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Marshall Ramsey: The Budget Marathon

The Legislature tries to craft a state budget as we head into the unknown.

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Homegrown recording studios help musicians carry Mississippi’s musical legacy forward

 

Artists Dear Silas, Sam Mooney and more find their voice in recording studios across the state

 

Photo by Jim Beaugez

Bronson Tew, left, and Matt Patton, co-owners of Dial Back Sound in Water Valley

Blues fanatics like Dick Waterman once traveled to Mississippi to track down influential blues musicians whose music had lapsed into obscurity. 

Delta bluesman Son House, Skip James of Bentonia and hill country great Fred McDowell all enjoyed renaissance periods through the 1960s and ’70s, recording music and playing across the U.S. and Europe. Some artists, though, like Leo “Bud” Welch of Calhoun County, were never discovered in the first place. 

“You haven’t seen an unknown blues artist come out of the hill country in a while,” says Matt Patton, co-owner of Dial Back Sound in Water Valley. “That was just out of left field that he came, and he was such a bright, shining presence there towards the end of his life.”

Welch was one album into his brief recording career when the 82-year-old came to Dial Back to cut I Don’t Prefer No Blues [Big Legal Mess, 2015], a bracingly raw record of hill country blues. Patton remembers backing Welch on “Girl in the Holler” with studio co-owner Bronson Tew, plus Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bryant, when he suddenly sprang to life.

“When it hit him—the groove and the vibe that we were all giving him—he jumped up out of his chair,” recalls Patton, who also plays bass in Drive-By Truckers. “He started to dance around the room, and whoop and holler into the microphone. It was completely raw and organic.”

Matt Patton, left, and Bronson Tew of Dial Back Sound

Recording studios like Dial Back Sound play an important role in documenting the sounds and artists of Mississippi. Jackson’s country-rockers Young Valley, singer-songwriter Spencer Thomas and indie rock trio Water Liars have all recorded there. Some artists have traveled from Seattle, Los Angeles and even the Czech Republic to catch what inspired people like Welch.

“It’s not so much the science and the theory as it is just the vibe,” Patton says, “and putting out what sounds good to us.”

Shell Enos of Crown Studios in Jackson can relate. Part of the reason he established his studio in the Fondren neighborhood five years ago was to push back against the stifling environments he found at other studios.

“I like the low-pressure, ‘take your shoes off’” vibe, he says. “If [a song]’s not working, go make a cup of coffee and come back in 30 minutes and try it again. Just really laid back.”

Shell Enos of Crown Studios in Jackson

His methods have worked well so far. Enos, a hip-hop head whose first major sound gigs were mixing Mystikal live in Vicksburg and Rick Ross at the Mississippi Coliseum, made fast friends with Jackson artist Dear Silas. His hit song “Skrr Skrr,” recorded at Crown, has 4.2 million streams on Spotify to date.

“When I met with him the first time,” Enos says, “we sat out on that patio and talked about what the vision would be for The Last Cherry Blossom,” Silas’s breakthrough album that spawned “Skrr Skrr” and earned him a deal with RCA Records. 

“Early on, I honestly didn’t know a ton about his music, but I could see he had that fire in his eye, and there was like a certain level of musicality that he wanted to bring to the whole project.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Hip-hop artist Dear Silas speaks to protesters during a prison reform rally in front of the Mississippi Capitol in January.

When Enos and his wife moved to Jackson six years ago from Michigan, he found a vibrant music scene and a low cost of living that make it ideal for supporting a strong music scene. Now he has a stable of versatile backing musicians who come in to record sessions with artists of all kinds. 

“In the same week, we may do a gospel record, rock record, a pop record, a hip-hop record and a singer-songwriter,” he says. “We are all over the place. But I love every session.”

Enos and his wife fully embraced the Fondren community, and the feeling’s been mutual—the studio’s mission is to document the art being made there. They live a couple of blocks away from Crown, and they’re neighbors with a lot of their clients.

“So many times we’ll go out or just be on a walk and bump into the people that come in and do session work at Crown. I would say the vast majority of the artists I work with live in Fondren.”

Before Casey Combest founded Blue Sky Studios in Jackson a decade ago, the musician and producer had started to notice a gap of opportunity widening between artists at different levels of the industry.

“I began to see this middle class of musicians emerge,” he says, “which means in a minor market like Mississippi, you could actually do music full-time and still be unheard of in L.A. or New York.”

Combest took five years to prove his concept, keeping the studio a part-time concern until he knew it would work. Since then, he’s had a hand in records by artists such as Sam Mooney, a Brookhaven native whose song “Find My Way” reached No. 1 on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart.

Casey Combest of Blue Sky Studios

“We want to help artists and bands launch and grow meaningful music careers,” says Combest. “We really work hard to help people find that spot where their music is both unique and authentic to them, but crafted in a way that sounds current and relevant to what’s happening in the global market.”

Combest also found a niche producing podcasts for clients in Mississippi (including Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast) and elsewhere, and now operates Blue Sky Podcasting separately from the music studio.  

“We now have about 15 companies that we help in some form or fashion with their podcasts,” he says. “Half of those are based here in Mississippi and the other half are national or global companies.”

 

Diving into podcasting as a business brought Combest back to what originally inspired him to start his own business.

“When I first started 10 years ago, it really was triggered by a podcast,” he says. “There was a guy I listened to a lot, and he talked about entrepreneurship. I looked backwards and saw that entrepreneurship had always been something I cared about in some form or fashion. [But] when you’re a kid selling baseball cards or doing something like that, you don’t call it entrepreneurship.

“Podcasts, in a lot of ways, was my MBA. It was how I learned about business and leadership, and growing a business. It always kind of had a special place in my heart.”

Because recording studios in Mississippi exist outside of high-pressure, high-overhead music markets like those in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, musicians and producers here are free to explore their craft and creativity without scrutiny. Artists can afford to spend the time it takes to find their voice, and to find collaborative partners to perfect their music.

“In five years, if I’m not doing either of these things, I’d be sad,” Combest says. “But at the end of the day, I want to make sure that I’m helping whoever I’m working with, if that’s a company, a brand or a musician. I think for me, it’s just more about making it better.”

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Guess It Matters S3E4 Are You Not Entertained

S3 E4 of our podcast series to help unsigned gospel artist reach their fullest potential. This week we are diving into a topic that a lot of people have trouble with and that is Entertainment or Ministry. Some people are entertaining and don’t realize it. Our take on the matter will hopefully guide you more into allowing the ministry side of your music to be genuine and unique to you. That is what captivates your audience or basically stated – entertains them. Remember – it is the Lord who does the work – we are merely vessels. ENJOY!

City Secrets S1E2 Premonitions

City Secrets S1E2 Premonitions

In which we glimpse what is through one portal and get a dark premonition.

Here’s where Senate members stand on changing the Mississippi state flag

For the first time since the state took a vote in 2001, lawmakers are having earnest discussions about changing the flag in both chambers of the Capitol.

This week, Mississippi Today reporters began polling all 52 Senate members about how they feel about changing the state flag. We placed their responses in at least one of five options: The Legislature should change the flag, the current flag should remain in place, voters should decide the issue, no comment and undecided.

Below is a list of where the Senate members stand. Search for specific lawmakers in the top left corner of the chart. Members without an “X” listed beside their names have not yet been contacted by reporters.

Counts as of Friday afternoon: 18 members want the Legislature to change the flag, one member wants to keep the current flag, 12 members want voters to decide, three members provided no comment, and two members are undecided. Sixteen senators have not been reached for comment.

The Legislative Black Caucus has endorsed changing the state flag, and caucus leaders in both chambers told Mississippi Today all members support changing the flag. As a result of this, Mississippi Today staff has focused on obtaining the position of non-caucus members, which include white Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

This list will be updated continually.

The post Here’s where Senate members stand on changing the Mississippi state flag appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Here’s where House members stand on changing the Mississippi state flag

For the first time since the state took a vote in 2001, lawmakers are having earnest discussions about changing the flag in both chambers of the Capitol.

This week, Mississippi Today reporters began polling all 122 House members about how they feel about changing the state flag. We placed their responses in at least one of five options: The Legislature should change the flag, the current flag should remain in place, voters should decide the issue, no comment and undecided.

Below is a list of where the 120 current House members stand. Search for specific lawmakers in the top left corner of the chart. Click the arrow at the top right of the chart to flip to the next page of lawmakers. Members without an “X” listed beside their names have not yet been contacted by reporters.

Counts as of Friday afternoon: 42 members want the Legislature to change the flag, two want to keep the current flag, 15 want voters to decide, five provided no comment, and one is undecided. Fifty-five House members have not yet been reached for comment.

The Legislative Black Caucus has endorsed changing the state flag, and caucus leaders in both chambers told Mississippi Today all members support changing the flag. As a result of this, Mississippi Today staff has focused on obtaining the position of non-caucus members, which include white Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

This list will be updated continually.

The post Here’s where House members stand on changing the Mississippi state flag appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Scammers having an easier time accessing unemployment benefits than many legitimately jobless Mississippians

A server in Mississippi applies for unemployment after losing her new job at an event venue that closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But she works on contract and a botched investigation into her previous employment deems her ineligible for Unemployment Insurance.

Another woman who hadn’t worked in nearly two years applies for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, simply checking the box labeled “unemployed due to the pandemic” on her online claim. She begins receiving the benefits immediately.

The two scenarios illustrate the deeply complex — and often unfair — ways that states deliver unemployment benefits, especially during unprecedented disasters, according to interviews with two sources who have worked directly with the system. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which administers unemployment in the state, did not grant Mississippi Today’s request for an interview with top officials for this story.

Dawna Petty, who qualified for unemployment after her Hattiesburg employer temporarily closed due to COVID-19, spent two and a half months fighting an appeal on her unemployment case before she received any funds.

Dawna Petty, the Hattiesburg server and a single mom, went without a paycheck for more than two and a half months and even received an eviction notice as she navigated the mind-numbing unemployment process.

“I was in unemployment limbo. An unemployment nightmare,” she said.

The agency didn’t even initially tell her it had denied her claim due to inaccurate information an old employer gave the agency, and for weeks she failed to get through the department’s overwhelmed call center to clear up the issue. She successfully appealed and eventually received her debit card in the mail in early June.

And yet many others, including fraudsters, have sailed smoothly through the system.

Unemployment fraud — which usually occurs when someone uses another person’s information to file claims — is more likely to go unchecked during this current crisis due to the large volumes of claims, the increased payments and the less rigorous eligibility determination the agency imposes on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims.

Like other states, some of which actually froze unemployment payments due to widespread fraud, Mississippi will likely pay millions on fraudulent claims during the pandemic, experts estimate.

“The scope of the likely misspending is huge,” Matt Weidinger, longtime deputy staff director of the House Committee on Ways and Means, wrote in a post for public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute in May. “Even before the crisis, UI had a high payment error rate of 10.6 percent, resulting in improper payments of nearly $3 billion in the year ending June 30, 2019. If the same error rate applies to the massive $268 billion increase in projected federal UI benefit spending over the coming year, the $28 billion misspent would exceed all state UI benefits paid last year.”

Officials from Mississippi Department of Employment Security told WLOX it has received dozens of calls from Mississippians who say someone has used their information to file unemployment claims without their knowledge. The agency said in a June 4 email to Mississippi Today that it does not have an estimate for how many fraudulent or improper claims it has paid. “There are no measurements because claim filing and payments are continuous and cannot be defined presently; but we will have it at a later date and time,” it said.

As for recouping funds paid out erroneously, “the agency is in the process of defining these measures and once they are finalized, it will be released to the media.”

In order to root out fraud, the traditional unemployment insurance system contains an exhaustive list of questions claimants must answer and a process by which agency employees verify that the information is accurate, such as by contacting employers. But the process can also cause long delays for people with legitimate claims, who desperately need timely assistance to keep afloat after losing their jobs through no fault of their own.

“There is that trade off between safeguards (to prevent fraud) and speed (of processing claims) and I’m not sure we’ve achieved that balance very well,” said State Auditor Shad White.

White said his office plans to help in ongoing federal investigations into fraud schemes within the state’s unemployment system.

During disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, states have sometimes taken the approach of doling out funds first, to make sure people receive the help they need, then identifying and recouping any overpayments on the back end.

Like delivering water through a line, White said, some water loss is the “price you’re willing to pay” to get it where it needs to go.

White worries, however, that large amounts of money lost to sophisticated out-of-state or even international fraud schemes will be difficult to claw back.

Washington state, which made national headlines as the subject of one of the largest schemes, was able to recoup $300 million in payments made to unemployment scammers, several outlets reported.

Mass layoffs amid COVID-19 and the policies Congress enacted to help struggling families — primarily bumping weekly benefits by $600 and expanding eligibility to the self-employed and contract workers who would not have otherwise qualified for the benefit — has compounded the nation’s already deeply complicated unemployment insurance system.

Normally to qualify for unemployment in Mississippi, a person must have worked at an employer that pays unemployment insurance; made enough money in the previous year to qualify for benefits; and have been laid off or fired for a reason other than misconduct. A person who voluntarily quits their job is not typically eligible for benefits.

In determining eligibility, the department looks at the amount of wages a person earned during the previous year, prior to three months before they submitted the claim.

Even though Petty had started a new contract gig that she lost due to the pandemic, she had eligible W-2 wages from a job she left in 2019, so the state set her up with a traditional unemployment claim. The employer erroneously indicated she voluntarily quit, she said, automatically disqualifying her due to what’s called a “separation issue.”

She appealed the denial and it took roughly two months for an investigator to rectify her case.

The other woman, whose last job at a factory ended in 2018, did not have sufficient wages to qualify for traditional unemployment, so she filed a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim, which does not consider wages since it is designed for people, such as the self-employed, who do not have eligible wages.

Unlike the traditional Unemployment Insurance claim, the agency does not have a consistent policy to follow up with any employers or require tax records to verify that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applicant’s information is correct, according to sources.

The claim is simply approved and set up to start receiving payments, whereas another legitimate claim might trigger an investigation that could last several weeks, partly because the agency is sorely lacking the number of investigators needed to handle the large influx of claims due to COVID-19. By June 6, the number of people who filed Unemployment Insurance claims in Mississippi since the pandemic began soared to a record-breaking nearly 340,000. The agency separately reported it had established 81,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims by May 30.

“I do think that is very unfair and frustrating that other people were getting things I qualified for,” Petty said. “Mine was stuck and there was nothing I could do.”

People who believe their identity has been used within the fraud scheme may report the incident to Mississippi Department of Employment Security at safe@mdes.ms.gov or (800)843-8923 or to the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General at oig.dol.gov/hotline.htm, 202-693-6999 or 1-800-347-3756.

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A tour of Mississippi: Old National Guard Armory in Amory

Color your way through Mississippi with me! Click below to download a coloring sheet of the Old National Guard Armory in Amory. 

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