Driving from Jackson to Clarksdale on the 49 west (blues highway, baby) was like being transported back in time. We drove through beautiful fields that seemed to stretch forever, by farmhouses and small towns. At one point we were sure that we had just entered the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” (if you haven’t seen that, watch it! It is a must see)… AND just before arriving at our destination, we drove through a small town named… Drew! We had to get out for a picture at their water tower.
When we arrived in downtown Clarksdale for the first time, we were astounded at how many people approached us and were friendly enough to give us some pointers for the town. Our first stop was the Delta Blues Museum, and as we were heading inside we met Big Jack Johnson’s grandson… we knew that this visit was going to be awesome.
The Delta Blues Museum is really cool, and we learned a lot about the blues that we didn’t already know. They have some pretty awesome vintage guitars and outfits that were worn by various blues musicians. What is probably the highlight of the museum is the Muddy Waters section (he grew up just outside of Clarksdale) and they have a portion of his shack on display there from the Stovall Plantation.
After the museum, we walked around downtown a little bit to window shop and browse, and stumbled upon the Blues City music store. The owner, Ronnie, is extremely knowledgeable about guitars and other instruments, and he travels far and wide to collect vintage guitars. It is unlike any guitar shop we’ve ever been in before and each guitar is unique and full of character. A group of guitars that caught our attention were the vintage parlor guitars of which he had five or six of in the shop. We had seen a few of the Stellas in the blues museum and were surprised to find out how inexpensive they were.
We had looked online before we arrived in Clarksdale at a place called the Shack Up Inn, and the Hopson Commissary, and it looked awesome. It’s an original plantation, still standing, that they kept all the shotgun shacks and turned them into rooms for people to come and stay in. Although it would be out of our budget to stay in one, we decided to go and check it out to see if we could look around and take some pictures.
Although we didn’t remember at the time, we had actually heard of the plantation before. Just before our road trip began, we went to a show in Fredericton, NB with Drew’s aunt Marilyn and uncle Kurt. The artist Ross Neilson had recorded an album in one of the shacks and played the album the whole way through for his set, explaining the Shack-up Inn. We got a CD for attending the show, which we had in the truck with us!
When we drove up to the Hopson Commissary, James came out to greet us and told us that we could keep our camper there if we’d like. He showed us around and told us to make ourselves at home, and he also mentioned that the next Monday night they would have live music and… FREE FOOD. There seemed to be so many things happening over the next few days, including live music at a local art studio named Hambone the next Tuesday.
We realized just how much we wanted to stay in Clarksdale longer, but we were about to meet a friend from Nova Scotia in Memphis for the weekend so we would have to leave the following day. We started to discuss that maybe we would drive to Memphis on Friday and then return to Clarksdale that Sunday – this place was just too cool to have only stayed one day.
As we were hanging out in the lobby at the Shack-up Inn Drew received a phone call from his mom. She had good news! His grandfather, who we had visited at the beginning of the road trip, was sending some money to help us out on the trip! It was sooo kind of him to send the money, and Drew was so grateful for the gift. The money will be used to enjoy the rest of the trip to the fullest, thanks Grampy! Later that afternoon we drove back into town and picked up a 1960’s Stella parlor guitar at the Blues Town music store. The beauty of these guitars (for lefty’s) is that the bridge is floating, so it can easily be converted for left-handed players. We can’t wait to get back to northern New Brunswick and jam with Grampy using the Stella!
Outside the music store we found a man we had met in the street earlier named Steve Kolbus, playing the harmonica, so we sat down for a jam with him. We found out that he plays the harmonica and sings in a band called Steve Kolbus and the Clarkesdale Blues Revue. We jammed a few songs out on the street and had a good time. While we were in the middle of an “Angel from Montgomery Session” another local came by, a bearded man in sun glasses who we later came to know as Sean “Bad” Apple. He told us he was playing a weekly gig on Monday night at the Blues Berry Cafe, and offered to let us come up and play a few songs if we’d like. This finalized our decision to return to Clarksdale the next week: this place was just too awesome to be true.
Sean offered to take us out to the site where Muddy Waters’ home used to be, and it was such a cool experience to be there. Everywhere you looked around you were surrounded by fields, farms and trees. Although we’ve said this before, it really was like going back in time. Sean also taught us some really interesting history about the area while we were there, and told us about some places that we’d never heard of before that we needed to visit. We exchanged numbers so that we could get in contact the next week, and promised him that we’d see him again on Monday! Contrary to his stage name, Sean was actually a very “good apple”, but that’s not very bluesy is it. PS check out his band “All Night Long” online.
Later that evening we decided we’d check out a blues jam happening at Ground Zero, a local bar owned by Morgan Freeman. Before heading into town, we stopped into the bar at the Hopson Commissary, and had a few drinks with some locals. A man named Robert there knew a lot about the town’s extremely interesting history, and also had an incredible collection of old photographs to show us. He really loves blues music, and had some really awesome stories about different musicians he’d met while living in Clarksdale. Between him and Sean we really felt like we had a fair understanding of what Clarksdale was all about, past and present.
When we arrived at Ground Zero, the co-owner (unfortunately not Mr. Freeman) came up to us at the bar and asked us where we were from. When we told him Nova Scotia, he said that we might have a chance at winning a bumper sticker since we were from so far away. The blues jam was really awesome, and they had a wide array of different musical talents from the harmonica to the piano to some extremely sweet dance moves. We were especially impressed by a woman named Lala who sang “Bobby McGee”, attacking the keyboard like a hurricane. If you closed your eyes you could almost believe the incredible Janis Joplin was standing in front of you. When the sticker contest began for who came the farthest away, he started off by saying “If you’re from Nova Scotia you might just have a chance!” He started off in Europe, handing out stickers left and right, coming closer and closer to Clarksdale… eventually giving out a sticker to someone from the next county over. What?? We couldn’t believe that we didn’t get a sticker, and decided that it must be a conspiracy against Canadians. We didn’t even win the onion he pulled from the garden out back.
Our next blog post will have more adventures in Clarksdale… and will also include our visit to Memphis with our friend Jamie from Nova Scotia! (There might even be something appealing to Land Rover lovers in there too…)