Last Train To Clarksdale

By Karen Nugent
October 2006

Muddy Waters once said in an interview that he had no desire to go back to Mississippi. Having just returned from what I thought would be a kind of blues “grand tour” of Clarksdale - where Muddy spent much of his early life - I have to say I agree with him.

Beale Street, it is not. It’s not even Revere Beach Boulevard.

Downtown Clarksdale, dubbed “Ground Zero” for the blues by actor Morgan Freeman, who is also from there, is a rundown and deserted place in the middle of a rural, poor farming community.

Juke joints? There were a total of two - three if you count the famous Red’s, which wasn’t open at all the four days we were there. Actually, it’s hard to tell if it’s open unless you walk right up to the door and try to go in.

To some people, maybe this hole-in-the-wall has character and ambiance. A big maybe. If it had been open, I’m not sure we would have ventured in. (We were also told water cascades through the ceiling when it rains. Can you say “building inspector”)?

The other two clubs that seem to be in business are Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, which has a lot of ambiance and is not a dive (It’s great for lunch as well), and Messengers, which may have been fine, but looked rough. You just couldn’t tell from the shaded windows and the dark, empty street it was on, and we didn’t dare go in to find out the hard way.

The night we went to Ground Zero, it was closed for a few hours for a state Democratic fundraiser: men and women in suits and cocktail dresses, with Freeman making the rounds while cameras flashed. After that ended, and we were let in, there were maybe four other patrons not associated with the politicians. The band was great, though, and a 13-year-old guitar virtuoso jammed with them.

Outside, the streets were bare. I mean NO other cars or people in sight.

Women traveling there alone? I don’t think so. It’s too desolate and just plain scary. Not to mention the numerous anti-gun violence billboards with photos of AK 47s and other automatic weapons on them. And the downtown liquor store with a wall of bulletproof glass separating the cashier and the booze bottles from the customers.

Granted, it may have been slow because it was during the week, although at least 75 percent of the stores and businesses were out of business and boarded up.

Maybe things liven up during festival times; it’s hard to say. I was told by a well-known blues guitarist that the place is hopping during the Sunflower Blues Festival in the summer and the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (formerly King Biscuit Blues Festival) in nearby Helena in October.

But I was expecting a sort of mini (pre-Katrina) Bourbon Street, with at least something to do at night.

It was the same story during the day – streets with shops and businesses as boarded up as a western ghost town.

A new bakery run by a man from Florida was the sole place to get breakfast after 10 a.m. (Is that acceptable to musicians or club goers??).

A restaurant, called the Delta Eye, had gone out of business. It was started by a woman from New Jersey who served munchie-crunchie vegetarian fare and sold her own hand-made jewelry and artwork.

The list goes on: Dela’s Stackhouse Records, closed. That was also the site of the old Rooster Blues Recording Studio. Jacqueline’s Blues Bar, closed and for sale.  Junction R&B Club, closed.  Sarah’s Kitchen, only open “most” Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Smitty’s Red Top Lounge: closed and for sale. SweeBees and Turner’s soul food restaurants, both closed.

Oddly enough, one place that was open and thriving, although not downtown, was a Lebanese-American restaurant called Rest Haven. Go figure.

The exceptions downtown were Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, a well-known landmark for blues CDs, DVDs, books, posters, memorabilia and folk art, and the Delta Blues Museum, near Ground Zero in a renovated building. The museum is cool, but we were the only visitors there.

Cat Head owner, Roger Stolle, was friendly, knowledgeable, and obviously devoted to preserving the blues and encouraging other blues freaks. He actually called Red while we were there to see if he would be opening that night (maybe), and he drew us a detailed map to Muddy’s Mound, a marker at his old cabin site at the Stovall Farms.

Thankfully, some attractions (Muddy’s cabin site, the Crossroads and W.C. Handy markers, for example) are outside and always open.

Freeman also has a gourmet restaurant in downtown Clarksdale, Madidi, which is open for dinner only. The food was fantastic, but, again, there were just two other parties there and several items on the menu were not available.

And ladies, unless you’re in the market for some farming equipment, forget about shopping, except for Cat Head, which has beautiful pottery and handmade musical instruments; the museum’s gift shop, and Miss Del’s General Store, across from Cat Head, (although it, too, seemed devoid of customers and maybe not open.)

Hopson Comissary

We stayed at the Shack Up Inn on the Hopson Plantation on the outskirts of town. Pinetop Perkins worked there for a few years in the 1940s, and the inn has been featured in several newspaper articles, including European papers. It’s probably been in a few blues documentaries as well, because, I was told, celebrities, including musicians, like to stay there.

The accommodations consist of a half-dozen or so former (authentic) sharecropper cabins, with added modern conveniences like central air conditioning and indoor plumbing. The shacks had been scheduled for demolition before they were bought, moved, and renovated by a group of blues lovers.

We stayed in the “Pinetop”- very cool. There was a piano and photos of him all over. The inn also has some more modern single rooms called “bins”(with satellite TV) in a renovated cotton gin across a grassy area from the shacks.

Sitting on the edge of the cotton fields, off infamous Highway 49, the place definitely has character, and is a blues fan’s fantasy. The TVs in the cabins only get Sirius blues satellite radio, so you can hang on the porch listening to great tunes to your heart’s content. Very relaxing and almost surreal.

Laidback owners Guy Malvezzi and Bill Talbot cruise around on golf carts, and have endless entertaining stories…not to mention the “lobby” full of all manner of blues, and other, collectables and memorabilia, plus a joke wombat cage (to scare people), and Bill’s half-empty jar of moonshine.

But again, we were the only people there, except for the first day when a group from the Paul Butterfield Blues Foundation was packing up from its annual meeting, held in Clarksdale this year. There are no nearby clubs, snack bars, or stores, meaning a dark scary ride back from town if you go out and knock back a few, and a bleary-eyed drive back to hunt for breakfast the next morning.

The inn has a “commissary” (the former company store) that I was told is sometimes used for music and barbecues. Not quite sure how that works, but it was not open the four days we were there.

I suspect, and hope, that the Shack Up is teeming with people during festivals such as Pinetop’s homecoming celebration after the King Biscuit celebration in early October.

But what’s wrong with this picture? Where are the blues fans who could support a blues Mecca along the lines of a smaller Nashville?

Clarksdale is not difficult to get to – just fly to Memphis, rent a car, and drive about 75 miles, past cotton fields, straight down notorious Highway 61 into town. There’s little traffic and the divided road is well maintained.

And in case anyone is wondering, there were no racial undertones. The locals, mostly black, were quite friendly and helpful.

I’m not blaming the local community either, which likely can’t afford to eat out and go clubbing every night. In addition, Clarksdale suffers from the typical U.S. problem of strip malls outside the downtown causing its demise. The city has its share of discount stores, including Wal-Mart, along with fast-food chains.

Nope, the problem, I suspect, lies with the ever-shrinking blues world. It seems it’s nearly impossible to sustain a critical mass of blues-related activity even in a place as historically significant to that world as Clarksdale.

Freeman at least is making an effort, but “ground zero” appears to be losing ground.

It’s enough to give you the blues, permanently.

I guess Muddy was right.

To see parts of Clarksdale for yourself, visit www.roadfan.com and click on “Key to the Highway”

www.cathead.biz

www.shackupinn.com

www.groundzerobluesclub.com

<- back to Features