Tourists flock to Memphis for Beale Street, Graceland, the Stax Museum, the Rock-N-Soul Museum, and many other musical and artistic attractions, but oddly, they rarely venture across the river to the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, unless it is to gamble at Southland Gaming and Racing. But the city on the Arkansas side has a vibrant music history as well, with the Black community centered around South Eighth Street, a wide-open equivalent of Beale Street, where musicians, pool-hustlers and gamblers frequented establishments like Sam Ervin’s Cafe, the Harlem Inn, Jones Hotel and Cafe or Lucille Perry’s Cafe Number 1. Howlin’ Wolf once lived in West Memphis, and occasionally played live on KWEM Radio Station, where a young Jim Dickinson once heard him, fascinated. Some of Memphis’ best Black musicians played nightly at the Plantation Inn, at the far east end of Broadway near the river bridge.
In this vibrant environment, in 1963, William Maxwell decided to open a barbecue joint near the intersection of South 14th Street and Broadway, which in those days was Highway 70. Experts tell us that most new restaurants don’t make it two years, but 55 years later, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is still going strong, even if its hours are a little more erratic. After all, Mr. Maxwell is now 84 years old, and has health issues, so the restaurant is only open when a relative is available to run it day to day. Still, on the day I visited, after several attempts over the last few years when they were closed, Mr. Maxwell was sitting in the restaurant as people came in to buy their pork shoulder or bologna sandwiches. Of course, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is nothing fancy, and I learned the hard way that they don’t take credit or debit cards, but they do make some tasty barbecue in an authentic down-home environment.
106 S 14th St
West Memphis, AR 72301
(Call before visiting, as the hours have become somewhat unpredictable)
It was a wonderfully-sunny afternoon, and I knew that a new juke joint called The Blue Room was having their grand opening in Mason, so I decided to roll up into Tipton County. After debating the different dinner possibilities in the area, I decided to head to Erwin’s Great Steaks, a restaurant I had not been to in many years. Located in an old general store in the Bride community, Erwin’s sits about seven miles west of Covington on a backroad, but it is definitely worth the journey. The smell of the wood-burning pit pervades the area, shrouding the historic building in a smokey haze, as people wait inside and out for tables. My ribeye steak was excellent, as were the sides, and the meal was also a great value.
Erwin’s Great Steaks
4464 Bride Rd
Covington, TN 38019
After dinner, I headed through Covington and down Highway 59 to Mason, where Saul Whitley was celebrating the opening of his new juke joint called The Blue Room, in the former Rejuvenated Bar and Grill building on Front Street. Although there was not a live band, the small room was filled to the brim with partiers enjoying pool, free food and drink, and good southern soul music played by a DJ. I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Whitley, the owner, and he indicated that the Blue Room will be offering live music in the future.
The Blue Room
42 Front St
Mason, TN 38049
This is the second year of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival, which celebrates the legacy of Junior Kimbrough and his sons David, Robert and Kinney, and this year’s festival, held on Mothers’ Day, was hot weather-wise, and musically as well. Rather than being held inside The Hut in Holly Springs, where the Friday night jams had taken place, the Sunday afternoon line-up was held on a large stage outside, where a crowd enjoyed a number of familiar and not-so-familiar blues artists, including the Hoodoo Men from Nashville (I had not heard of them, but was pleasantly impressed), Cameron Kimbrough, Joyce Jones, R. L. Boyce, juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce, Eric Deaton, Lucious Spiller, and of course the Kimbrough Brothers. Also of interest was a new beer called Kimbrough Cotton Patch Kolsch, named in honor of the Kimbrough family, and released by the 1817 Brewery out of Okolona, Mississippi. These folks also have something called “Hill Country IPA,” and are one of a number of new microbreweries springing up in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Since I had to work the next day, I was not able to stay until the end of the festival, which I was told came about midnight or so, but year 2 of the Kimbrough Festival was a rousing success.
For the second year, fans of Mississippi blues came to Holly Springs to celebrate the legacy of Junior Kimbrough and his sons David, Robert and Kinney at the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Held over a three-day period, the festival was primarily centered around a former VFW hut known simply as The Hut, which suitably has the ambiance of an old Mississippi juke joint. Set in a hollow down from a higher street, it sits behind some trees which hide a spooky old Masonic lodge which has been abandoned, but inside on Friday night, the atmosphere was bright and cheerful, despite the failing air conditioner and the incredible heat. The great David Kimbrough Jr was on stage, with his brother Robert on bass and his brother Kinney on drums, and a small crowd was listening attentively in the chairs out in front of the stage. As the night progressed, the event turned into a jam session, with other artists and students from the earlier workshops joining in, and an even larger crowd milling around outside where it was cooler. Among the other cool things was that an Okolona beer company, 1817 Brewery had introduced a new variety of beer called Kimbrough Cotton Patch Kolsch in honor of the Kimbrough family, and it was being sold at the event.
Spring is the festival season in North Mississippi, and each small town has some sort of spring festival with games, vendors and live music. Senatobia, Mississippi, in Tate County, has long been nicknamed the Five Star City (I haven’t the slightest idea why), so, not surprisingly, its spring festival is called Five Star City Fest. Como blues musician R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform on the main stage on the Friday night, May 11, but I decided to head to the festival early to see if any other blues performers were scheduled. After all, Tate County is one of only two counties where Black fife and drum music still goes on, and it has a long and storied history of blues and Black gospel music. Unfortunately, I soon learned that almost everyone booked for the festival other than Boyce were country artists. There was a barbecue festival going on in the park along the railroad tracks, but the main festival was going on along Front Street north of Main. The street had been blocked off, and a number of vendors and food trucks had set up in the area, including the local Bliss Ice Cream Company from Senatobia. With the weather so hot, I really wanted some, but they were not set up to take debit cards, so I ended up walking down Main Street to the Sayle Oil Company store, and bought an ice cream Twix bar instead. Nearly a hundred people were running or walking in the 5K run, which had begun around 6 PM, and which started and ended near the main stage. Close to the stage also was the site of the new Delta Steakhouse restaurant, and while it is not open yet, I could see through the windows that the tables and booths and chairs were already in place within the restaurant space, and that the place should be open relatively soon, perhaps in June. R. L. Boyce came on stage at 7 PM, with Steve Toney on drums and the young guitarist Kody Harrell, and with Boyce’s daughter Sherena playing the tambourine and dancing. A small crowd of Boyce fans were in the audience cheering him on as he performed most of his standard compositions and tunes. I had considered staying on after his performance to see who would come on stage next, but I soon found that it was another country band, and I had no desire to see that, so I debated heading to Holly Springs for the first night of the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Music Festival, but I ultimately decided to head back to Memphis.
When I left Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, I headed out to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue to catch the Duwayne Burnside and David Kimbrough performance. Pete’s is another juke joint in Clarksdale that generally has live music only during the Juke Joint Festival, but it is a perfect venue for live blues, just a block or so from the legendary Riverside Hotel. Unfortunately, the performance started late, as the musicians were waiting for someone to arrive with an amp or microphone, and the first set only involved Duwayne Burnside, as David Kimbrough was nowhere to be seen. Of course Duwayne is one of Mississippi’s most gifted blues performers, so it was still an enjoyable show, and I heard that later, after I had left, that David did show up and perform with Duwayne. But Lightnin’ Malcolm was performing out at the Shack Up Inn, so I decided to head out there and see if I could catch him.
Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
For a city of nearly 20,000, Clarksdale, Mississippi is severely under-represented when it comes to restaurants, particularly fine dining. During Juke Joint Festival, the problem becomes more significant, as the main restaurants are either on special festival menus with limited choices, or outrageously crowded, with wait times that can exceed an hour and cause you to miss a performer you were hoping to see. But on the way to Mardi Gras in February, I had become aware of a place in Rena Lara, about 10 minutes from Clarksdale, that has ribeye steaks and live music on weekends. The Great River Road Country Store, from Highway 1, looks like a gas station, but looks can be deceiving. Of course you can purchase gasoline there, and inside, it has all the usual items you would expect in a country store. But once inside, you notice a vast array of tables, and a large performance stage. The fact is, on weekends, the Great River Road store turns into a combination steakhouse and live music club. I arrived too early for the live music, and the rain was pouring down outside, but I ordered a rib-eye steak, and I was thoroughly pleased. Ribeyes are not my favorite cut of meat, yet this steak was tender, with no tough fat or gristle, and excellent flavor. There was nothing particularly fancy of gourmet about it. Just a delicious steak, with Texas toast and a baked potato. As for the atmosphere, it was interesting as well, with some children who were related to the owner dressed in hunting gear and running joyfully around the premises. The woman who was serving me explained that the owners’ son owned Catfish Blues in Hernando, and was opening a new steakhouse in Senatobia called Delta Kitchen, which I had already heard about. Although the Great River Road sells food everyday, steaks are only cooked on weekends. It’s worth a drive down into the Delta for great food, great fun and occasional great music.
Great River Road Country Store
3915 Highway 1
Rena Lara, MS 38720
This year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale had to contend with any number of unusual obstacles this year, including rain, a downtown power outage that lasted several hours, and in the afternoon, a sudden blast of wind that overturned tents and sent them blowing down streets! What was so odd about it was that the rain had ended several hours before, and there had even been periods of beautiful sunshine in the hours leading up to the wind gusts. Despite all the problems, musicians continued playing acoustically where they didn’t have power, and all the power had been restored by the evening performances in the juke joints.