By Alex Jacks | Photography courtesy of Sharde Thomas and Cameron Kimbrough
The shrill sound of the fife floats down the Mississippi Blues Trail in Como, Mississippi, as drums resonate after it. Hundreds follow the music Sharde Thomas and her four drummers produce as they gather around the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Otha Turner.
Thomas, a Mississippi musician and the fife player in the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, smiles up at the sky as she plays, thinking of her grandfather. Although it was not one of the biggest shows she has ever played, Thomas said playing to her grandfather’s Blues Trail marker on his birthday proved to be one of her best.
“Every year, we walk from the Como library to my grandfather’s blues marker,” Thomas said. “This year, we did it on his birthday. That was so exciting because we were playing his band and his music to him on his birthday.”
After learning to play the fife – a high-pitched transverse flute – at 7-years-old, Thomas became Turner’s protégé. By obtaining this position, she was left with the hefty responsibility of carrying on the Rising Star Band at age 13 when Turner died.
“I didn’t really understand the task I had taken on when he passed,” she said. “It was difficult. It was hard. But I knew it was a job I had to do. I had to grow up very quickly and take on the band.”
Despite the weight Thomas felt to carry on her grandfather’s musical traditions, she has made a name for the Rising Stars in the modern music scene and for herself outside of Turner’s shadow. She considers her style to be a more modern form of fife music.
“Our music is similar to my grandfather’s because we still play the old traditional songs that he did and try to incorporate that sound into our other music,” Thomas said. “We do more modern songs — more pop songs, more hip-hop songs — to connect with today’s generation.”
Fellow Mississippi Blues guitarist and drummer, Cameron Kimbrough, also understands the responsibility of continuing the tradition of his grandfather’s legacy, while creating his own sound. As the grandson of Junior Kimbrough — a Hill Country Blues musician whose Mississippi Blues Trail marker sits in Holly Springs — Kimbrough grew up watching his family make music in his grandfather’s juke joint.
“Growing up, music has just been a big part of my everyday moves,” Kimbrough said. “Both sides of my family made music. My mom’s side influenced my vocals and my father’s side influenced my instrumentals.”
Kimbrough considers his style to be past, futuristic and timeless.
“I say timeless because I don’t want to be in a box, really,” Kimbrough said. “I want to be able to create everything, but keep that Hill Country Blues flavor.”
Kimbrough said he plays similar music to that of his grandfather’s about 35 percent of the time.
“I take more how he was as a person and use that to influence my music,” he said. “The older I’ve got, the more I really looked at what he did and realized how important he was to Blues. He only played his style. That influenced me a lot. I didn’t feel pressure in my career once I began to embrace myself like he did.”
By developing this way of thinking, Kimbrough was able to overcome the shadow of his grandfather’s fame.
“It was difficult to create a name for myself at first, especially around my family,” he said. “But now that people can see my passion and that I really love what I’m doing, I have been able to step out of it.”
Even with her own success, Thomas said she also struggled with stepping out of Turner’s fame and into her own.
“It used to be extremely hard,” she said. “People didn’t really know my name or knew what I did. They just knew I was Otha Turner’s granddaughter who took over his band. It was difficult for me to stand in that shadow, because I knew I could offer so much more than that.”
By focusing on developing her music and promoting the Rising Stars, Thomas believes she has started the process of being recognized as her own musician.
“When I go to a show with the band, we always plan to give the audience the unexpected, instead of something they saw on the internet from one of my grandfather’s shows. I’m grateful for him passing the torch down to me, but I want to continue making a name for Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band. I want them to hear the story we have now.”
As the popularity of both Thomas and Kimbrough grows, the young musicians strive to promote their bands nationally and in Europe.
“I just got back from Switzerland, and I am motivated now more than ever,” Kimbrough said. “I think this is just the beginning for me.”
“I feel like I’m in a great place in my career and so is the band,” Thomas said. “I’m proud of how far we’ve come and I think my grandfather would be, too.”