Sweet Home Tuscaloosa: Johnny Shines, the Downunder, and the Revitalization of a Storied Blues Career

Working as a historian, you occasionally start a project that turns out to be way larger in scope than you anticipated–for instance, a fifteen-page end-of-the-semester research paper unexpectedly grew into my dissertation, and then into my second solo-authored book. Conversely, you might expect to have an article- or even book-length project on your hands, only to find out that what you had initially conceived of in your mind simply wasn’t there in the sources. That’s the case with this post, at least in its current form. I had planned to give a version of the paper that follows as a conference presentation, with hopes of expanding it into a full-length article at some point. However, schedule conflicts prevented that presentation, and my personal enthusiasm for the material didn’t quite translate into something I would want to publish in a more formal venue just yet. Still, I had fun delving into the sources (and music!) which are the basis of these musings, and so I thought I’d share them here. Hope you enjoy!

Robert Johnson’s early death, small catalog of recordings, and the “crossroads” myth which sprang up after his demise turned him into the quintessential bluesman, whereas his friend and traveling companion Johnny Shines, who shared many of the same formative experiences as Johnson while on his way to a much longer and happier life, has mostly been remembered as Johnson’s friend, not as a foundational blues musician.

Nevertheless, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, area, including his longtime hometown of Holt, served as a springboard for the revitalization of Shines’s career from the late 1960s through his death in 1992. Along with other venues, the University of Alabama’s student-led coffeehouse, the Downunder, brought Shines in to perform for a new generation of blues enthusiasts, helping him rediscover his abandoned musical calling. And though Shines is still remembered primarily for his connection to Johnson, his memory also lives on through the Johnny Shines Blues Festival (organized by his daughter Carroline Shines) and through, fittingly enough, a street which was renamed in his honor.

Johnny Shines was born in the small Memphis-area town of Frayser, Tennessee, on April 26, 1915. (1) Despite his rather obscure origins, he quickly found himself moving in important blues circles, becoming a friend and companion of Robert Johnson. (2) Even after Johnson’s death in 1937, Shines continued to perform, settling in for extended stints in the blues capitals of Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Yet the blues did not make for a comfortable life, and in 1958, Shines gave up music altogether, sold his equipment for the meager sum of $100, and took on a new career in construction. (3)

Fortunately for the music world, Shines did not stay on the sidelines for too long. In 1965, Mike Rowe, a British blues enthusiast, helped popularize Shines and his music; the timing was fortuitous for a return, as many new listeners were tuning into the blues for the first time. (4) Four years later, seeking a better life and home for his family, Shines relocated to the Tuscaloosa area community of Holt. Natalie Mattson, who operated the Downunder coffeehouse at the nearby University of Alabama, soon realized that a blues legend had moved to town and brought Shines, as well as Shines’s friend Mississippi Fred McDowell, to the Downunder to perform on several occasions. (5)

Student publications reveal that the Downunder served as an important cultural outpost on the UA campus during its time of operation. The 1971 edition of the Corolla, the UA yearbook, noted that “The Downunder has gained a reputation for providing varied entertainment for those who journey to the basement of Barnwell Hall for a musical experience. The music ranges from blues to folk rock to rock and back again. The performers come from the campus, the state, the country. The enjoyment can be found almost any weekend of the year.” (6) Numerous articles in the campus newspaper, the Crimson White, also mention the coffeehouse. “The Downunder Association is an autonomous body under the mens and womens [sic] residence hall councils,” one piece reads. “The coffeehouse has a different manager every night.” (7) Natalie Mattson’s tenure with the Downunder is mentioned in another article from 1970, which states that “the management of Mary [Britton] and her predecessor, Natalie Matson, has made the Downunder a popular place in the campus social environment.” (8)

Though it was an important stop for Shines as he relaunched his career, the Downunder was not the only local or regional venue that welcomed Shines to the stage during the 1970s. A performance alongside a group known as the Ramblers, played at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa, was spotlighted in the Appalachian Journal. (9) Shines also took the stage with Mable Hillery at the 1975 Miami Blues Festival, a show which was similarly well documented in a lengthy article. (10)

The Shines revival was forestalled somewhat by a 1980 stroke which greatly impacted his ability to play guitar, but he kept singing and speaking about the blues until his death on April 20, 1992. (11) That same year, Shines was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. (12) Inspired by Shines, blues musicians Debbie Bond and Michael McCracken would go on to form the Alabama Blues Project three years later with the goal of “bring[ing] more attention to Shines and to Alabama’s historic and contemporary blues culture.” (13)

Commemoration of Shines has continued into the new millennium, too. In 2009, 11th Street in Holt, where Shines had long made his residence, was renamed “Johnny Shines Street” in his honor. According to an AL.com writeup on the change, Shines’s daughter Carroline “had to secure the approval of every resident and property owner on the street” before the change could be made. (14) And the following year, Carroline launched the Johnny Shines Blues Festival, a Tuscaloosa-area show which was held every year until the 2020 COVID pandemic put it on hold. (15)

Even though Johnny Shines is less widely listened to today than his friend Robert Johnson, and less familiar to the general Alabama population than Florence native and “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy (16), his contributions to the blues, both as performer and chronicler of its history, should not be overlooked; and neither should the roles that the Tuscaloosa area, including the community of Holt, played in his second act and in commemoration of his long and storied career.


(1) Much of the biographical information on Shines used in this piece comes from his profile in David Dicaire, Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 1999), 36-40.

(2) The best source on the Johnson-Shines connection is The Search for Robert Johnson, an early 1990s British TV documentary by filmmaker Chris Hunt. For more on the film, see its IMDB page at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0272834/; for a stream of dubious legality, see https://archive.org/details/the-search-for-robert-johnson-upgrade. Shines appears around the 30 second, 16 minute, 23.5 minute, 40.5 minute, and 50 minute marks.

(3) Stewart Francke, “Shines, Johnny,” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shines-johnny.

(4) Stewart Francke, “Shines, Johnny,” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shines-johnny.

(5) “Johnny Shines,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Shines. In one of those “the world is really small” kind of twists, Mattson is the great aunt of one of my lifelong friends, a connection which I only belatedly discovered via some clever Facebook sleuthing.

(6) “Social Division,” Corolla 79 (1971), 424. http://purl.lib.ua.edu/152679

(7) “Downunder presents folk group,” Crimson White, February 29, 1968. http://purl.lib.ua.edu/37768

(8) “Folk Music Alive With Students Here; ‘Downunder’ Fills In If Parties Die,” Crimson White, October 15, 1970. http://purl.lib.ua.edu/38244

(9) W.H. Ward, “The Ramblers at the Bama,” Appalachian Journal 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1978): 70-74.

(10) Sophie Abramowitz, David Beal, and Parker Fishel, “Take Them Back Home and Let’s Start Out New: Johnny Shines, Mable Hillery, and the Revival Stage,” Americana Music Productions, https://www.digamericana.com/news/2020/4/28/take-them-back-home-johnny-shines-mable-hillery-and-the-revival-stage.

(11) Mark Hughes Cobb, “Festival keeps blues legend’s legacy alive,” Tuscaloosa News, August 29, 2019, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com/story/entertainment/music/2019/08/29/johnny-shines-blues-festival-keeps-legends-legacy-alive/3991474007/.

(12) Dicaire, Blues Singers, 39.

(13) Rick Asherson and Debbie Bond, “Alabama Blues Project,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3524.

(14) “Holt street renamed in honor of blues musician Johnny Shines,” AL.com, December 26, 2009, https://www.al.com/entertainment-press-register/2009/12/holt_street_renamed_in_honor_o.html.

(15) Barry Kerzner, “Carroline Shines Honors Her Father’s Legacy With The Johnny Shines Blues Festival,” American Blues Scene, April 28, 2014, updated April 10, 2020, https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2014/04/carroline-shines-honors-her-fathers-legacy-with-the-johnny-shines-blues-festival/.

(16) For a brief overview of Handy’s life, see Elliott S. Hurwitt, “William ‘W.C.’ Handy,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2042, as well as the first season of the Blues Alley Podcast (https://bluesalley.podbean.com/).

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