Memphis Soul Legend Don Bryant Performs With The Bo-Keys at Loflin Yard


Once in a while, a local music show gets announced which I just cannot miss, and the announcement of a Don Bryant show with soul revivalists The Bo-Keys was just such a show. Better yet, it was being held at Loflin Yard, one of my favorite Memphis venues.
Don Bryant is one of Memphis’ forgotten soul geniuses. Originally a member of Willie Mitchell’s group The Four Kings, he recorded a number of soul sides for Joe Coughi’s Hi label during the 1960’s, but ended up becoming better known as a staff writer for the label, with “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, recorded by Ann Peebles in 1973 becoming his biggest hit. Bryant married Peebles in 1974, and soon disappeared from popular music. There were rumors that both Bryant and Peebles had transitioned to gospel music, and a few gospel releases appeared under Bryant’s name. Peebles would occasionally return to blues and soul music, but Bryant did not, at least until embarking on the recording of a new album “Don’t Give Up On Love” for the Fat Possum label out of Oxford.
Friday night’s show at Loflin Yard was primarily a showcase of the new songs, backed by Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, the highlight of which was a funky gospel tune called “How Do I Get There?” which is the single from the forth-coming album. Despite the drizzly weather, the venue was fairly crowded, and Bryant, at 74 years of age, was still in great form and voice, a consummate performer. And thanks to the Bo-Keys ,featuring such Memphis legends as drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie Turner, the backing sound was authentic, with live horns and real instruments, and no modern anachronisms. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear authentic Memphis soul music as it was intended to be heard.

Fine Dining and Blues at Leland’s Vince’s Restaurant


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.

Vince’s Restaurant
207 N Main St
Leland, MS 38756
(662) 686-2112
Closed Monday and Tuesday

R. L. Boyce Brings The Hill Country To New Orleans

001 Sherena Boyce & Michael Bateman004 R. L. Boyce & Friends006 Sherena Boyce009 The Circle Bar010 Sherena Boyce & Amy Verdon013 R. L. Boyce015 R. L. Boyce016 R. L. Boyce017 R. L. & Sherena Boyce018 R. L. & Sherena Boyce019 R. L. & Sherena Boyce020 R.L. Boyce & Friends021 Sherena Boyce and Friends022 Sherena Boyce and Friends023 Sherena Boyce and Friends024 Sherena Boyce and Friends025 Sherena Boyce and Friends026 Sherena Boyce and Friends027 R. L. Boyce & Friends028 R. L. Boyce029 R. L. Boyce035 R. L. & Sherena Boyce036 R. L. & Sherena Boyce037 R. L. & Sherena Boyce and Friends038 R. L. & Sherena Boyce and Friends039 R. L. Boyce and Friends040 R. L. Boyce & Friends041 R. L. Boyce042 R. L. Boyce043 Sherena Boyce044 Sherena Boyce045 R. L. Boyce050 R. L. & Sherena Boyce052 R. L. & Sherena Boyce054 R. L. & Sherena Boyce056 R. L. Boyce057 Sherena & R. L. Boyce064 R. L. Boyce067 R. L. Boyce & Friends
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.

Breeze Cayolle and The Mighty Souls Brass Band at Lafayette’s

001 Lafayette's Music Room002 Lafayette's Music Room003 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans004 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans005 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans006 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans007 Breeze Cayolle008 Breeze Cayolle009 Tim Goodwin010 Tony Thomas011 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans012 Breeze Cayolle & Tim Goodwin013 Breeze Cayolle014 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans015 Breeze Cayolle016 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans017 Breeze Cayolle018 Breeze Cayolle019 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans020 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans021 Breeze Cayolle & New Orleans022 Breeze Cayolle & Tim Goodwin023 Mighty Souls Brass Band024 Mighty Souls Brass Band025 Mighty Souls Brass Band026 Mighty Souls Brass Band027 Mighty Souls Brass Band028 Mighty Souls Brass Band029 Mighty Souls Brass Band030 Mighty Souls Brass Band031 Mighty Souls Brass Band032 Mighty Souls Brass Band033 Mighty Souls Brass Band034 Mighty Souls Brass Band035 Mighty Souls Brass Band036 Mighty Souls Brass Band037 Mighty Souls Brass Band038 Mighty Souls Brass Band039 Mighty Souls Brass Band040 Mighty Souls Brass Band
Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans.
The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.



Leo “Bud” Welch and Friends at Red’s in Clarksdale

1631 Leo Bud Welch1634 Leo Bud Welch1635 Leo Bud Welch1636 Leo Bud Welch1638 Red's Juke Joint1639 Leo Bud Welch1640 Leo Bud Welch1642 Leo Bud Welch & Sherena Boyce1643 Leo Bud Welch & Sherena Boyce1644 Red's Juke Joint
After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.

Great Music Documentaries and Live Music at the Clarksdale Film Festival

1588 Delta Cinema, Clarksdale Film Festival1589 Sherena Boyce1590 Sean Bad Apple & Stud Ford1591 Sean Bad Apple1593 Stud Ford1595 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1596 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1597 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1598 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1599 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1600 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1601 Sean Bad Apple & Stud Ford1603 Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1605 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1606 Sean Bad Apple, Stud Ford & Sherena Boyce1607 Sherena Boyce1608 Sherena Boyce1610 Sean Bad Apple1611 Sean Bad Apple & Stud Ford1612 Sean Bad Apple & Stud Ford1613 Leo Bud Welch1614 Leo Bud Welch1615 Leo Bud Welch1616 Leo Bud Welch1618 Leo Bud Welch1619 Leo Bud Welch1620 Leo Bud Welch1621 Leo Bud Welch1622 Leo Bud Welch1623 Leo Bud Welch1628 Sherena Boyce & Carla Robinson
The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.

Endings and Beginnings With Duwayne Burnside at The Shelter on Van Buren

001 Duwayne Burnside002 Artwork003 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell004 Duwayne Burnside005 Kenny Brown006 Sherena Boyce007 Duwayne Burnside008 Duwayne Burnside009 Duwayne Burnside010 Duwayne Burnside011 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell012 Kenny Brown013 Duwayne Burnside014 Duwayne Burnside017 Duwayne Burnside018 Tonight Duwayne Burnside019 Duwayne Burnside020 Duwayne Burnside021 Duwayne Burnside022 Duwayne Burnside023 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell024 Kenny Brown025 Duwayne BurnsideJPG026 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell027 Kenny Brown028 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce029 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce030 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce031 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce032 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce034 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce035 Duwayne Burnside036 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce037 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell038 Duwayne Burnside039 Duwayne Burnside040 Duwayne Burnside041 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell042 Duwayne Burnside043 Duwayne Burnside & Kody Harrell045 Kenny Brown046 Sherena Boyce047 R. L. Boyce & Duwayne Burnside048 R. L. Boyce & Kody Harrell049 R. L. Boyce050 R. L. Boyce052 R. L. Boyce053 R. L. Boyce & Kody Harrell054 R. L. Boyce055 R. L. Boyce056 Kenny Brown057 R. L. & Sherena Boyce058 R. L. & Sherena Boyce059 R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce & Kody Harrell060 Duwayne Burnside061 R. L. Boyce & Kody Harrell062 Duwayne Burnside063 Duwayne Burnside064 R. L. & Sherena Boyce065 R. L. & Sherena Boyce066 R. L. Boyce, Kody Harrell & Sherena Boyce067 Duwayne Burnside & R. L. Boyce068 Duwayne Burnside & R. L. Boyce069 R. L. & Sherena Boyce070 Duwayne Burnside & R. L. Boyce071 Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown & R. L. Boyce072 R. L. Boyce073 Duwayne Burnside & R. L. Boyce077 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce078 Duwayne Burnside & Sherena Boyce
Duwayne Burnside had played The Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi earlier in the fall, but I had not been able to attend, so when it was announced that he would be playing there again on New Years’ Eve, I was eager to be there. It would prove to be both my first, and sadly my last, visit to The Shelter.
The venue was a coffee bar and live music venue, which also served a very limited food menu, some desserts, and craft beer. The atmosphere was extremely laid back, with couches, benches, chairs and tables in a rather haphazard pattern near the stage. The night of Hill Country blues featured not only Duwayne Burnside but also Kenny Brown, and a few local Oxford musicians, including guitarist Kody Harrell. At first Duwayne’s drummer had not shown up, so he was playing a sort of “unplugged” acoustic set. After his drummer arrived, he picked up the pace and intensity level to an extent, and the moderate crowd in the seats loved every minute of it. Como bluesman R. L. Boyce then joined Duwayne on stage for a few songs, and some local musicians came up to sit end toward the show’s end. At 10 PM or so, Duwayne brought things to a halt, as he had another show at The Hut in Holly Springs starting at 11, and we all left in a happy frame of mind. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we got to visit The Shelter on Van Buren. A week into the new year, it abruptly closed for good.

A Death In The Delta: Tallulah’s Tragic Decline

053 Madison Alternative School054 Madison Middle School055 Madison Middle School056 Reuben McCall High School057 Reuben McCall High School058 Reuben McCall High School059 Reuben McCall High School060 Reuben McCall High School061 Reuben McCall High School062 Reuben McCall High School063 Forgotten Champs-Abandoned McCall Stadium064 Abandoned McCall Stadium065 Abandoned McCall Stadium066 Abandoned McCall Stadium067 Abandoned McCall Stadium068 Abandoned McCall Stadium069 Abandoned McCall Stadium070 Nobody in the Stands071 Returning to Nature072 No Score073 Vanishing Stands074 Twisted Goals075 The Pressbox076 Abandoned McCall Stadium077 West Green Street, Tallulah078 Honeybun's Funhouse Teen Center079 Honeybun's Funhouse Teen Center080 Sportsman's Club and Restaurant081 Hotel Watson082 Hotel Watson083 Hotel Watson084 Hotel Watson085 Wilmore's Lounge & Game Room086 The Hole in the Wall, Tallulah087 The Hole in the Wall, Tallulah088 Downtown Tallulah089 Downtown Tallulah090 Downtown Tallulah091 Snyder Street, Tallulah092 Downtown Tallulah093 Downtown Tallulah094 Downtown Tallulah095 Only Facades Remain096 Downtown Tallulah097 Downtown Tallulah098 Snyder Street Looking West099 Downtown Tallulah100 Downtown Tallulah101 Madison Parish Courthouse101 Madison Parish Courthouse103 The Tallulah Club104 Madison Parish Courthouse
In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
___________________________
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.

Across the Arkansas Delta

202 Marvell, AR203 Marvell, AR204 G & E Lounge, Marvell, ARDSC_0205DSC_0206DSC_0207208 Marvell, AR209 Sims Enterprises, Marvell, AR210 Marvell, AR211 Sanders, Marvell, AR212 Marvell, AR213 The Union Gas Company, Marvell, AR214 Marvell, AR215 The Novelty Shop, Marvell, AR216 Marvell, AR217 Marvell, AR218 Dewitt, AR219 Dewitt, AR220 Arkansas County Courthouse, Dewitt, AR221 Dewitt, AR222 Town Square, Dewitt, AR223 Arkansas County Courthouse, Dewitt, AR224 City Hall, Dewitt, AR225 Gillett, AR226 Gillett, AR227 Gillett, AR228 Gillett, AR229 Gillett, AR230 Gillett, AR231 Tillar, AR232 Tillar, AR233 Tillar, AR234 Tillar, AR235 Tillar, AR236 Old Bank of Tillar Building, Tillar, AR237 McGehee, AR Established 1906238 McGehee, AR239 McGehee, AR240 McGehee, AR241 McGehee, AR242 McGehee, AR243 McGehee, AR244 McGehee, AR245 Town & Country Lounge & Restaurant, McGehee, AR246 Town & Country Lounge & Restaurant, McGehee, AR247 Mary's Colonial Club, McGehee, AR248 Abandoned Nightclub, McGehee, AR
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.

A Night of Hill Country Blues at LR’s White Water Tavern

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.