A Mississippi Delta native who loved to perform at home, blues musician Kern Pratt died Dec. 24 in Jackson at age 55.
Pratt died from complications of COVID-19.
While the virus may have ended his life, it couldn’t take away his joy in playing music, according to local blues artist and longtime friend Eden Brent.
“I just really always admired his enthusiasm,” Brent said. “Many of us can begin to think of this as a job, but he found a way to keep the joy. He just loved playing.”
The joy of playing had turned into recent success for Pratt in two albums produced in the last five years.
The Greenville-born blues musician played shows throughout the nation and produced two albums since 2015, “Broken Chains,” and “Greenville, MS – What About You?”
The album, “Broken Chains” debuted at No. 14 in the nation and No. 1 in the region in the Billboard blues music charts and was nominated for a Grammy award.
“I was kind of glad he got to go out on top,” Brent said. “He always loved the music.”
While the love of music was forefront in her memories of Pratt, she said he was also a forward-thinking man from the very beginning.
“He asked me, a chick, to be in his band when I was in middle school,” Brent said. “That wasn’t something that happened often back then.”
She said she had just begun learning piano and learned to apply chordal structure from guitar to be able to play along with a full band.
“He introduced me to the idea of jamming with others,” she said. “I wasn’t very good at it then.”
According to longtime family friend Anne Martin Vetrano, Pratt’s path to the blues started early in life with the death of his mother when he was 7 years old.
By 8 years of age, Pratt was taking music lessons from Bo Ridgeway at Wallack Music in Greenville.
His father owned the Western Auto store in Greenville and it was frequented by musicians like T Model Ford and Eddie Shaw.
Pratt hit the road to play music when he was 16.
“Coach Bill McGuire at Washington School was going to make me cut my hair and that just wasn’t acceptable,” Pratt told Vetrano in a past interview. “I made up my mind to leave school and was ready to hit the road.”
Vetrano said Pratt was a giving soul who was always ready to help out with local music festivals and promotion of the blues in the Delta.
Pratt’s girlfriend, Denise Owen, said Pratt always loved coming home to the Mississippi Delta.
“Every time we would drive into the Delta he got so excited to the point of taking a picture and posting it on social media. We would stop along the way and take pictures in cotton fields. We found a tree we liked between Belzoni and Hollandale, we called it the broken chains tree. We took a picture of it for the front cover of our album. Every time after that when we passed it, we would say, ‘There’s our tree.’ He was so excited to show me everything around Greenville, from where he grew up to places he had played. He wanted to introduce me to everyone. I believe those memories are some of my favorite of him.”
Pratt’s sister, Beth Pratt Podgurski, said of all the places he would perform, Greenville was his favorite.
He performed not only in the Mississippi Delta, but throughout the South as well as a performance in Italy in 2019.
“He loved going home to play,” she said.
Since Pratt’s death, several friends, family and fans have expressed their sympathies and memories on social media.
“I am so overwhelmed by everyone’s love and admiration of Kern. ... It has meant so much to me to hear people talk about his kindness,” Podgurski said. “It was so humbling, he never knew a stranger.”
Pratt was a generous person, she said, even when he didn’t have much himself.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started and Kern was unable to perform as he did before, Podgurski said he faced financial hardships. Even still, she said he was a generous person who wanted to help other people.
“He hadn’t been working because of COVID and he didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “He saw a homeless man on the side of the road and he gave that man $20 when he maybe had $50. That’s the kind of man Kern was. He would give you the last shirt on his back even if he didn’t have one to wear himself.”
In November, Pratt had fallen sick with the flu. Doctors ran a COVID test that was negative.
“He talked on this live video about how thankful he was that he had not gotten COVID and told everybody to please be safe,” Podgurski said. “His message to everyone was to be careful. And then he ends up dying from COVID.”
Pratt played with Steve Azar in the 1980s for a few years. They both came up as young musicians in the scene around Greenville.
“There were so many wonderful memories in our wonder years sharing the stage together as we were both working on our craft, those times were priceless,” Azar said. “Kern was a special talent and we will all miss him greatly.”
Rob Mortimer said he started his music career learning from Pratt.
“When I was 13, there were three people to take guitar lessons from: Steve Azar, Charlie Richard and Kern Pratt,” Mortimer said. “The majority of my generation took lessons from Kern. Kern is part of who I am as a musician. He was very proud of the guitarist he gave lessons to. He was very kind and wore his emotions on his sleeve. Every emotion Kern had, he had a way to express it musically.”
Pratt never stopped playing with young musicians and in 2019 shared a small stage at South Main with 10-year-old John Davis Causey.
“He played really good, and it was cool to play with him,” Causey said.
A GoFundMe page has been created for Kern Pratt to have a historic marker placed on the Blues Trail in his honor.
Kern’s most recent album, “Greenville, MS, What About You?” is available to purchase for $20. All proceeds will go toward Kern’s memorial fund.
A copy can be reserved by messaging your name, address and phone number to @Beth Pratt Podgurski on Facebook. Payment can be made with checks, Venmo or PayPal.