Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
My lady friend had never been to the Mississippi Coast even though she is from Mississippi, so during our weekend in New Orleans, I made plans for us to drive over to the coast for the afternoon on Saturday, and we stopped first in Pass Christian, a town that had been almost completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Progress has been slow, but the community is springing back to life, and nowhere is that more evident than with the opening of a number of restaurants, shops and a hotel in the downtown and harbor areas. Of particular interest is a sleek, modernistic coffee bar called Cat Island Coffeehouse, which is actually attached to an independent bookstore called Pass Christian Books, sitting on the hill in Pass Christian’s downtown with an amazing view of the Gulf of Mexico and the marina and harbor. Coffee, books and waterfront views are three of my favorite things in life, so finding them all in one place is thrilling, to say the least. The mocha latte I ordered was terrific, and the selection of books, particularly those about Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement, were excellent as well. The coffeehouse also offers wine and small food items, and with comfortable couches and chairs, large picture windows and a breezy, outdoor deck, makes an excellent place to look out over the Gulf or to enjoy an evening sunset. On this particular day, full of clear blues skies, and sunshine, we could see the vague outline of Cat Island on the horizon where the sea and sky met. I could have spent far too much money in Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse, but I limited myself to one book, and we headed on our way toward Gulfport. But this first visit will not be our last.
Cat Island Coffeehouse/Pass Christian Books
300 East Scenic Drive
Pass Christian, MS 39571
Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
When visiting the Southaven Towne Center on a recent Sunday, I was somewhat surprised to see a shop called Baseball Rich Clothing. The name suggested an urban clothing store, and Southaven, Mississippi wasn’t exactly the place I would expect to find one. To my surprise, Baseball Rich Clothing turned out not to be merely an urban clothing store, but rather a locally-based urban clothing line, with a considerable number of designs and color schemes. The name springs from the fact that the owner was briefly a minor league baseball player, and the line is one of several new Memphis-based clothing lines that are popping up nowadays (Millionaire Grind and Memphis Mane are two others. Full reviews of them will be forthcoming). I was thrilled with nearly everything I saw, and the only real difficulty was settling on one shirt to purchase, as they had a seemingly-endless variety of designs and color schemes. Their headquarters store is open to the public at the Southaven Towne Center and worth a visit.
Baseball Rich Clothing
6519 Towne Center Drive
Southaven, MS 38671
Clarksdale rarely gets mentioned in the same context as South Beach Miami, the Vegas Strip, New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but once a year, in April, people from all over the world flood to the Mississippi Delta for three days of great blues, arts, crafts and food. The Juke Joint Festival has grown from humble beginnings to become the largest festival in Clarksdale, surpassing the older Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, and it is not unusual to hear all kinds of foreign accents along Delta Avenue on the weekend of the festival. Not only is Juke Joint Festival a world of fun, but the overwhelming majority of it is free of charge. The night shows on Saturday require a $10 wristband, which is a real bargain when compared to the price of a ticket to the average American music festival. For the lover of blues and American roots culture, Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is not to be missed.
I was on South Main downtown one evening because I was to speak at a hip-hop conference at Leadership Memphis, but I wanted a coffee before it started, so I started walking down toward the nearest coffee bar, hoping it would be open. To my surprise, much closer to the Leadership Memphis offices, I came upon a sign that said “387 Pantry- Coffee”, so I ventured inside to discover one of Memphis’ newest retail establishments. It’s hard to say exactly what the space at 387 South Main actually is, as it is a little bit of everything. I suppose the main space is called Stock & Belle. Primarily it is a fashion boutique, with designer clothing, but also some really cool local art for sale on the walls. Upstairs there is a salon. But another section of the space has been walled off to form a small grocery store known as the 387 Pantry. Gourmet foods and rare brands of coffee beans are the draw here, and within it is a small counter called Brews, where cups of coffee are available, made from the amazing $11,000 coffee machine known as a Clover. Clovers reproduce the French Press process in a machine, and have been said to produce a more flavorful cup of coffee. So I had to try one, and I was quite pleased with it. I also could not resist buying boxes of Velo brand Colombian Tierradentro and Guatemalan Waykan coffee beans. The employe informed me that the store’s brands of coffee beans will change monthly, so it’s probably a good idea to buy what you see that you want when you see it.
Stock & Belle/387 Pantry/Brews
387 South Main
Memphis, TN 38103
Record Store Day is a worldwide holiday held in April to call attention to an endangered species, the neighborhood record store. Record companies release all kinds of cool limited-edition vinyl LP’s and singles, and local stores often sponsor live performances on the day, and with vinyl sales picking up all the time, the future of independent stores doesn’t seem quite as bleak as it did a few years ago. In Memphis, three stores were official Record Store Day participants, and the first one I visited was Goner Records in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood. Goner is a record label as well as a store, and not surprisingly they made a big deal of the day, with live bands such as the Blackberries out under the gazebo at Cooper and Young, and a store literally full of customers.
Things seemed more subdued at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue, although they had opened an hour earlier than Goner. They had decided to have their live music the next day on Sunday, when they were having Son of Mudboy play for an album release party for the reissue of Jim Dickinson’s legendary Beale Street Saturday Night compilation, but there were still a number of crate diggers enjoying their Saturday afternoon by browsing.
The third and final store participating in Record Store Day was Memphis Music, the blues-oriented record store on Beale Street, where the Memphis Music Commission had decided to sponsor live performances. Unfortunately, things were quite hectic on Beale, with a Corvette competition, and the annual Africa In April festival at Church Park, but small crowds gathered to enjoy Memphis singer-songwriter Michael Joyner and the a cappella vocal group Artistik Approach. It needs to also be pointed out that Memphis Music has greatly increased its vinyl selection over the last year or so, and is not just a store for tourists, but is worth a visit from local music lovers as well. It’s selection of import CD”s, particularly those with a Memphis connection, is also worth browsing.
2152 Young Av
Memphis, TN 38104
1916 Madison Av
Memphis, TN 38104
149 Beale St
Memphis, TN 38103
On Friday June 27, I flew into Columbia, South Carolina to be a panelist at the Vocalis Music Industry Conference which was being held over the weekend. With no conference activities scheduled for the the Friday night, I headed downtown to the city’s entertainment district called the Vista. Unlike Memphis’ Beale Street, the Vista District is a large neighborhood, about three blocks wide and perhaps six blocks long along the Broad River, and differs from other entertainment districts in that it has an equal number of restaurants, shops, bars and clubs. While there are certainly plenty of live music venues, and liquor is available, there are also plenty of ordinary, family-friendly restaurants, frozen yogurt and dessert shops and boutiques. The place is also extremely attractive, and has little of the rowdy, drunken behavior that other cities often have in their entertainment districts. I decided to eat dinner at the Liberty Tap House, as I remember enjoying it in Myrtle Beach some years ago, and I have to say that I was quite pleased.