After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
The Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi is a beautiful setting for any event, and it makes an awesome setting for the Oxford Blues Festival each July. This year, veteran bluesman R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi performed as part of a supergroup with Lightnin Malcolm (who learned from Boyce) and drummer Cedric Burnside, a grandson of R. L. Burnside who once was part of the Juke Joint Duo with Lightnin’ Malcolm. This hard-hitting trio played a good hour’s worth of Hill Country blues before the onset of a line of heavy showers called the festival to a halt.
It’s not all that common to see a boarded-up police station, but that is exactly what greets the eye at the town of Joiner, Arkansas, south of Wilson along Highway 61. Like so many Delta towns, the death of agriculture and the lure of the big city has decimated Joiner, leaving almost the whole town a crumbling ruin. Of particular interest is a former store that apparently last housed a church or perhaps even a cult. Although the painted facade references “One God” and “Unity” it also contains some odd, vaguely Egyptian-looking symbols, and the rather-menacing slogan “Judgment According To Your Works.” One wonders what judgment befell the town of Joiner. There is not much left at all.
Along Highway 61’s strand of tired, worn buildings and washed-out towns, Wilson, Arkansas first appears as a grove of trees on the horizon straight ahead in the flat, Delta landscape. Only when entering does it prove to be a town, and a bizarre oasis of a town at that, with its anachronistic British Tudor architecture, its beautifully-landscaped square and streets, its appearance of prosperity in the midst of the deprivation that characterizes the Arkansas Delta. One might imagine that such a village is mystical, perhaps like the mythical Brigadoon that only appeared every hundred years or so. But Wilson, Arkansas is a real place, its difference caused by its unique history as a company town.
Robert E. Lee Wilson was just a boy in Tipton County, Tennessee when both of his parents died. Forced to become a man at an early age, he ended up cutting timber for a sawmill in Eastern Arkansas, a place where death from injury and disease was common. Beating the odds, Wilson saved enough money to buy some swampy timberland in southern Mississippi County, Arkansas, across a former Mississippi River channel from the island town of Reverie, Tennessee. In order to process the timber he cut, he founded a sawmill town he called Wilson, around the dawn of the 20th Century. That town of Wilson was subject to flooding, and Wilson soon decided that it needed to be relocated further inland. The new town was a model town in every regard, patterned around a well-landscaped square, with a car dealership, tavern, store, gas station, and railroad, all owned by Lee Wilson & Company. Once the timber had been cut, Wilson had turned to agriculture, growing cotton across vast acreages. When existing railroads tried to charge Wilson outrageous prices, or would not schedule trains that met his needs, he built his own railroads, the Delta Valley and Southern and the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern. While the town of Wilson was always his crown jewel, he founded other towns as well, Evadale, Marie, Delpro, Keiser and Armorel (the latter was said to be named for Arkansas, Missouri and “R.E.L. Wilson”). Even the Great Depression was no mountain to climb for Robert E. Lee Wilson. Although he paid his employees in scrip redeemable only at the company-owned businesses, they didn’t starve, and Wilson drew the largest check in the history of Memphis’ Union Planters Bank during the 1930’s. But cotton could not remain king forever. The Lee Wilson company diversified, acquiring holdings in Utah and other parts of the country, and several generations of the Wilson family ran things from the company headquarters in Arkansas, but more and more the business was turning down offers from would-be buyers eager to acquire the vast amounts of land held by the company. Finally, in 2010, the Wilson family agreed to sell.
One of the great fears was that any purchaser of the company’s land and holdings would not be interested in the town that went along with the purchase, a fear that initially proved to be true. Gaylon Lawrence Jr, the multi-millionaire who paid $110 million for the Wilson company and its land had little need for a town in the Arkansas Delta, and originally planned to sell it off. But after visiting it, he decided to try something else, hiring an architect and academic from Nashville named John Faulkner to act as a city manager for the Town of Wilson. The Wilson Cafe has reopened as a farm-to-table restaurant, with many of the vegetable coming from the nearby Wilson Gardens. A private school called the Delta School has been opened in one of the Wilson family mansions, and a concert series has been started. One of Johnny Cash’s relatives has opened White’s Mercantile in a former service station on Highway 61, a branch of a store of the same name in Nashville. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the shelves were full of colorful and unique items, and the shop was full of browsers, many of them just having come from lunch at the Wilson Cafe. The address of the store, 17 Cortez Kennedy Avenue, reveals another recent change, the renaming of Highway 61 for Wilson’s most famous native son, a star NFL football player who died earlier this year. A museum of Native American artifacts dug up at the Nodena site near the Mississippi River is under construction on the square. More plans are being discussed, including one that would turn the large office building east of the railroad tracks into a luxury hotel. But of course, it is all too early to tell if any of this planning will make any real difference in the town stuck in the middle of a region of persistent poverty and outmigration. But the effort to save such a unique town should be applauded, and Wilson is an experience not to be missed.
2 North Jefferson Street
Wilson, AR 72395
Open daily for lunch 11-2 PM
Open for dinner Wed-Sat 5-8:30 PM
There are currently no hotel rooms in Wilson, but rooms are available nearby in Marion or Osceola.
Although Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club is not nearly the blues club it once was, booking a lot more rock and country these days, it still occasionally features blues, as on a Saturday night in June when the featured act was the Johnie B. Sanders blues band featuring Inetta. Sanders is from Chicago, but is currently based in Jackson, and his band has been building a following in Central Mississippi and the Delta. One of the things I have always liked about Ground Zero is its juke joint ambiance, and for the first time, I actually noticed the historic posters on the wall of Delta blues events from years gone by. These were so interesting, for mentioning long-forgotten venues like Mr. Fuji’s Ranch in Ruleville or Club Shatto in Renova, and forgotten artists like Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones. I also didn’t know that Hopson Plantation used to sponsor blues shows long before it became the Shack Up Inn. It’s also worth noting that Ground Zero has an excellent food menu as well, and irresistible desserts, so it’s still a must-visit on any road trip to the Delta.
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.