R, L, Boyce’s second show of the night was an hour south of Clarksdale in Leland, Mississippi, a rough Delta town just outside of Greenville. Leland, with lots of projects and apartments, and a largely abandoned downtown, is not the sort of place one would expect to find fine dining, and yet, amidst all the decay and ruin is a jewel of a restaurant called Vince’s. Pulling up at night, you’ll notice it, because it’s the only building on Main Street where any cars are parked. It looks small and unassuming from the outside, but inside, it is white tablecloths and great steaks, seafood, and Italian dishes. But what makes Vince’s even more special is what happens next door in the bar area- a decidedly non-upscale style of music, Mississippi blues. At least one travel site says that Vince’s features music 5 nights a week. I’m not sure about that, but they have blues on weekends for sure, so you can enjoy your ribeye or spaghetti while listening to some of the best bluesmen from the Delta or the Hill Country. Prices are reasonable, and the service is first-rate as well. Vince’s is certainly worth a stop whenever you are in the Mississippi Delta.
207 N Main St
Leland, MS 38756
Closed Monday and Tuesday
It’s not at all unusual for Sean “Bad” Apple and R. L. Boyce to perform in Clarksdale, but on the last Saturday in February, they performed in a rather unusual place. The Bin is a former grain elevator used as a music venue on the grounds of the Shacksdale Motel ,a motel of cottages across the road from the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, just outside of Clarksdale. The motel and inn are popular with out-of-town visitors on blues pilgrimages, so live blues performances on the grounds make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it was quite cold on this particular afternoon, and the venue was somewhat open to the outside. But a good crowd was present, including singer Libby Rae Watson, who was scheduled to perform after Apple and Boyce, who were aided by Stud Ford on drums and Sherena Boyce on tambourine. The afternoon consisted primarily of Boyce’s unique compositions, as well as some Hill Country standards like “Poor Black Mattie” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The fun continued until 5 PM, and then Boyce had to leave for another show elsewhere in the Delta.
The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
Although the Mississippi Delta is better known, there is also an Arkansas Delta, wide and wild and if anything, more mysterious than the other. More remote and with fewer large towns, the Arkansas Delta is less visited and less familiar to tourists than its Mississippi sibling, but is certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in the blues and its history. Towns here, like those in the Mississippi Delta, have clearly seen better days. Buildings on the main streets are often abandoned, and many are dilapidated. Whites and Blacks alike have fled these Delta communities for better opportunities in America’s big cities, and the situation in some of these towns is desperate indeed. Almost no business was left functioning on Marvell’s wide Main Street on the Friday afternoon I visited. At least one of the storefronts had collapsed altogether, a prominent “Keep Out” sign warning people not to venture into the ruins. Dewitt, a county seat town with a courthouse looked somewhat better, but nearby Gillett seemed almost as abandoned as Marvell. But the most interesting discovery was in McGehee, a town whose downtown still looked rather decent by Delta standards. South of the downtown were the abandoned remains of several night clubs and juke joints, discoveries which suggested that McGehee had once been an entertainment destination for Black residents of the southern Arkansas Delta. The sign in front of the former Town & Country Restaurant proclaimed “Disco Nights, Thursday, Friday”, and the building was truly gigantic. One can only imagine what a night was like in there in the late 1970’s which was likely its heyday. Did bluesmen hold forth at Mary’s Colonial Club? One wonders. Saddened by the extent of abandonment and loss, I drove off toward Monroe in the darkness.
Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
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.
Monday morning was still overcast and rainy, but at least the rain had breaks in it. My homeboy Darren and I went and picked up Bunny, the tuba player from the TBC Brass Band, and we all headed over to my favorite breakfast place, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy in the Marigny neighborhood. Afterwards, we headed over to the Treme neighborhood, where there was a new mural in honor of the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, the musician who died suddenly in Japan earlier in the year due to complications from a dental procedure. Although the rain was starting back up, we managed to take some pictures there, and then I was trying to pick up a TBC Brass Band t-shirt, but we could not get in touch with the band member who had the shirts. So I dropped Darren and Bunny back off, headed Uptown to a new coffee bar called French Truck Coffee, which was really good, and then hit the road back toward 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
Just across the Hardeman County line from LaGrange, Grand Junction should have fared better than it did. Its name referred to the fact that it was located at a place where the Memphis & Charleston railroad line heading toward Chattanooga met what was then the Mississippi Central Railroad heading from Jackson, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi by way of Bolivar and Holly Springs. Both railroads were important, and while Bolivar was the county seat, one could have expected that a town of some significance would have grown up there, and indeed, some of the buildings suggest that Grand Junction was once a little bigger than it is today. But like all the towns I had seen on this particular Saturday, Grand Junction’s downtown was largely dead, if not quite as abandoned as some of the other towns. Again, there was a certain amount of commerce along Highway 57, which probably contributed to the problems in the old business district, and there was the National Bird Dog Museum, which is probably what the town is most famous for, as the national field trials are held annually nearby on the Ames Plantation. But downtown Grand Junction is largely empty, with a number of buildings that look as if they haven’t changed in 60 years. Unlike many of the other towns, there is also a train depot that still exists, although it seems to be undergoing renovations, and is far smaller than I would have expected in a town where two important railroads met. Here’s hoping that someone begins to think about restoring the historic downtown buildings. They would work well as restaurants or cute boutiques and antique shops.
Unlike the other towns along Highway 57, LaGrange did not come about because of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. It was platted in 1829 and developed by early settlers, and its original street plan was supposedly patterned after that of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Memphis & Charleston Railroad reach LaGrange in 1838, but a financial “panic”, as recessions were called in that day, led to the railroad going into bankruptcy. Since LaGrange was very much a going concern before the railroad arrived, it is not surprising that the business district is on the opposite side of town from the railroad, and there are still a number of historic homes and business buildings, many of which predate the Civil War. Unfortunately, only 133 people actually live in the town, and Main Street, though much better preserved than that at Moscow, was equally empty.