Destination: Blues. Clarksdale Mississippi

By Georgetown Fats
May 2011

Truth be told, I have been fortunate to travel throughout North America for both work and pleasure. Clarksdale is a different story all together. Instead of wanting to go to Clarksdale, I’ve always felt I have needed to go to Clarksdale.

My favorite travel companion has always been The Boss, we share a similar love for music and have also shared skydiving adventures and trips down the Louisiana bayous together. We both enjoy squeezing every bit out of life. However, since we have recently committed to impending parenthood, traveling through Memphis down to Clarksdale for an extended weekend of juking didn’t seem like a good idea. In The Boss’ place, Big Shoppi offered to pinch hit for this road trip. A third degree black belt in kempo, as well as a professional photographer, Big Shoppi is also well versed in the works of Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, loves his BBQ and knows his way around a bottle of whiskey. In short, he was the ideal pinch hitter for this long weekend. With promises to our significant others to make this trip with them at a later date, we set out for our Delta flight down to Memphis for the trek down through the delta to Clarksdale.

While we walked through the terminal at Logan Airport talking about our four day trip of barbecue, brews and blues, we both heard a similar rap from the sea of overworked and underpaid gate agents. In order to increase their profit margins, airlines have increased the use of their regional jets in order to service all non-hub locations. With these prop jets though comes the need to closely monitor the weight restrictions of these flights, which can unfortunately lead to being involuntarily bounced from a flight due to overbooking. While the airlines will offer hundreds of dollars in vouchers and credits towards future flights, they have recently begun offering considerably smaller cash options. Trust me when I tell you, take the cash. While the formula for the cash award has to do with some NASA-based calculus equation and won’t ever be adequate compensation, it sure beats jumping through all of the red tape and hoops to use a $250 voucher on US Air or another airline that screwed up your travel plans due to bad management. But I digress.

Long before we landed in Memphis to make our trek down to Clarksdale, including a side trip to a few Tunica casinos to get in touch with another vice, we pulled up to what is known as “Johnnie Be Goode’s” house. While casinos are often depicted as glamorous locations filled with beautiful people beating the house for riches, in reality casinos are filled with all classes of people looking for escapism. While I do enjoy some escapism, the best trick is to know when to push back from a table and get out of the casino while the getting is good. Don’t bring in what you can’t afford to lose, and know that the amenities (free food, drinks and parking) aren’t due to the graciousness of your hosts. After a few rounds of Texas Hold’em and far too much ingestion of secondhand smoke, Big Shoppi and I ‘colored out’ and hit the road again.

While researching places in Clarksdale to stay, I somehow managed to stumble across www.vrbo.com . While Big Shoppi is far more willing to stay in rustic conditions, in this day and age, cleanliness and wifi are baseline requirements for places for me to stay. My idea of camping and roughing it is a Holiday Inn Express, so it was quite fortunate to find this vacation home for rent. The central location in downtown Clarksdale, wifi and a well-maintained home made for the ideal place to stay. While very appealing with the authentic nature of their sharecropper quarters, staying at The Shack Up Inn would have involved drives and in out of town late at night.

We pulled into “Johnnie Be Goode’s” house, dropped our bags and headed to our first official stop in Clarksdale, the illustrious Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art. In addition to being a documentarian, record label owner, festival coordinator, author, columnist and raconteur, Roger Stolle, the owner of Cat Head, is the central nervous system for the local blues scene. While Morgan Freeman may have brought national attention to Clarksdale through his Ground Zero Blues Club, Stolle handles the day-to-day music industry happenings with aplomb while knowing where to get the best delta tamales and barbecue. So we finished up our fact-finding mission, our window shopping session and made our way over to Hicks Tamales & BBQ Shop after Roger’s recommendation.

In the first of our “only in Clarksdale” moments, after knocking on the door to be let into the dining room (Hicks prefers their traffic to be through their drive-thru) and consuming racks of barbecue, Big Shoppi went to find the source of a high pitched whine. When he returned to the table paler than a politician on trial and instructed me to take a peek in Hicks’ attached function room, I never expected to see what the source of the sound was. As a method of downed economy resourcefulness and questionable zoning, Hicks actually sublets space in their function room to a tattoo shop. After bantering around potential slogans for Hicks Tamales & BBQ Shop & Tattoo Parlor, none which are appropriate for for print, we headed off for our next “only in Clarksdale” moment at a local liquor store.

While having experienced a similar layout while in Oregon, I’ve never had this liquor store experience before. We arrived at the closest packie in the neighborhood of Hicks to stock up on supplies and again had another “only in Clarksdale” moment. All of the liquor is behind glass and it requires ordering booze through a microphone and exchanging product and money through a drop box. Having witnessed a 20-something order herself a pint of rum, Big Shoppi was confident enough in the routine to place our order. As we paid and left the package store we had a bout of befuddlement as we watched said 20-something hop into the driver’s seat of her car, take a large pull from her pint and then speed off with three un-seat-belted children as her passengers.

Though still thoroughly satiated from our feast at Hicks, we decided to get our first dose of live music at Ground Zero Blues Club to hear Terry “Big T” Williams and The Family Band. Though in the center of Clarksdale and filled with blues memorabilia like random bottles strewn all around the walls, thick smoke-filled air, and the Sharpie marker-festooned walls, Ground Zero Blues Club looks like a Punk Club. The whole experience was somewhat jarring, as I had never expected to hear Chicago Blues played in a punk club. While it was not what I envisioned, check out Ground Zero Blues Club and if you’re inclined to order a Bourbon from the well, specify what Bourbon you would expect, as the Ground Zero Blues Club pours pure hellfire from the well.

After starting our “morning” with lunch at The Stone Pony, a trip through the Rock & Blues Museum and a visit to Hambone and shopping trips through BluesSource and Cat Head, it was hard not to enjoy the locals and their love of just chatting and telling stories. “Jimbo” may not have appreciated the blues, but he knew enough to send us into BluesSource to meet with his daily drinking buddy. Dixie welcomed us with open arms, though Stan Street’s Hambone Art Gallery was closed. It was as hard not to marvel at the assembled memorabilia at the Rock and Blues Museum and hear just how many greats had set foot in the museum, as it was hard not to hear repeated stories about Mr. Tater and Big Jack Johnson. In a city where all the greats of blues can be traced back to the area, Clarksdale is still very much grieving the loss of these two local greats.

After being disappointed with the news that Robert Belfour wasn’t playing Red’s until Sunday night, when we had expected to head back to Beale Street in order to catch an early flight out on Monday morning, Big Shoppi and I decided we still needed a legitimate juke joint experience before heading out of town.

I’m still not sure who passed along this invaluable tip, but we arrived at Red’s with a tribute to The Man in hand. We both owe a debt of gratitude to this unbeknownst provider of advice, because that $16 bottle of Evan Williams Bourbon produced amazing results.

An imposing and hardened figure, Red with his gruff nature and whiskey barrel physique, can spin a yarn just as quickly as he can bum-rush someone out the door. Red has two rules to anyone who steps foot into the juke that always looks closed: respect Red and respect Red’s. Oh yeah, there is to be no video or recording at any point in time. Never. Ever. Quickly apprised of “Red’s Rules,” we were invited over to the bar to pour something clear out of a plastic water jug to help “warm us up.” As we settled in, our host spun stories of his late friend Big Jack, regaled us with stories of stuffing venison sausages with Charlie Musselwhite, and then let us know how a schedule mix-up had Robert “The Wolfman” Belfour in town a night early for his gig tomorrow night. Barely able to control ourselves, we blurted out excitedly that Belfour was the musical act we had hoped to see while in town. Seemingly amused by our enthusiasm, Red let us know we could hear Belfour both Saturday and Sunday nights if we so wanted. While impressed with Deak Harp’s material, and appreciative of another chance for stories from Roger Stolle and Red, the evening took another uptick when “The Wolfman” entered the juke.

For those unfamiliar with Belfour’s work, he is a gifted musician capable of working an audience into a frenzy with his assortment of John Lee Hooker-esque boogies and having them crying in their tallboys with his soulful howls. To have sat just feet away from The Wolfman as he worked his magic was just awe-inspiring.

As night turned back into day, we made our way back for a few hours of rest. Fueled with a gut-busting Sunday comfort food experience at The Lady of Levee, we made our way back to Red’s for another enthralling musical experience with The Wolfman.

More bucket list experience than vacation, if you find yourself a fan of The Blues, then head on down to The Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49. While you may not get the chance to “fall down on your knees” at one of the reported six locations where Robert Johnson’s deal with The Devil may have happened, you’ll get the experience of a city on the rebound, steeped in Blues lore.

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