R.L. Boyce is one of the longest active performers in the traditional music of the North Mississippi Hill Country. For three decades, he played bass and snare drums in the Como-based fife and drum group led by fife player and vocalist Otha Turner (1907-2003). Since the early 2000s, he has received international attention for his work as a guitar player and vocalist. In 2017, Boyce was nominated for a Grammy award for his album Roll and Tumble (Waxploitation), and in 2023 he received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Boyce was born in Como, Panola County, on August 15, 1955, and says that R.L. simply stands for “R.L.” He was the 6th of 13 children of his parents, Charles and Annie Mae, and grew up picking cotton. He was the only one in the household who took to actively playing music, but his parents hosted house parties that ran well into the night. Local musicians who performed at his home included Como-based vocalist and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972), who achieved international fame during the 1960s blues revival.
In the documentary about McDowell, Shake ‘em On Down, Boyce said that musicians would play all weekend. McDowell, he recalls, would arrive at the house in Otha Turner’s mule-driven wagon.
“You could hear the guitar two miles down the road, all the way to the next county. That mule—bop, bop, bop, bop [imitates the rhythm of its hooves]. Fred sitting in the wagon; guitar was getting down.”
In 1970, when Boyce was 15, he began playing drums with Turner’s group, initially performing at one of the many fife and drum picnics held in the field behind L.P. Buford’s store in the country east of Como. Boyce also played in a group led by Napolian Strickland on fife that also featured Otha Turner on drums. This band was recorded in 1970 by ethnomusicologist David Evans, and songs featuring Boyce were issued on the LPs Traveling Through the Jungle: Negro Fife and Drum Band Music (Testament 1974) and Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi (Library of Congress 1978).
Boyce continued playing with Strickland and Turner locally at picnics and in the occasional festival, and in the 1980s, he began playing a drum kit for legendary guitarist/vocalist Jessie Mae Hemphill, who had previously played drums in local fife and drum bands. They performed together at events including the Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, and in 1991, they were featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival along with Turner, Strickland, and drummers Bernice Evans (Turner’s daughter), Abe Young, and E.P. Burton.
Boyce played on Hemphill’s album Feelin’ Good (Highwater 1990) and later appeared on recordings featuring Otha Turner—notably the albums Everybody Hollerin’ Goat (Birdman 1997) and From Senegal to Senatobia [by Otha Turner & the Afrossippi Allstars] (Birdman 2000), as well as with the artists Twenty Miles and Corey Harris.
Boyce began playing guitar around age 25 (circa 1980), and credits as his inspirations McDowell, R.L. Burnside, with whom Boyce sometimes played drums at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, and Luther Dickinson, with whom he frequently played at informal gatherings at the home of Otha Turner.
Boyce says he first began playing guitar in public together with Dickinson’s group, The North Mississippi Allstars, and he soon became a staple at local festivals. In 2007, he recorded his first album, Ain’t the Man’s Allright (Sutro Park, 2013), which featured Dickinson and drummer Cedric Burnside. The album revealed Boyce’s distinctive style of long and loping improvisatory blues, clearly rooted in the music of R.L. Burnside and others but distinctly his own. His self-produced live recording from 2019 Boogie w/ R.L Boyce Live (WoodB Records), was nominated for Best Traditional Album in the Blues Music Awards, and in 2023 he appeared on a compilation album produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
You could hear the guitar two miles down the road, all the way to the next county. That mule -- bop, bop, bop, bop. Fred sitting in the wagon; guitar was getting down.
He gained broader attention through his appearance in documentaries including “M For Mississippi” (2008), which captured one of his frequent house parties in Como, and “I Am the Blues” (2015). In addition to playing festivals across North America, Boyce has also performed in England, Spain, Switzerland, Australia, and Columbia (together with Columbian blues artist Carlos Elliot, Jr. and the Cornlickers, with whom he has recorded).
Since 2017, he’s hosted the annual, multi-day R.L. Boyce Picnic, held in Como every September. It includes a “Hill Country blues workshop” and features many other artists from North Mississippi including the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, members of the Burnside family, and Eric Deaton. The jovial Boyce ensures that the festival retains the same informal character that characterized his old house parties, with many other artists joining him on stage.
Boyce’s commitment to continuing and bolstering regional traditions was expressed through his participation as a mentor to Kody Harrell in the Mississippi Arts Commission's 2020-2021 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, and he’s a regular performer at the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in Waterford. After over 5 decades as a musician, Boyce’s career is a testament to his passion and dedication to his community’s Hill Country blues legacy.