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 Levitt Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting live music opportunities in America, especially outdoor performances. Well-known to Memphians as the organization that helped save the Overton Park Shell, the foundation runs shells and other outdoor stages in a number of American cities, and sets up summer concert series in many more. This year, the Levitt Foundation announced a Summer Music Series in New Albany, Mississippi, taking advantage of the city’s recently renovated Park Along The River (the river in question being the Tallahatchie). On July 2, the series brought the Hill Country blues to New Albany with performances by Oxford-based Cadillac Funk, and then the Cedric Burnside Project, featuring Trenton Ayers (son of Little Joe Ayers) on guitar. A fairly large crowd showed up for the two-hours-worth of funk and blues, with dancers filling up the space in front of the stage. As is his custom, Cedric started his set out with several acoustic guitar songs before moving to the drums and inviting Trenton Ayers to join him. In its more hardcore, electric form, the Cedric Burnside Project performs a large repertoire, from originals that feature a Hill Country edge, to many of the songs made famous by Junior Kimbrough and Cedric’s grandfather, the late R. L. Burnside, such as “Firemen Ring The Bell” and “Goin’ Down South.” All too soon, the show was over, and the crowd was left asking for more.
Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.
For my third photographic journey documenting the blues country of West Tennessee, I stayed mostly in Tipton and Haywood Counties, photographing the historic store in Gainsville, old churches out on the Mason-Charleston Road, and historic buildings in the Haywood County community of Stanton. Perhaps my best find though was a large private ball field out north of Mason, where a Black community baseball team called the Zodiacs once played. Such community ball parks used to be common in Black communities across the South, and were occasionally the sites of Fourth-of-July picnics where fife-and-drum bands or blues musicians played. One such ballfield used to be on Germantown Road near Ellis Road in the Oak Grove community outside of Bartlett when I was a teenager. It has now sadly been torn down.
The Zodiacs Park is in poor condition, and almost looks abandoned, but teenagers from Mason use its basketball courts on warm afternoons, and the fact that some new equipment can be seen on the premises, such as a gas barbecue grill, suggests that the complex is at least still occasionally used. Still, with the park completely empty on a late fall afternoon, it seemed a sad and lonely place indeed.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
Chisholm Lake in Lauderdale County, Tennessee is not the kind of place you find by accident. In fact, were it not for a small sign along Highway 51 just north of Ripley, I might never have heard of it at all. But on a trip back from Dyersburg one evening, I noticed a sign for the Chisholm Lake Store Restaurant, boasting of steaks and seafood, so I had been telling myself for several years that one day I would try it, and the other evening, I finally made a deliberate trip to Ripley to do so. Once in Ripley, finding the way to get to the restaurant is not difficult, as the road is called Chisholm Lake Road, but the lake is fairly far away from the town, and it takes awhile to get there. Once you enter the state’s wildlife management area, the road narrows, and soon you see Chisholm Lake, a beautiful oxbow lake surrounded by woods that once was a channel of the Mississippi River. Here and there are isolated fishing cottages and cabins, and then at the end of the road, a small collection of cottages and one obviously commercial building surrounded by cars, the Chisholm Lake Store. Despite the name, the store is actually a restaurant and bar, with a fun, convivial spirit and sports on the flat screen TV’s. There are no menus on tables, as you actually walk up to the bar and order before getting seated. The choices are fairly limited, but steak and crab are what people come for, and the ribeye steak dinner with baked potato and a salad bar is a great deal, although keep in mind that they have no cuts of steak other than ribeyes, and they take only cash, no credit or debit cards. Because you’re literally off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, there’s also limited phone access and no internet to speak of, but it’s worth it for the good food, fun, and views of the setting sun over the lake. The Chisholm Lake Store is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It’s probably a good idea to call ahead to confirm that they are open.
Chisholm Lake Store
23 Chisholm Lake Camp Rd
Ripley, TN 38063
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.
Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, with not much going on, I decided to join a walking tour that was walking across the old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge. The tours are apparently held to increase interest in the Harahan Bridge redevelopment scheme, and I must say, I think they work. We met in Crump Park, one of the city’s forgotten and disused parks, which sits at the foot of the bridge near a Super 8 motel that used to be a Holiday Inn years ago. The park has a magnificent old magnolia tree in its center where we met the tour director who gave us a lecture about the park and the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, which was erected in 1949. He also gave us information about the Harahan project, and then we set off walking across the bridge to Arkansas. The view from the bridge provides a lot of opportunities for photographs, even though the other two bridges effectively block any good view of the city’s skyline. And even though the weather was hot, it was not unbearably so, and all of the trees and grass were beautiful at this time of year.