Since the closure of Anderton’s Restaurant in Midtown some years ago, Memphis has had a noticeable lack of decent seafood restaurants, and several attempts at it in recent years have not fared well. Nevertheless, good seafood, especially Gulf seafood, is something that I always crave, so when I heard that the good folks at Elwood’s Shack had opened a new place called Elwood’s Shells which specializes in seafood, I had to try it.
Elwood’s Shells sits in an old house next door to Tsunami in the trendy Cooper-Young neighborhood, amidst a very small parking lot. With nearby lots restricted to other establishments, parking is the restaurant’s biggest challenge. But the space is attractive, its interior a riot of coastal and tropical colors, with folk art by local Memphis artist and musician Lamar Sorrento.
The menu is remarkably large, and fairly unique by Memphis standards. There is fried shrimp of course, but also croaker (a kind of fish), grouper and redfish. There are entrees prepared in both the pontchartrain and meuniere styles that visitors to New Orleans or Biloxi have learned to love, and there is also a selection of po-boys and sandwiches. On my first visit, I tried the fried shrimp, and found them delicious, although they were far larger than the medium gulf shrimp that one usually finds in Pensacola or Mobile. They had a delicious breading, and the french fries that accompanied them were equally delicious. A slice of key lime pie to follow was the perfect ending to the lunch. Service was fairly slow but cheerful.
Unfortunately, my one big disappointment was the price. Elwood’s Shells is relatively expensive, doubtless because of the cost of bringing in quality seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. The food is good, and probably worth the price, but I will have to reserve Elwood’s Shells for special occasions or times when I have extra money. But it certainly deserves a visit.
“Can’t One Make One” read the shirts with the iconic image of the Como water tower on the front, and the legend “Together We Stand” on the back. The shirts are popular in this town, another way of saying “It takes a village. We can’t build this up as individuals.” The message of struggle is an odd twist in the 150-year history of this North Mississippi town, once home to the largest concentration of millionaires in the state.
Glimpses of that past are still visible in the stately homes that face the railroad track on the east side, whose porches look across to Main Street. One of them belonged to relatives of Tallulah Bankhead, and the future actress spent summers in Como in her youth. The house later belonged to a local artist, and was briefly lived in by Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame. His Delta Recording Service was briefly located on Main Street across the tracks.
But cotton, cattle and agriculture are no longer king, and Como today is a predominantly-Black town, and a singificantly poorer one than the Como of the last century. What it lacks in financial riches it more than makes up for in cultural riches, however. Como was home to legendary blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell, and fife-and-drum musicians like Napolian Strickland. Gospel musicians like the Rev. John Wilkins (son of blues great Robert Wilkins) and the Como Mamas live here, as does the living Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce. Downtown Como too has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with great restaurants like the Windy City Grill and Como Steakhouse opening on Main Street, even a Thai restaurant. A new catfish place opened just a few weeks ago.
Like many predominantly-Black towns, Como has a special day to celebrate its legacy, Como Day, which is held every year in October. The phenomenon is not unique to Como, but is found throughout the Delta in towns like Crenshaw and Tutwiler. A few of the events are called something else, like I’m So Greenwood in Greenwood, or Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou, but the vast majority are simply named for the town, as in Crenshaw Day or Como Day. The latter celebration is truly huge, with a day full of live music, Corvette cars and local vendors selling clothes, food and snacks. Music had started at noon, but when I arrived a band called the Southern Soul Band was on stage. They were quite good, but there was not a particularly large crowd in the park yet, as the weather was far colder than usual this year. At 5 PM, hometown favorite R. L. Boyce appeared on stage with Steve Toney on drums and Lightnin Malcolm backing him up. Boyce, who began as a drummer in fife and drum bands, is also an accomplished drummer in his own right, having played behind Jessie Mae Hemphill on a couple of her albums, and is also a self-taught guitarist, with some influence from Fred McDowell and R. L. Burnside. Compared to other Hill Country players, Boyce is largely unique, setting up a pattern of recurring, trance-like riffs over which he often improvises lyrics, based on people he sees in the crowd, or recent events. Hermetic and idiosyncratic, Boyce’s music is largely unaffected by music outside his own special system.
Fife and drum music has a large history in Como. In fact, the first well-known fife and drum band in the modern era was dubbed the Como Fife and Drum Band when it played at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square in 1970. Napolian Strickland was the driving force behind this band, with the drummers often being John Tytus and Otha Turner. Otha’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, has continued the tradition with her grandfather’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, whose appearance hyped the crowd considerably Saturday evening. Despite the ancient nature of this music, which pre-dates blues, there were plenty of people in the crowd ready to dance to it, even some young people. Fife and drum music on a moonlit night in North Mississippi seems like a right thing, something that is supposed to happen. It feels like a connection to a sacred past, a summoning of the ancestors.
Behind the fife and drum band came Duwayne Burnside, joined by his nephew Kent Burnside who had come down from the Midwest for a Burnside reunion which was being held in Byhalia. Duwayne, son of the late R. L. “Rural” Burnside is continuing the legacy of his father. He is an amazing electric guitarist, who has managed to combine the Hill Country tradition with other influences, such as the electric guitar styles of Albert King, B. B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Duwayne typically fronts a fairly large band, and is as comfortable singing Tyrone Davis or Bobby Womack tunes as he is Hill Country classics. He had likely been singing all day at the family reunion, and when he moved aside to take a break, Kent came up to perform a couple of tunes, including the iconic “Going Away Baby” AKA “Four Women” which was so beloved by his grandfather.
Como Day is always anchored by a headliner, and this year it was Omar Cunningham, a southern soul star from Alabama. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been warmer during the late afternoon, turned bitterly cold in the space of about an hour, and also, Windy City Grill has curtailed their kitchen hours, ending food service at 10 PM. So, although I would have liked to have caught Omar’s set, I walked back over to Main Street instead to order a deep dish pizza at Windy City Grill, which was jampacked with football fans and others who had come over from Como Day. It was a satisfying ending to a great day celebrating a great town.
Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas.
Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city.
Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991.
One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely.
I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason.
Somerville, Tennessee is not exactly close to the Gulf of Mexico, and yet the new Big Fish restaurant at Highway 64 and Jernigan Drive effectively creates the ambiance of a waterfront seafood restaurant in Destin or Panama City Beach. The restaurant, built by an architecht around his formerly-mobile food truck, has only outdoor seating, but the dining area is covered with a sort of roof, and the whole area is attractively landscaped in a way that suggests the beach is not far away. On my first afternoon visit, great New Orleans music was playing over the loudspeakers. I had come with the intent of trying a shrimp po-boy, but I was soon intrigued by the special, a Surf ‘N Turf Burger. This proved to be a 100% Black Angus burger, topped with cheese, lobster, shrimp and crab. It would have normally been topped with cole slaw as well, but I am not a fan of cole slaw and asked them to omit it. As strange as the concept might sound, the Surf ‘N Turf burger was absolutely amazing, and a decent value at $8.99. It came with equally delicious french fries. The weather was pleasant, and at my table, it was easy to forget Highway 64 off to the north, or the shopping center across the street at my back. It felt like being in Florida. I finished off my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which was also delicious. I don’t think it is made in-house, but it is still really good.
Unfortunately, on a more recent visit, the food was still amazingly good, but the owners told me that they will be closing at the end of October. With no indoor dining options, I had wondered how they would deal with the onset of cold weather, and what I learned is that they had decided to close altogether, during which time they will be renovating an old house on the premises. The project will result in an indoor dining area, and should be completed by April of 2019, at which time they plan to reopen. In the meanwhile, I strongly recommend that you get out to Big Fish for at least one last time here in October before they close for the winter.
On a Friday evening, after meeting a friend for dinner in Memphis, with nothing in particular to do, I headed out Poplar Avenue through Collierville and into Fayette County, which is the Tennessee county that most resembles the Mississippi Hill Country. Mississippi Fred McDowell was from Fayette County (Rossville to be exact), and if there is any fife and drum activity left in Tennessee (and there does not seem to be), it would likely be in that county. So I often venture out there to ride the backroads, take photographs, and see if I come upon any events, or flyers announcing events on the various stores along the roads. People in Fayette tend to be old-school and don’t use social media much to promote blues or gospel events.
One of the reasons that this has taken on such urgency with me is that the western portion of Fayette County is undergoing a process of suburbanization, as people move away from Memphis into the country. The resulting growth and subdividing has the net effect of destroying historic locations and buildings, so I want to photograph what is still around while I can.
Posters on the outside of stores in Rossville and Moscow announced a barbecue festival in Rossville and a car show in Somerville, as well as a Jubilee Hummingbirds concert at a church south of Moscow in Slayden, Mississippi. There was a also a poster announcing some kind of rap show at Saine’s, which is ordinarily a blues club. Signs along Highway 57 also announced that Terry Saine, the club’s owner, was running for the state legislature.
Out on the Cowan Loop between Moscow and LaGrange, I came to an old and somewhat historic-looking church called Anderson Grove. The place, set far back off the road in a grove, looked almost abandoned, but the area was fairly peaceful. Further west along the same road was another church, obviously abandoned, with no sign to indicate what its name might have been. Not far away, back on Highway 57 was an abandoned grocery store that must have at one time been a bustling place indeed. But I found no evidence of juke joints, ball fields or picnic spots.
North of Moscow, along Highway 76, I came to Saine’s Blues Club, and stopped there, in the hopes of perhaps catching up with Terry Saine. Saine was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s, and in my belief likely old enough to have been aware of Black fife and drum bands in Fayette County during his youth, and perhaps also able to fill in some gaps about the Fayette County blues musician Lattie Murrell. But Saine was not there, perhaps out campaigning for office, so I headed on into Somerville.
There, around the square, young people were setting up stages, booths and barricades, getting ready for the Cotton Festival, which was to be held the next day. Nothing was going on at the moment however, so I headed over to Betty’s After Dark blues club, but found it fairly quiet, although open. They were having a large T. K. Soul show the next night, after the Southern Heritage Classic game in Memphis. Nearby, however, was a restaurant with outdoor tables and colorful lights, that seemed to be packed with people. It looked like something transported from Destin or Orange Beach to Somerville, and proved to be a new seafood restaurant called Big Fish that I realized will deserve a future visit.
On out Highway 59, Fayette-Ware High School was clearly playing a football game at their stadium, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, and I headed on to Brewer Road where I knew there was a club. But all I found was a group of young people at the end of the road on four-wheelers just hanging out, and if there was anything going on at the club, it was obviously a hip-hop event geared to youth.
Likewise at Mason, the Log Cabin and Blue Room had large crowds, but just DJ’s as best I could tell, and by now I was thoroughly tired. So I gave up looking for anything to get into and began driving back toward Bartlett on Highway 70, as lightning and rain began to develop.
Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I headed over to yet another new breakfast spot in New Orleans, this one in a familiar location, 139 South Cortez in Mid-City which was the original location of the Ruby Slipper, now a fairly-popular breakfast chain in New Orleans. The chain had let their original location go as they opened new locations closer to the tourist areas, but I was surprised to see that it had reopened in June as a new restaurant called Fullblast Brunch. Opening a breakfast restaurant in New Orleans would seem to be a foolhardy proposition, as the city seems to have more of them than any other place I have been, and yet, with few exceptions, they seem to fare well despite the obvious level of competition. One must conclude that New Orleanians absolutely love to eat breakfast out rather than at home. One of the things I find so special about the city as well is its tendency to have great restaurants on street corners in otherwise residential neighborhoods, a dynamic that is certainly true of the building where Fullblast is located. The restaurant is still relatively new, and to our surprise, we had no trouble getting a table at all. Both the food and the coffee were great, and although we enjoyed standard breakfast fare, we heard others rave about the crab cakes.
After breakfast, I wanted to head out along St. Claude Avenue to get some pictures of the neighborhood murals, which are another unique facet of New Orleans life. Every time I visit, it seems that new murals have appeared along the major thoroughfares, celebrating local hip-hop artists, Black history icons like Harriet Tubman, or the musicians and social aid and pleasure clubs of the 9th Ward. The latter mural particularly interested Darren, as it included a painting of TBC’s deceased saxophone player Brandon Franklin, who was from the 9th Ward, but I was somewhat shocked by a building on which seemed to have been painted the slogan “Support Murder.” I am well aware of the problems in America today, but I wasn’t expecting to see so stark and violent a message. But as it turned out, a crucial letter was hidden behind a telephone pole, and when we got closer, the slogan actually read “Support C-Murder,” the former No Limit Records rap artist, a sentiment that I agree with whole-heartedly.
Darren and TBC Brass Band were getting ready for a performance at some beer and barbecue festival at Wollenberg Park along the Mississippi River, but I had to get on the road and head back to Memphis. Leaving New Orleans is never easy for me, and it typical leaves me rather sad. However, I was able to stop at a Rouses in Ponchatoula, and load up on French Market and Mello Joy coffee capsules for my Keurig machine at home. I also picked up a pound of beans from a Baton Rouge coffee roaster called River Road Coffee Roasters, and was quite pleased with the results when I got home.
There are no second-lines during the summer, at least not the large, official ones sponsored by social aid and pleasure clubs, but that doesn’t mean that brass band activity dies down during the summer. If anything, the bands are busier than ever, due to weddings, birthdays and family reunions, as well as club dates and outdoor music festivals, so I usually try to make it to New Orleans at least once during the summer to hang out with my friends in To Be Continued Brass Band, and this year was no exception, as I made my way down on July 20th, stopping in Covington, Louisiana for a dinner at The Chimes, an excellent seafood restaurant along the scenic Tchefuncte River. But it was after midnight when I arrived in New Orleans, and my TBC Brass Band friends were gathered outside of a place called Jokers Wyld and Mickey’s Playhouse (the former Ooh Pooh Pa Dooh) where they were supposed to be playing for some sort of party. After I parked and pulled around the corner, I found them engaged in a friendly but vigorous band argument of some sort, which is often the case in New Orleans, as band is a competitive sport in that musical city. Unfortunately, the man who had engaged the band “went off to get the money” and never returned, so they didn’t play, and I instead grabbed a cafe-au-lait and some beignets and made my way to the West Bank and to bed.
The next morning, my homeboy Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, his two young daughters and I headed into the Bywater neighborhood to have breakfast at a bright and cheerful new spot on St. Claude Avenue called Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which had not been there when I was last in the city at Mardi Gras. In one sense, Polly’s takes a page from other typical New Orleans breakfast spots, with local artwork on the walls, and a bright color scheme, and cheerful, sun-catching windows and decor. But we greatly appreciated the private parking lot (a rarity in New Orleans), the pleasant, efficient service, and the extremely high-quality food. Thoroughly satisfied, we were soon on our way to a recording studio in Mid-City, where TBC was to record a commercial with the legendary Kermit Ruffins.
After the studio session, it was largely gigs all day, with the first one being a wedding reception at an event venue in Jefferson Parish. From there I ran Darren by Guitar Center so he could buy a new cymbal for his bass drum, and then we headed to Legacy Kitchen, a new local chain of restaurants that I had been eager to try. We found the food excellent (I had the chicken and waffles), and we liked the upbeat vibe of the place, although prices were fairly steep. From there we had to head to the arena on the Xavier University campus, where a family reunion was taking place. Like the earlier wedding reception, the organizers had hired both the TBC Brass Band and some of the Zulus to be there in costume, and the attendees seemed to enjoy it.
The next stop was another wedding reception, this one at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Algiers, right at the border with Gretna, and at that particular location, the crowd had gotten rather rowdy, and some men were trying to calm down a man who was obviously intoxicated. But the performance went well, and the crowd seemed to enjoy TBC greatly, and again, there were members of the Zulus in costume there as well, which apparently is the current trend in New Orleans events.
Our final destination was a birthday party in the Seventeenth Ward at a place called the Broadway Bar, where a large crowd was gathered out in the street, at tables and chairs in front of the club, and inside. The place was so crowded that it was hard for TBC to get into the club, but the Broadway is the type of hood club where the band and the crowd feed off of each other, and their performance was the hypest of the whole day. After TBC came back out of the truly tiny club, the band and members of the crowd began a sort of second-line around the neighborhood, and were not ready to break up when we made it back around to the club entrance. So TBC played for another twenty minutes or so while the man whose birthday it was, and his father danced in the street, along with some other people from the crowd. Finally, about 1 in the morning or so, we finally left the area. After one of these serendipitous New Orleans moments, the mood is usually exhaustion but exhilaration too, and this night was no different.
Although a few of my friends expressed concern and disapproval of the name of Merigold, Mississippi’s Po Monkey Day, the event was organized for the first time last year to honor the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, who was the owner of the legendary Po Monkey Lounge just outside the town of Merigold. This year’s festival was somewhat hampered by outrageous heat, with the heat index by some accounts near 114 degrees. Still, a hundred people or so showed up in downtown Merigold near Crawdad’s Restaurant to hear from musicians such as Lightnin Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, R. L. Boyce and Super Chikan. Cedric performed a new single called “We Made It” from his forthcoming LP Benton County Relic which is due out in September. Toward the afternoon, storms approached, but they never really developed near the festival area, and things never really cooled off at all. After R. L. Boyce’s performance, with every table in Crawdad’s reserved because of the festival, we headed down to Airport Grocery in Cleveland instead, and not only was the food good but so was the all-blues soundtrack. Airport Grocery was once a live blues venue when it was on Highway 8, but since it has moved onto Highway 61, it doesn’t seem to book live music, or at least not as much. As for the legendary Po Monkey Lounge, we learned this week that our hopes that someone might purchase and preserve the historic juke joint were in vain. The contents will be sold at auction next month, and presumably the building will be demolished.
Midtown Memphis’ massive Railgarten complex is one of several elaborate, trendy live music venues that have opened here recently, many of them that resemble something from Austin or New Orleans more than Memphis. But as summertime venues go, Railgarten is probably the best, with something for everyone, including outdoor volleyball and an large outdoor yard and stage area, as well as a diner, ice cream parlor, ping pong lounge and upstairs deck overlooking the back yard and stage area. It’s not exactly like a beach, but it has a beachy sort of vibe to it. Even so, while lots of local and regional artists have performed at Railgarten, hip-hop is rare there, so when I saw that Al Kapone was sponsoring a cook-out and show to kick off the July 4th holiday, I wanted to make sure to be there. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, if hot, and when I arrived the place was already crowded indeed. The event was a free show, so there were already a hundred or more people in the back outdoor stage area, with more coming all the time. The opening act was a spectacular local reggae band called Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, which has been wowing crowds in Memphis for several years now. They were followed by several local rappers, including Tune C, Memphis rap veteran Tom Skeemask and Uriah Mitchell. Then Al Kapone came on stage, performing with a live band, the singer Ashton Riker, a dancer or two, some fire-twirlers, and the rapper Frayser Boy, with a show that combined some of his newer material with classic anthems like “Whoop That Trick” and “lyrical Drive-By.” As Al wrapped himself in an American-flag-themed blanket, I looked at the crowd around me and thought about how appropriate his show was for the holiday. Surrounding me was a crowd of many different races, backgrounds and cultures, all united by their love of Al Kapone, Memphis and hip-hop, and there was not one fight or argument to mar the good vibes.
After the six months of mentoring under the Tennessee Folklife Arts Program, mentors and apprentices were invited to a reception at the Tennessee Arts Commission office in Nashville in order to highlight what they learned during the program. So Kesha Burton from Brownsville, R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce and Willie Hurt, who had all been involved in the project to reintroduce fife and drum music to West Tennessee, all headed out to Nashville for the reception. Although the weather was stormy and wet in Memphis, we found that Nashville was dry and sunny, with the downtown area extremely busy with various events and festivals. In addition to the fife and drum project, other apprentices learned basket-making, chair-making, guitar-making, Panamanian dress making, buckdancing, Black gospel quartet performance, and square-dance calling. Although the space for the reception was somewhat cramped, everyone had a good time. Afterwards, I took Kesha Burton to Shipwreck Cove out at Percy Priest Reservoir to celebrate. After a stop for gelato at Legacy Gelato, and a run by Trader Joe’s to pick up some items that we cannot get in Memphis, we headed back to Brownsville, and then I to Memphis.