Two things that practically rise to the level of religion in Memphis are professional wrestling and barbecue, so when a new establishment combines them in the way that King Jerry Lawler’s Memphis BBQ does, it immediately attracts a lot of attention. On the other hand, celebrity restaurants don’t exactly have a great track record. Minnie Pearl’s, Roy Rogers’, Mahalia Jackson’s, Arthur Treacher’s and Kenny Rogers’ all bit the dust after the newness wore off, and all too often, complaints about the food were cited as reasons for closure. After all, people go to a restaurant to eat.
That being said, I tried Jerry Lawler’s BBQ this past Friday night, and I was amazed with the experience. First, the decor will please any fan of Memphis wrestling, as there are historic photos, artifacts and posters on the wall, and a TV screen showing footage from classic bouts. Then the menu is diverse and very reasonably priced, featuring everything from pulled pork to beef brisket, to ribs, to smoked sausages. I opted for the pulled pork, and was amazed at the high quality of what I received. The meat was smoked and lightly seasoned with the dry rub used on the ribs, and then I was given a choice of no less than four barbecue sauces, which ranged from sweet to hot. All were delicious. As a side, I had the french fries, which were decent if not outstanding. Had I chosen to, I could have topped it all off with a brownie or other kind of dessert, but I was pleasantly full after finishing my dinner. My only disappointment was to see that the restaurant has a fairly early closing hour of 9 PM, even on Fridays and Saturdays. On the other hand, they are open seven days a week. I left pleased, and feel that Jerry Lawler’s BBQ can compete with any barbecue in the city of Memphis.
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
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.
Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best guitar players in the country, and in September each year, he sponsors the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam at the Blues Shack, which is out in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 310 and Old Oxford Road near Waterford, Mississippi. Don’t be expecting a big formal festival like the Hill Country Picnic. Instead, you pay your $10 entry fee at a gate on a gravel driveway and come to a small wooden stage in front of a mobile home. The pleasant smell of barbecue smoke from an oil drum drifts through the air, and a small crowd is mesmerized by such musicians as Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Garry Burnside and Little Joe Ayers, in a more intimate setting where the line between performers and fans is non-existent. Duwayne might come down off the stage for a break and sit at your picnic table, or he might be behind the food stand pouring beers or fixing food plates. With plenty of children running around and having fun, it feels more like being invited to a house party than a festival. And that is an experience not to be missed.
I used to pass the old Loflin Safe & Lock Company on Carolina Avenue in Memphis for years, and never thought much about it, but unexpectedly a few months ago, the place was transformed into a hot new Memphis bar and grill called Loflin Yard, with a primarily-outdoor focus that resembles Austin, Texas a lot more than it does Memphis. While there are a few tables and a bar indoors, and a few more tables on a deck outside, the central emphasis is on a huge backyard, filled with plenty of chairs and fire pits, an outdoor stage and bar,a waterfall and the only visible portion of historic Gayoso Bayou, most of which has been paved over elsewhere in Memphis. The effect is something like an urban equivalent to Mississippi’s Foxfire Ranch, and the booking policies are somewhat similar as well, with Loflin Yard featuring a lot of roots music groups, from blues to bluegrass. On the day we went, the featured artist was the Rev. John Wilkins, an artist whose dad was a blues legend in the 1920’s, and whose music bridges the gap between Hill Country blues and gospel music. On a somewhat cool and pleasant day, we found the place packed to overflowing, and we could barely find outdoor seats. Wilkins, backed by two and later three female singers, performed his dad Robert Wilkin’s signature tune “Prodigal Son” AKA “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and he performed many of his best-known tunes as well, including “You Can’t Hurry God.” We had to wait until after Wilkins’ performance to find table space in order to eat. Food, by the way, is ordered from an outdoor window and then picked up to eat at one of the tables, and the menu is extremely limited. There is no traditional bar food here, only beef brisket, pork tenderloin and salads, although there has been some talk that the menu might eventually be expanded. With such an emphasis on barbecue, there is plenty of wood stacked near the kitchen, and the smell of roasting meat pervades the whole place, but we found that the food was primarily little plates, a currently popular trend, and the prices seemed steep for the quantity of the food. Altogether it was a great afternoon and evening for me and my friend, although we personally enjoyed the atmosphere and music more than the food.
Prior to 2015, I had never heard of the Avondale neighborhood in Birmingham, but on my way to Atlanta for Thanksgiving, I noticed that the Yelp app on my phone was showing a number of restaurants on 41st Street in that area, so I decided to head there for lunch, to a pizza place called Post Office Pies. To my surprise, the area proved to be a district of restaurants and coffee bars, and there were a lot of choices. Despite originally deciding on pizza, I was extremely tempted by the oil drum barbecue in front of Saw’s Soul Kitchen next door, and the weather was so warm that people were sitting at the outdoor tables there. But I ultimately went ahead with my original pizza choice, and was quite pleased with the pepperoni and bacon pizza I enjoyed at Post Office Pies.
After lunch, I spied a coffee bar across the street called Satellite, which was attached to a music venue called Saturn. Inside was the last thing I would have expected- a wall display of Sun Ra album covers, although I finally remembered that Herman “Sonny” Blount was indeed born in Birmingham. The coffee there was great, the atmosphere cheerful, a great place for an after-lunch latte before continuing on my journey. Altogether, Avondale seems to be becoming a hip place for food and fun in Alabama’s largest city.
Post Office Pies
209 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saw’s Soul Kitchen
214 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
Saturn Birmingham/Satellite Coffee Bar
200 41st St S
Birmingham, AL 35222
The Southern Heritage Classic tailgating is an all-day party, and the festivities continue in full swing until sunset. Even though some people finally enter the Liberty Bowl and attend the game, many enjoy the barbecue, music and dancing at their tents until late in the evening.
The second day of the annual Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs near Senatobia always falls on a Saturday, and brings out a larger crowd. This year, there were performances by Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist from the University of Memphis, a new blues-rock band called the Como-Tions from Como, Mississippi, and Lightning Malcolm, as well as the periodic parades around the grounds with Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. On this Saturday night, the bass drum beat seemed more insistent and the dancers more exuberant and enthusiastic as the night progressed. In addition, there was a massive block party outside the gates along O. B. McClinton Road as literally hundreds of young people lined both sides of the highway, just hanging out. There was also supposed to be some sort of after-event at L.P.’s field on Hunters Chapel Road, but when I drove past there, I only saw a few cars, so I kept on rolling.
I had never heard of Thunder on the Water until my friend Sherena Boyce mentioned it to me a month or so ago as a festival where blues artists were supposed to be performing. So when I saw that the festival was being held on the weekend of June 12th and 13th, I told Sherena and we decided to go to Grenada Lake. Ironically, we never found the music stage, as the Thunder on the Water event was spread out at several locations near Grenada Lake and Grenada Dam. But what we did find was an absolutely gigantic festival at Grenada Lake, with a midway as large as the Mid-South Fair, and plenty of food and fun. Up on the dam, people had chosen spots overlooking the lake to set up tents and chairs for the fireworks, which were set off over the lake at 9 PM. In addition, a large number of pleasure boats were dotted all over the lake, which is not surprising given that Thunder on the Water started as a water safety awareness event. After a brief stop by the barbecue festival, we headed to Jake & Rip’s in Grenada for a late-night dinner before heading back to Senatobia.
When I got to New Orleans on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go hear live music. There weren’t any brass bands performing anywhere as far as I could tell, so I ultimately decided to head to a venue on Canal Street called Chickie Wah Wah where a pianist named Jon Cleary was playing with his band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. I had never been to this particular spot before, although I had heard of it, and of course I knew of Jon Cleary, who had moved from England to New Orleans in the 1970’s and had stayed. I found the venue to be relatively small, but packed to the rafters, sharing its space with a barbecue stand called Blue Moon that smelled so good it made me sorry I had already eaten. Cleary, of course, is an amazing pianist, showing influences from Professor Longhair and James Booker, but his band is quite funky, even contemporary, and his choice of songs ran the gamut from originals to classics like “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” and even the ska oldie “The Loving Pauper.” I was further amazed to run into a Memphian who had never met me, but who recognized me from Facebook and who was enjoying the music with his New orleans girlfriend. I told them about the second-line on the following day, and was sorry to see the music end at 1 AM or so.