Each year, Clarksdale becomes the center of attention in the blues world, as fans come from all over the world for the Juke Joint Festival. Although the official festival is only one day, events surrounding it now stretch over four days, and hotels are sold out for more than 75 miles in any direction. Unfortunately, this year, for the first time in memory, the festival was adversely affected by wet weather, showers that continued for much of the morning and early afternoon. Nevertheless, there were still significant crowds at many of the stages, and by the afternoon, the showers had begun to exit the area. In addition to the vendors of artwork, cigar-box guitars, books and more, attendees enjoyed performances by Lightnin Malcolm, the Cedric Burnside Project, Carlos Elliot, the Andre Otha Evans Fife and Drum Band, Garry Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, R. L. Boyce and many other performers from the Hill Country, the Delta, South America, Europe and other parts of the United States. This year also saw a larger number of stages and participating venues. One unfortunate trend this year however was the tendency of local restaurants to offer special, highly-limited menus for guests because of the Juke Joint Festival. We found that as a result, we often could not order what we wanted, and had to settle for things like burgers. I suppose the goal was to make things easier on the kitchen staff, but it ended up making things harder or at least less pleasant for the attendees. Still, it was a day of good music and good fun.
Although Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is technically only a one-day festival, the events surrounding it run over the course of four days. This year on Friday night the center of attention was Bluesberry Cafe, which featured performances by Duwayne Burnside and his band, followed by Colombian Hill Country musician Carlos Elliot Jr and Como legend R. L. Boyce. Despite the small stage, they were joined by Boyce’s daughter Sherena (a juke joint dancer) and Joyce Jones, the newest female voice in Hill Country blues. Despite the heavy rain outside, there was a significant crowd in the venue, and everyone had a great time.
After a debut festival last year in March, this year the Foxfire Blues Festival moved to April, and one of the highlights of this year’s event was the reunion of Lightnin Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, two Hill Country blues musicians that began their careers together, but ended up going their separate ways, Cedric into the highly successful Cedric Burnside Project with Trenton Ayers, son of the Hill Country guitarist Little Joe Ayers. Both musicians were in rare form, and they seemed to enjoy the collaboration, each including songs from their old career together, as well as songs from their solo careers since. As both men play guitar and drums, it was easy for them to switch instruments for each other, and the results were magical. The Foxfire Blues Festival kicks off the blues season at Foxfire Ranch, which is located on Old Oxford Road just outside the small village of Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County on Highway 7. From April until probably September, live blues will be held at the Hill Country Blues Pavilion on Sundays from 5-10 PM. Admission is usually $10, and worth every penny of it.
A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
2166 Central Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
Do-it-yourself pizza boutiques using the “Subway” model have become all the rage recently, and they seem to be popping up everywhere in and around Memphis. From the days when Pyro’s was the only game in town, we have Pizza Rev in East Memphis and Rise Pies in Southaven and now Pizza Social in Bartlett. On a recent visit, I was impressed with the atmosphere and decor of Pizza Social. It is bigger than Pyro’s and has more table space, as well as an outdoor patio area. The prices are about a dollar higher for pizzas, but there are more topping options, and I was altogether happier with my pizza. Of course there are trade-offs. Pizza Social does not have the cool Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that Pyro’s has, opting for a regular drink fountain such as you might see in a convenience store, nor do they have the large selection of local beers or artisan coffee drinks that Pyro’s features. But for convenience, shorter lines and more satisfying pizza, Pizza Social will continue to be my go-to when I want pizza in the future.
3000 Kirby-Whitten Rd
Bartlett, TN 38134
Despite its relatively small size, Tupelo often feels like Mississippi’s “other city”, with its large airport, zoo, arena, downtown and vast array of retail, restaurants and hotels.So it really isn’t surprising that Tupelo has seen a burst of new restaurant activity of late. That being said, nothing quite prepared me for the shear brilliance of Forklift, a New American restaurant that specializes in gourmet twists on Southern comfort foods. A check of the menu shows inspired creations like the “Bay of Pigs” (Cuban sandwich made with pulled pork) or “Clucks and Waffles”, a gourmet take on the African-American tradition of chicken and waffles.
On our recent visit, we were immediately impressed with the decor and ambiance of the restaurant. Forklift features a big city atmosphere that would not be out of place in New Orleans, Memphis or Jackson. It also features an outdoor patio, complete with fire-pit, that nonetheless is roofed and feels more like a part of the main dining room rather than outdoors. We chose a comfortable seat there, and when things began to get chilly after sunset, the fire-pit was started and we were quite content.
I opted for the Steak & Frites, a dish that I have enjoyed at other restaurants, but Forklift’s take on it is quite different. Sirloin is a cut of meat that can often be tough, but this steak was cooked using a sous vide method, and was as tender as a filet mignon. It was arranged on the plate in slices and looked to my friend somewhat like beef brisket. It was as delicious as any steak I have ever tried. The “frites” it came with were hand-cut fries, and were equally good.
My friend opted for the “Pork Deluxe” which is a “burger” made from ground pork rather than ground beef. It came with bacon, cheese and a tomato onion jam, but proved to be too much for her to finish at one sitting, and she took a to-go box for the rest of it.
We left feeling that Forklift is the kind of restaurant that people would expect to find in the biggest cities, and that Tupelo is fortunate to have such a place. We hope that it will be here for many years to come.
1103 W Jackson St
Tupelo, MS 38804
About halfway between Jackson’s Farish Street and Memphis’ Beale Street was Greenville’s Nelson Street, the Main Street of the Black Mississippi Delta. Lined with professional offices, cafes, pool rooms, juke joints and churches, Nelson Street was the place that Black people went in Greenville for nearly everything, from business to pleasure. One place on the street in particular stood out, a legendary blues club called the Flowing Fountain, which had been open just a few short years ago.
Nelson Street began to fall on hard times in the early 1990’s, when crack hit Greenville like a ton of bricks. There had been a lot of comings and goings between the Delta and Chicago, and soon the infamous Chicago gangs were in Greenville streets, and gang graffiti began appearing on Nelson Street bricks. Open-air crack markets and drive-by shootings followed. With Greenville like a war zone, most of the jukes and clubs on Nelson Street closed, and most of the ones that remained decided to shift their focus to a younger crowd, hiring DJ’s to play rap and hip-hop. The one exception was the Fountain, which billed itself “The Blues Capital of the World” and featured local talent like the legendary Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. Occasionally, tourists defied the warnings from their hotel desk clerks, and ventured to the Fountain for an authentic blues experience. But the presence of rap clubs nearby and the frequency of gunfire in the neighborhood took its toll. Stud Ford, the grandson of the late bluesman T-Model Ford said that the Fountain ended up closing because its older patrons were scared to venture into the area because of the kind of clientele the other clubs nearby were attracting.
The building still sits proudly and a little sadly at the center of what was once the business district. The front has been painted with a sort of gallery of important Black Greenvillians including “Boogaloo” Ames and “Booba” Barnes. Nearby, a historic marker explains the significance of Nelson Street. But there is nothing here anymore but nostalgia. A club on Walnut Street a couple of miles away claims to offer live blues on weekends, but it doesn’t book anyone well-known, and tourists have learned to make their way to Clarksdale if they are searching for the blues. Despite a storied past and great potential, Greenville’s Nelson Street is only a memory.
As we headed into the Delta from Jackson, we came to the little town of Bentonia in Yazoo County. Bentonia might be small, but it’s a big place indeed when it comes to blues, being the hometown of legendary Mississippi bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and his famous juke joint the Blue Front Cafe. I have never been inside the cafe, but I have been to the Bentonia Blues Festival, which is great from a music standpoint, yet one of the hottest music festivals ever, held in an open field devoid of trees with no shade to speak of at all. The festival was once held at the Blue Front, but law enforcement harassed attendees, so it moved to a location north of town. It is said that Holmes occasionally opens up the Blue Front and plays there, but I have never been able to determine exactly when that happens.
Once upon a time, believe it or not, you could go to the drugstore to eat. People did it all the time. Local drugstores like Triplett-Day in Gulfport had lunch counters, and so did big national chains like Walgreens. You could still eat at some Walgreens locations when I was in elementary school, but in the 1970’s and 1980’s, drugstores began getting rid of their kitchens and dining areas in order to focus on health and beauty aids, which was their core business. The occasional drug store that still had its soda fountain or lunch counter was the subject of news articles and tourist literature. But one drugstore, Brent’s Drugs in Jackson, Mississippi’s Fondren neighborhood decided to do things a little backwards. They got rid of the drugstore, and just kept the lunch counter and soda fountain, and Jacksonians are really glad they did. Breakfast is the main draw at Brent’s, and unlike the other popular local breakfast spot in Jackson, Brent’s is open on Sunday mornings too. Of course, they also serve plenty of lunch items, including burgers, and the interior of the place has been restored into a comfortable, cheery, bright space indeed. At night, the back of the store becomes The Apothecary, arguably Jackson’s best bar, and recently voted one of the South’s best bars. Finally, Brent’s is also a go-to spot for ice cream, milkshakes and floats, perfect for children of all ages…and face it, we’re all children when it comes to ice cream!
655 Duling Avenue
Jackson, MS 39216
The phenomenal growth of Jackson’s hip Fondren neighborhood has led to the opening of a lot of new shops and restaurants, and one of the newest is Pig & Pint, which as the name suggests, specializes in barbecue and artisan beers. Located on State Street at the northern edge of the Fondren district, Pig & Pint is a comfortable-looking wooden structure with far more outdoor seating than indoor, and on the day of our visit, the outdoor deck was nearly full. Menu-wise, the restaurant greatly resembles Memphis’ Central Bar-B-Que, offering ribs, brisket and pulled pork, and the atmosphere inside reminded me of Central as well, right down to the self-serve soft-drink dispenser. One notable difference though is that Pig & Pint has a full liquor bar.
Confronted with both brisket and pulled pork, I had considerable difficulty in reaching a decision, and ultimately I opted for both, which proved to be a mistake. Both were delicious, but once I had finished my pulled pork shoulder, I had very little room for any brisket, and was only able to eat one piece, even though it was good as well. After eating my french fries, I was uncomfortably full and still had food left over. My companion said she enjoyed hers as well, and we will certainly be back on future visits to Jackson.
Pig & Pint
3139 N State St
Jackson, MS 39216