I want to share a great press trip I just enjoyed. I traveled a part of Mississippi that I didn’t even know existed: the Mississippi Delta. Yes, I knew the delta was there. You can’t grow up living next to the Mississippi River and not know she has a delta but the musical heritage of the delta was a murky secret until this trip.
It all started on Sunday, April 29 when I arrived at the Hyatt Place in Jackson. Dinner at Mint Restaurant in Ridgeland just outside Jackson was a treat and my first clue that I was going to really “pig out” for the next six days. (Hey, I’m an old southern belle, Put good southern food in front of me and what do you expect?) The décor was impressive. And so was the food. Both transport you to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The huge glowing red chandelier over the bar would do justice to a exclusive 19th century brothel in the old Crescent City. My favorite piece of art however was a crystal chandelier in the shape of a ship. It’s one of only two in existence. (The other is in New Orleans at another equally impressive restaurant. My food tip for dessert” try the Mini Beignets. They are a real winner.
The trip began in earnest on Monday when we left Jackson and headed to Meridian. The music began to invade our souls and get out toes tapping when we arrived at Highland Park and the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Rodgers, a Meridian native, is considered the “Father of Country Music.”
Weidmann’s Restaurant, as the oldest restaurant in Meridian, dating back to 1870s, is chock full of tradition as well as great food. One of the most interesting traditions concerns the small handmade crock of peanut butter found on every table. That just had to have a story and it does. It seems back in the 1940s, butter was scarce due to war rationing. Someone mentioned to Henry Weidmann, the owner, that peanut butter would be a good substitute. He agreed and set the little crocks out with crackers. Through all the years, the peanut butter crocks have remained a fixture. Today, the crocks are made by a local potter and may be purchased at the restaurant.
Music, whether humble or grand, deserves a fitting venue. In Meridian, the Grand Opera House served as the home for upper crust entertainment. Stars such as Lily Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt graced the ornate stage. It also offered fare for the masses with minstrel shows and traveling company musicals. Today it had metamorphosed into the Riley Center for Education & Performing Arts. Now, today’s musical greats such as Wynonna Judd and Bonnie Raitt are gracing the stage.
The next stop on our trek was at a true music shrine, Elvis’s birthplace. Memphis has often displaced Tupelo as the shrine of the “King of Rock and Roll” but never forget Tupelo and the sites there were what led Elvis to the top of the charts. Without the humble sharecropper cottage and the little church that molded the boy Elvis into the man, there would have been no Graceland. Had Glades not purchased that first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store, Elvis might have lived and died an obscure truck driver.
That night we dined on an old southern traditional food at Romie’s BBQ and slept well at the Hilton Garden Inn. Knowing tomorrow we were going to delve deeper into the roots of Country Music and Rock and Roll and explore the family tree that gave birth to both and influenced all the popular music to follow, the Blues.
Tuesday found us wending our way to Oxford, home of that traditional bailiwick of southern tradition, Old Miss. The college houses the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, a research center for southern music, literature, and folklore housed in an antebellum observatory. Their University of Mississippi Blues Archive is the only research facility in the country dedicated to the study of the Blues. Oxford is also the home of many literary greats. We toured Rowan Oaks, the home of William Faulkner.
Before we delved any deeper into Mississippi’s musical heritage we needed substance. City Grocery in Oxford filled the bill. Chef John Currence’s the owner of this and four other culinary triumphs, is the winner of the 2009 James Beard Best Southern Chef award. After sampling his Shrimp and Grits I understand why.
Clarksdale is the home of so many blues greats, W. C. Handy, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf that we knew we were near the epicenter of where it all began.
The Delta Blues Museum there is a quick over study of these Blues greats. It houses Muddy Waters’ modest cabin and many other artifacts related to America’s own native music. But the place that claims to be the heart of the Blues culture is Ground Zero Blues Club. This former Cotton warehouse was slated for destruction before Bill Luckett stepped up and saved it. He and his partner, Morgan Freeman–yes, he is another native Mississippian–have converted the building into a modern-day juke joint downstairs with the most unique lodgings upstairs.
The small town has so many little musical nooks and crannies you could spend days and never get bored. The Rust Restaurant served a wonderful dinner.
We traveled south through fertile Delta land to Dockery Farms. This historic plantation is considered by many to be birthplace of the blues. In its heyday, it was a huge isolated plantation. On Saturday nights, bluesmen would arrive and provide the only entertainment. The workers and visiting musicians including Blues greats like Charlie Patton, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, who reputedly sold his soul to the Devil to learn to play the guitar. A old barn bearing the plantation name and dates of operation is still standing as are several other old relics of a long gone way of life.
When we arrived in Indianola on Wednesday, we got up close and personal with one of the legends of both the Blues and Rock and Roll, B.B. King., another Mississippi native son. His museum chronicles it all. His rough road to stardom, and the indignities Southern segregation imposed on him and other Africa-American performers. But B.B. lived to get the last laugh. He has been honored by all races for his talent and humanity.
B.B. King sang with so many musical greats I lost count. If you have ever heard B.B. King and Willie Nelson sing Night Life, you understand how all the music emerges from the same gene pool. I am not sure if you could call that performance Country with a Blues twist or Blues with a Country twist but I just call it one of the greatest sounds I ever heard.
In Greenwood we drove past many of the homes and buildings used in the academy award winning motion picture “The Help.” We had to visit the grave of Robert Johnson and on the way visited Tallahatchie flats. This unique lodging is composed of actual sharecropper shacks moved to this site and “improved” by the addition of electricity. If you really want to see how the poorest farmers lived, you can rent a cabin for a night or a week or even longer.
And then it was back to Jackson to rest up before we began the second part of the trip through Mississippi’s historic past and for a look into its future. Naturally, we dined in a fantastic place, The historic Fairview Inn. As for the second part of the trip, Mississippi’s Heritage, tomorrow. As another famous southern icon said, “I’ll think about that later. Tomorrow is another day.”
So keep checking back here. You can also expect to find more of these fantastic places in http://www.americanroads.net in upcoming issues.