Although the Mississippi Delta is better known, there is also an Arkansas Delta, wide and wild and if anything, more mysterious than the other. More remote and with fewer large towns, the Arkansas Delta is less visited and less familiar to tourists than its Mississippi sibling, but is certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in the blues and its history. Towns here, like those in the Mississippi Delta, have clearly seen better days. Buildings on the main streets are often abandoned, and many are dilapidated. Whites and Blacks alike have fled these Delta communities for better opportunities in America’s big cities, and the situation in some of these towns is desperate indeed. Almost no business was left functioning on Marvell’s wide Main Street on the Friday afternoon I visited. At least one of the storefronts had collapsed altogether, a prominent “Keep Out” sign warning people not to venture into the ruins. Dewitt, a county seat town with a courthouse looked somewhat better, but nearby Gillett seemed almost as abandoned as Marvell. But the most interesting discovery was in McGehee, a town whose downtown still looked rather decent by Delta standards. South of the downtown were the abandoned remains of several night clubs and juke joints, discoveries which suggested that McGehee had once been an entertainment destination for Black residents of the southern Arkansas Delta. The sign in front of the former Town & Country Restaurant proclaimed “Disco Nights, Thursday, Friday”, and the building was truly gigantic. One can only imagine what a night was like in there in the late 1970’s which was likely its heyday. Did bluesmen hold forth at Mary’s Colonial Club? One wonders. Saddened by the extent of abandonment and loss, I drove off toward Monroe in the darkness.
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
The Italian word “raduno” refers to a gathering, and everyone knows that pizzas are a favorite party food. So Little Rock’s new Raduno Brick Oven in the trendy South Main entertainment district next to the venerable South on Main is a great place for friends and family to gather around great food and drink. Although the concept of wood-fired pizzas is not as new to Little Rock as other cities, Raduno offers a more upscale environment for its artisan pizzas, a sleek, modernistic look with plenty of artwork on the walls, and electronic dance music playing in the background. The fairly diverse menu features weekend brunch, soups, salads, a small assortment of Italian sandwiches, and of course, pizzas, which are the restaurant’s signature. My thin-crust pepperoni was more than enough for one person, and absolutely delicious. Prices, while not cheap, were reasonable, and service pleasant, prompt and efficient. Raduno is definitely worth a visit when in Little Rock. Highly recommended.
Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom
1318 S Main St
Little Rock, AR 72202
Memphis’ showcase suburban park Shelby Farms has had a recent upgrade that was several years in the making, and one of the really great things about it is the addition of a lakeside restaurant called The Kitchen Bistro. For a city with a large riverfront, Memphis has pathetically few places to eat on water or even with a view of water, so this new place meets that need as well as the need for a decent food in the park. On weekend mornings, the attraction is brunch, and there is hardly a table to be had. The brunch menu includes omelettes and other standard breakfast fare, as well as mimosas and coffee, and if the prices are not inexpensive, neither are they outrageous. In the sleek, modern, open, glassy environment, The Kitchen has more the feel of a California restaurant, but it is bright and cheerful, and there is outdoor seating by the lake when weather permits. Although The Kitchen is also open for dinner, so far I have only tried the breakfast. While Memphis has many great options for the morning meal, The Kitchen satisfies with food and the view as well.
The Kitchen Bistro
415 Great View Drive East, Ste. 101
Memphis, TN 38134
Como, Mississippi is an historic town in far north Panola County, Mississippi on the edge of the Hill Country. Because it sits near the border between the Delta and the hills, Como has some of the ambiance of both regions, and has long been a center of blues and Black fife-and-drum music. Legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce calls it home, and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell chose it after he moved to Mississippi from West Tennessee. What was once a faded, dying town when I first saw it as a boy has had some renewal since the opening of Como Steak House some years ago, and now each year, the history and traditions of this unique Mississippi town are celebrated in October at an event called Como Day. This year’s event featured plenty of good food and vendors, classic cars and motorcycles, and several different genres of music, including performances by the Southern Soul Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and southern soul artist J-Wonn. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the screening of Shake “Em On Down, a documentary about Mississippi Fred McDowell, arguably Como’s most famous resident. Through music clips and interviews, the story of this most important Mississippi bluesman was vividly and skillfully portrayed. Altogether, hundreds of people enjoyed a full day of fun in Como.