If Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is sort of a family-friendly approach to the Mississippi Blues, at least during the daytime, the Goat Fest, now in its fourth year, is something wilder. After all, its slogan is “Sin, Repent, Repeat.” Yet despite the adult image, the main focus is blues and other forms of roots music, over two days, at two venues in the greater Clarksdale area, one the open-air New Roxy theatre, the other, the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, a few miles out from Clarksdale proper. On Friday, June 2, the focus at the Juke Joint Chapel location was classic Mississippi Hill Country blues, with excellent performances from Cedric Burnside, the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band, and Lightnin’ Malcolm, and the chapel, with its odd array of historic signs, instruments and artifacts made a perfect venue for the musical happenings of the evening. Adding to the good-time vibe was excellent pulled-pork barbecue, as well as containers of Clarksdale’s superb Sweet Magnolia gelato. And the only thing really wild was some of the dancing!
On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I decided to continue my exploration of small towns and backroads in the Mississippi Delta. My first stop was a community called Savage, Mississippi, that Apple Maps showed being tucked between Highways 3 and 4 on the railroad tracks. Although I had heard of the place, I had never been there, and was surprised to encounter a large, abandoned store of some sort, and a small wooden railroad station. Unfortunately, the station was behind fences and today sits on private property, so I was unable to explore it or photograph it close up, but I still managed to get some good photos around the tiny village.
West of Sarah, Mississippi, I came to swamps, and a long, oxbow-type lake called Walnut Lake, bordered by a road of the same name. Although I had read of a nightclub called the Pussycat Lounge that was supposed to be next to the lake, I didn’t see it at all, but at the end of the lake and the road was a quaint tin-roofed grocery store called the Three-Way Grocery where a man was barbecuing meat in front, while a few men played chess or checkers on a table nearby. Although the barbecue smelled amazing, I had recently eaten, so I drove back to Highway 3 and continued south through Marks and Lambert and into the town of Sumner, one of two county seats for Tallahatchie County (the other is Charleston).
Sumner sits on the Little Tallahatchie River, and consists of little more than the courthouse, a restaurant called the Sumner Grille, and an art gallery called the Cassidy Bayou Art Gallery. Neither was open on the hot Sunday afternoon, but I took a few pictures on the Tallahatchie bridge and around the courthouse square, noting the historical marker about the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, which took place in the Sumner courthouse. An Emmett Till Interpretive Center is located a block off the square in Sumner.
The next town to the South, Webb, seemed larger and more significant, although most of its fairly large business district along Main Street seemed empty and abandoned. Of note was a weatherbeaten frame train station, and what appeared to be a fairly large juke joint.
From there, I came to the town of Glendora, which clearly had seen better days. Almost all the town stretched along the railroad tracks on both sides, and on the east side, along Burrough Street, was a row of rough-looking jukes, including a rather large place called Club 21. The employee there was amenable to me photographing the place, so I got to take pictures inside and out, and I was especially pleased with the classic pool table indoors. What I saw on the west side of the tracks was sad, the ruins of a large building that by the signs visible appeared to have once been Glendora’s City Hall. Only the building’s shell remained.
Things were similar at Minter City, in LeFlore County, where the massive ruins of T. Y. Fleming School sit along Highway 49E west of the actual townsite, although nothing much is left of the town. From the looks of it, Fleming must have at one time been a high school, but was most recently an elementary school. That it had won awards for student achievement didn’t stop the LeFlore County School Board from closing it down, and one of the more ironic things to see there was school’s sign in front of the buildings facing Highway 49E, which included a “No Child Left Behind” logo. With the school closure and abandonment of the campus, it seems that all of Minter City’s children got left behind.
Because I had to make it back to Memphis for a gig, I didn’t go on to Greenwood, despite the fact that I was close. Instead I turned east on Highway 8, but in coming to a little town called Phillip, I spent some time photographing the old downtown area along Front Street, and then got back on the road heading for Grenada.
After leaving Alligator, we ended up heading down to Drew, and taking Highway 49W through Ruleville, Doddsville and Sunflower into Indianola, to one of my very favorite restaurants in the world, The Blue Biscuit. The Biscuit is owned by renowned chef Trish Berry, who had been the executive chef at Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s ill-fated Madidi Restaurant in Clarksdale. While Madidi was expensive fine-dining, the Blue Biscuit is something altogether different, sort of a cross between a diner and a juke joint. While the restaurant menu is diverse and varied, in my opinion, the pulled-pork barbecue is the star of the show. A few years ago, it was possible to order something called “Biscuits and Barbecue”, which was exactly that, four freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits that were halved, with pulled pork placed between the halves. This was literally one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, we noticed on this visit that the menu has changed, and that biscuits and barbecue is no longer available, but the pulled pork is still on the menu, and just as good as I remember it from previous visits.
An added treat on this visit was live music from a Cleveland, Mississippi band called Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, whose repertoire consists of blues, soul and funk. Somehow, I had not encountered them before, but they are an accomplished and versatile band, and they kept the crowd mesmerized all evening. This was my first time seeing a live music gig at the Blue Biscuit, and I found the location and atmosphere perfectly suited to the music, and everything quite enjoyable.
When we had gone to Austin, Texas in December, we didn’t get to try Snooze, a self-described “A.M. eatery” that was on an hour wait, but this trip, we wanted to make sure that we tried it, and we were not disappointed. Breakfast is said to be the fastest-growing sector of the restaurant industry, and all breakfast restaurants have certain things in common, but we were pleased by Snooze’s bright, cheerful decor with a mod 1960’s-retro look and feel. While it is easy to get familiar breakfast fare like bacon and eggs or omelets, Snooze’s menu also features a large selection of different eggs benedicts, something which really sets them apart from the others. I chose a bacon and cheddar omelet, and was quite impressed with it, although the breakfast potatoes not so much, as they contained onion, which I dislike in hash browns. We also were a bit disappointed in the lack of a reservation system, and as a result having to sit at the bar to avoid a long wait. But altogether, we were satisfied with our experience at Snooze and will return.
Snooze An A.M. Eatery
3800 N Lamar Blvd, #120
Austin, TX 78756
Other locations in South Austin, Texas, Colorado and California
Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce used to be famous for his yard parties, but in recent years he had stopped doing them after some health issues. So when his daughter Sherena informed me that he was having a yard party with live musicians on a Wednesday evening, I made arrangements to get off early from work and head to Como.
The weather was sunny when I arrived at R. L.’s house just across the railroad tracks from Como’s restored downtown area. A cool breeze was blowing, and only a few people had gathered, although the event was supposed to begin at 4 PM. Boyce, Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, and Lightnin Malcolm were on the front porch setting up their equipment, and the drummer Steve Toney was setting up his drums in the yard because there was no room for them on the porch.
When the music got under way, the atmosphere became magical, with Malcolm, Carlos and R.L. playing Hill Country blues in the kind of setting it was intended for, an outdoor house party. One of the out-of-town guests sent someone to purchase hotdogs and charcoal, and fired up Boyce’s grill, cooking hotdogs for the guests and musicians, some of whom were in Mississippi for the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which was to be held on the weekend. Soon the crowd in R.L.’s front yard grew larger, with young and old, local and out-of-town folks. A few kids were playing under the trees. As the evening continued, some folks began to dance, and cars slowed down as they drove past the house, trying to see what was going on. After a number of songs from R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, there was a guest appearance from the hot new female blues singer Joyce “She-Wolf” Jones from Potts Camp, and she performed a couple of her original songs with the band. Eventually, around 8 PM, the sun went down, and with no real lighting in R.L.’s yard, things had to come to a halt. Only a handful of people remained at that point, and Sherena Boyce and I decided to head uptown to Windy City Grill for a late dinner, but we could hear R.L. still playing guitar as he sat on his porch in the dark. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.
At one time, finding anything other than fast food was something of a challenge in New Albany, Mississippi. While upscale eateries opened in Oxford, Tupelo and even Como, New Albany was largely behind, but that has recently begun to change, around the time that the Tanglefoot Trail was opened for hiking and biking, spawning a coffee bar and eventually redevelopment of New Albany’s downtown.
The Bankhead Bicycle Club takes its name from New Albany’s main business street, Bankhead, named for an Alabama senator who was instrumental in getting Highway 78 built between Memphis and Birmingham (the famous actress Tallulah Bankhead was the daughter of the senator in question). On our recent visit, despite the late hour, the place was fairly crowded, including a large group that were visiting the area from North Carolina. The restaurant offers both pizzas and hamburgers, but we opted for burgers and were fairly impressed. I opted for the BBC Bomber, a burger with white cheddar and crumbled maple bacon, which provided a degree of sweetness. It came on a square ciabatta bun, and was quite delicious, as were the french fries that came with it. My friend ordered the same , and said she was pleased as well. Service was prompt and efficient, and the fairly-dark surroundings were comfortable and pleasant. An after-dinner key lime pie dessert was the perfect ending to the evening. Bankhead Bicycle Club will definitely see us again.
Bankhead Bicycle Club
108 W Bankhead St
New Albany, MS 38652
A good day starts with a good breakfast, but during Juke Joint Festival, everything is extremely crowded, and breakfast choices in Clarksdale are very limited. But this year a new breakfast place had opened in downtown Clarksdale called Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes, and although it was crowded, I was able to get right in and get a table. I ordered a bacon and cheese omelette, hashbrowns, toast and coffee, and although it all took a while to come out considering the crowd, the food was really good indeed. All the while, a female blues singer and a guitarist were performing outside the front door on Third Street. Apparently, at night, the space next door becomes a blues club with live musicians, so on a future visit to Clarksdale, I will have to check that out. But Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes is a welcome addition to what has been a breakfast-challenged city.
Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes
115 3rd St
Clarksdale, MS 38614
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
2166 Central Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
Do-it-yourself pizza boutiques using the “Subway” model have become all the rage recently, and they seem to be popping up everywhere in and around Memphis. From the days when Pyro’s was the only game in town, we have Pizza Rev in East Memphis and Rise Pies in Southaven and now Pizza Social in Bartlett. On a recent visit, I was impressed with the atmosphere and decor of Pizza Social. It is bigger than Pyro’s and has more table space, as well as an outdoor patio area. The prices are about a dollar higher for pizzas, but there are more topping options, and I was altogether happier with my pizza. Of course there are trade-offs. Pizza Social does not have the cool Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that Pyro’s has, opting for a regular drink fountain such as you might see in a convenience store, nor do they have the large selection of local beers or artisan coffee drinks that Pyro’s features. But for convenience, shorter lines and more satisfying pizza, Pizza Social will continue to be my go-to when I want pizza in the future.
3000 Kirby-Whitten Rd
Bartlett, TN 38134
Despite its relatively small size, Tupelo often feels like Mississippi’s “other city”, with its large airport, zoo, arena, downtown and vast array of retail, restaurants and hotels.So it really isn’t surprising that Tupelo has seen a burst of new restaurant activity of late. That being said, nothing quite prepared me for the shear brilliance of Forklift, a New American restaurant that specializes in gourmet twists on Southern comfort foods. A check of the menu shows inspired creations like the “Bay of Pigs” (Cuban sandwich made with pulled pork) or “Clucks and Waffles”, a gourmet take on the African-American tradition of chicken and waffles.
On our recent visit, we were immediately impressed with the decor and ambiance of the restaurant. Forklift features a big city atmosphere that would not be out of place in New Orleans, Memphis or Jackson. It also features an outdoor patio, complete with fire-pit, that nonetheless is roofed and feels more like a part of the main dining room rather than outdoors. We chose a comfortable seat there, and when things began to get chilly after sunset, the fire-pit was started and we were quite content.
I opted for the Steak & Frites, a dish that I have enjoyed at other restaurants, but Forklift’s take on it is quite different. Sirloin is a cut of meat that can often be tough, but this steak was cooked using a sous vide method, and was as tender as a filet mignon. It was arranged on the plate in slices and looked to my friend somewhat like beef brisket. It was as delicious as any steak I have ever tried. The “frites” it came with were hand-cut fries, and were equally good.
My friend opted for the “Pork Deluxe” which is a “burger” made from ground pork rather than ground beef. It came with bacon, cheese and a tomato onion jam, but proved to be too much for her to finish at one sitting, and she took a to-go box for the rest of it.
We left feeling that Forklift is the kind of restaurant that people would expect to find in the biggest cities, and that Tupelo is fortunate to have such a place. We hope that it will be here for many years to come.
1103 W Jackson St
Tupelo, MS 38804