Mississippi Hill Country is a world unto itself, a place where summer comes in thick like molasses and rises with the hot, buzzing drone of cicadas; where work-heavy feet hit the floor in darkened bedrooms long before dawn; where beads of sweat begin to prick the hairline before breakfast. Out this morass climbed the Mississippi Hill Country Blues, a steady, driving rhythm that pulsed with the ominous thrum of heat shimmer and rose with the inevitability of kudzu. Don’t confuse it with its Delta cousin: Hill Country Blues wasn’t splashed across Northern marquees. It didn’t shine its shoes for town. It stayed in Mississippi, rising, languorous and sultry, to the hypnotic thrum of a single chord, slow and steady out of necessity, hot and humid because it knew no other way. It was into this world that Robert Belfour was born.
One might say that he was destined to play the blues. Belfour came into the world in the dog-days of a Mississippi summer, born to a sharecropper in a rented plank-side shack near Holly Springs. A bedraggled and raw patch of earth, Holly Springs served as equal parts inspiration and incubator for the Hill Country Blues, producing legends like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and the handful of other names that came to define the genre.
Belfour grew up utterly immersed in the region’s sound. His earliest memories played to the metallic echo of his father’s resonator guitar, and he spent every free moment molding the music into his own unique brand. When his chores were done and the sun weighed heavily in the western sky, Belfour would painstakingly glean chords and tunings from big blues on the radio or sneak off into the Mississippi twilight to peer in at his neighbor’s impromptu jam sessions, where bootleg whiskey, gambling, and the low moan of blues guitar swam out into the summer night.
Despite his passion for and natural inclination towards the blues, Belfour was abruptly shaken of any musical aspirations when his father’s early death left him the sole provider for his mother and young brother. Though Belfour was only thirteen, he took on his new responsibility with the stolid strength of one raised to expect the inevitability of struggle: he traded his guitar for a hammer, moved to Memphis, and worked in construction for the next thirty-five years.
Fortunately, Memphis was no stranger to the blues, and the language of the Mississippi Hill Country translated beautifully into the local vernacular. In the 1980’s, Belfour began to make appearances in the smoke-filled juke joints and night clubs of the city’s legendary Beale Street, and in 1994, he caught the eye and ear of Dr. David Evans, a Memphis State musicologist who sought to immortalize the Southern sound in his compilation, The Spirit Lives On: Deep South Country Blues and Spirituals in the 1990s.
Like many blues musicians before him, Belfour found audiences overseas more receptive to his sound than those in the States. The eight tracks that he contributed to Dr. Evans’ album earned him a dedicated fan-base across Europe, and he rode the wave of popularity with the typical solitary stoicism of a blues musician. He traveled alone to perform in self-booked venues from France to Mexico and played to the rapt attention of sold-out crowds in Paris with the same unaffected air as he did to hard-edged audiences on Beale.
Belfour eventually joined the ranks of Holly Springs’ other blues legends, releasing two albums with Mississippi cult-label Fat Possum, but since his professional musical career came late in life and stayed small in scope, he remained virtually unknown beyond the dedicated disciples of the Southern Blues. As a result, he left the world much as he entered it, passing away quietly in his home in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 25, 2015. When weighed against the popular notion of success, it is tempting to perceive Belfour’s musical career—brief, limited, and only marginally profitable—as a disappointing end to a tragic story, but it’s just as likely that precisely the opposite is true, that Belfour’s lack of mainstream success allowed his music to stay true to the essence of what made it great. From his first day to his last, Robert Belfour produced music that retained the pure, steady drive, the uncompromising grit, and the hot, deep-belly rub that defines the Mississippi Hill Country Blues.