming from all over the world.

“I had the honor of being chosen to represent the state of Mississippi for the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series at the Library of Congress, which included an additional concert at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.,” Payton said.

Greenwell, the university’s current John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence, will answer questions about his writing career and share excerpts from his debut novel “What Belongs to You.” The 2016 novel was a nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book award.

“What Belongs to You” tells the story of an American teacher working in Bulgaria who enters a dangerous affair with a charismatic prostitute named Mitko. As the teacher struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he is forced to struggle with the anti-gay world of the foreign country he lives in while also reckoning with his upbringing in the South.

Kate Teague, producer of Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, said she is excited about this season of Thacker because of an expansion of the show’s outreach.

“We are also thrilled to be picked up for broadcast by Alabama Public Radio, so those who miss the show can be heard on Mississippi and Alabama public radio networks,” Teague said.

This particular Thacker show is part of Pop Up Oxford, a week-long schedule of lectures, programs and events sponsored by Visit Oxford.