Can Tourism and the Arts Save a Struggling Delta Town?


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.

Wilson Cafe
2 North Jefferson Street
Wilson, AR 72395
(870) 655-0222
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.

The Hurt Family Celebrating The 4th of July With Fife and Drum


As I have discussed before in this blog, Black fife and drum music is an endangered form of pre-blues that probably played a role in the development of jazz as well as blues. Although the tradition persisted in some parts of Georgia and Tennessee into the 1980’s, it appears to be limited entirely to two families in two counties of Mississippi today. While Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of Otha Turner, runs the best-known band, the Rising Stars, the Hurt and Burdett families in Panola County continue the tradition in a much more clandestine way. Their picnics, although open to the general public, usually consist of family members and friends, and are held on a remote hill on Burdett Road west of Sardis. Outside recognition of the Hurt family has been minimal, so much so that some writers have proclaimed the Rising Stars in nearby Tate County the only fife and drum band remaining, but the Hurt family holds their picnics generally twice a year, at the 4th of July and at Labor Day. The goal of fife and drum music is fairly simple- to set up trance-inducing drum patterns that motivate dancing. The bass drum beat is the motivator, with people in the crowd exhorting the drummer to “beat that thing” and the dancers going lower and lower to the ground with each beat. Although the fife would seem to be a mandatory part of the proceedings, occasionally at the Hurt picnics, only the drummers come out, and their repetitive grooves are punctuated by the yells of the dancers. As the drummers proceed across the picnic grounds, the event seems something like a rural version of a second-line.
For those wanting to experience Mississippi fife-and-drum music in its authentic settings, Sharde Thomas holds the Otha Turner Picnic each year, usually a week before Labor Day. It is held on O. B. McClinton Road in the Gravel Springs community of Tate County, east of Senatobia. The Hurt Family holds fife and drum picnics in the Mount Level community west of Sardis, generally on the July 4th weekend and again on Labor Day. The place is west of Sardis out Highway 315, right on Mount Level Road and left on Burdett Road. The picnic ground is on a hill.

Live Blues at Clarksdale’s Ground Zero


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.



Authentic Blues at the Fourth Annual Goat Fest in Clarksdale


If Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is sort of a family-friendly approach to the Mississippi Blues, at least during the daytime, the Goat Fest, now in its fourth year, is something wilder. After all, its slogan is “Sin, Repent, Repeat.” Yet despite the adult image, the main focus is blues and other forms of roots music, over two days, at two venues in the greater Clarksdale area, one the open-air New Roxy theatre, the other, the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn at Hopson, a few miles out from Clarksdale proper. On Friday, June 2, the focus at the Juke Joint Chapel location was classic Mississippi Hill Country blues, with excellent performances from Cedric Burnside, the Robert Kimbrough Blues Connection band, and Lightnin’ Malcolm, and the chapel, with its odd array of historic signs, instruments and artifacts made a perfect venue for the musical happenings of the evening. Adding to the good-time vibe was excellent pulled-pork barbecue, as well as containers of Clarksdale’s superb Sweet Magnolia gelato. And the only thing really wild was some of the dancing!

From Savage to Minter City


On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I decided to continue my exploration of small towns and backroads in the Mississippi Delta. My first stop was a community called Savage, Mississippi, that Apple Maps showed being tucked between Highways 3 and 4 on the railroad tracks. Although I had heard of the place, I had never been there, and was surprised to encounter a large, abandoned store of some sort, and a small wooden railroad station. Unfortunately, the station was behind fences and today sits on private property, so I was unable to explore it or photograph it close up, but I still managed to get some good photos around the tiny village.
West of Sarah, Mississippi, I came to swamps, and a long, oxbow-type lake called Walnut Lake, bordered by a road of the same name. Although I had read of a nightclub called the Pussycat Lounge that was supposed to be next to the lake, I didn’t see it at all, but at the end of the lake and the road was a quaint tin-roofed grocery store called the Three-Way Grocery where a man was barbecuing meat in front, while a few men played chess or checkers on a table nearby. Although the barbecue smelled amazing, I had recently eaten, so I drove back to Highway 3 and continued south through Marks and Lambert and into the town of Sumner, one of two county seats for Tallahatchie County (the other is Charleston).
Sumner sits on the Little Tallahatchie River, and consists of little more than the courthouse, a restaurant called the Sumner Grille, and an art gallery called the Cassidy Bayou Art Gallery. Neither was open on the hot Sunday afternoon, but I took a few pictures on the Tallahatchie bridge and around the courthouse square, noting the historical marker about the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, which took place in the Sumner courthouse. An Emmett Till Interpretive Center is located a block off the square in Sumner.
The next town to the South, Webb, seemed larger and more significant, although most of its fairly large business district along Main Street seemed empty and abandoned. Of note was a weatherbeaten frame train station, and what appeared to be a fairly large juke joint.
From there, I came to the town of Glendora, which clearly had seen better days. Almost all the town stretched along the railroad tracks on both sides, and on the east side, along Burrough Street, was a row of rough-looking jukes, including a rather large place called Club 21. The employee there was amenable to me photographing the place, so I got to take pictures inside and out, and I was especially pleased with the classic pool table indoors. What I saw on the west side of the tracks was sad, the ruins of a large building that by the signs visible appeared to have once been Glendora’s City Hall. Only the building’s shell remained.
Things were similar at Minter City, in LeFlore County, where the massive ruins of T. Y. Fleming School sit along Highway 49E west of the actual townsite, although nothing much is left of the town. From the looks of it, Fleming must have at one time been a high school, but was most recently an elementary school. That it had won awards for student achievement didn’t stop the LeFlore County School Board from closing it down, and one of the more ironic things to see there was school’s sign in front of the buildings facing Highway 49E, which included a “No Child Left Behind” logo. With the school closure and abandonment of the campus, it seems that all of Minter City’s children got left behind.
Because I had to make it back to Memphis for a gig, I didn’t go on to Greenwood, despite the fact that I was close. Instead I turned east on Highway 8, but in coming to a little town called Phillip, I spent some time photographing the old downtown area along Front Street, and then got back on the road heading for Grenada.

Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers at The Blue Biscuit


After leaving Alligator, we ended up heading down to Drew, and taking Highway 49W through Ruleville, Doddsville and Sunflower into Indianola, to one of my very favorite restaurants in the world, The Blue Biscuit. The Biscuit is owned by renowned chef Trish Berry, who had been the executive chef at Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s ill-fated Madidi Restaurant in Clarksdale. While Madidi was expensive fine-dining, the Blue Biscuit is something altogether different, sort of a cross between a diner and a juke joint. While the restaurant menu is diverse and varied, in my opinion, the pulled-pork barbecue is the star of the show. A few years ago, it was possible to order something called “Biscuits and Barbecue”, which was exactly that, four freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits that were halved, with pulled pork placed between the halves. This was literally one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, we noticed on this visit that the menu has changed, and that biscuits and barbecue is no longer available, but the pulled pork is still on the menu, and just as good as I remember it from previous visits.
An added treat on this visit was live music from a Cleveland, Mississippi band called Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, whose repertoire consists of blues, soul and funk. Somehow, I had not encountered them before, but they are an accomplished and versatile band, and they kept the crowd mesmerized all evening. This was my first time seeing a live music gig at the Blue Biscuit, and I found the location and atmosphere perfectly suited to the music, and everything quite enjoyable.

Alligator Blues


Although I have passed by Alligator, Mississippi many times on my way to somewhere else, I have never taken the time to venture off the road into the little town to see what was there. Maps of the place intrigued me, as they showed the town sitting on a lake called Alligator Lake, and I wondered if there had really been alligators there. The place seemed a little far north for them, actually. But after I learned that Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s new juke joint is located in the rural area east of Alligator, the area took on a new significance, and so I decided to head into the town and see if there was anything historic. Unfortunately, like so many other Delta towns, the years have not been particularly kind to Alligator. Although the houses across the road from the lake are attractive and well-kept, the downtown area, particularly that along Front Street, has clearly seen better days. While there is a sort of mini-mart that welcomed “Blues Tourists” that is still open on Lake Street, none of the buildings on Front Street seem to be occupied, and one of them is clearly beginning to collapse. It has been boarded up, and the boards are covered with graffiti and strange, gothic symbols, while barrels placed out in front of it warn “Danger” and “Keep Away”. What with the all-seeing eye and other cryptic symbols on the place, I half wondered if the signs were there to keep people away from some center of cultic activity rather than merely a collapsing building. In fact, the word “worship” is spray-painted on the boards along with the symbols. Other than the decaying buildings, there is a blues trail marker discussing the blues history and heritage of the town of Alligator, and Robert “Bilbo” Walker was mentioned in it. With it being Memorial Day, a few men were sitting under a tree downtown having a sort of picnic. As for the town, that was about it.
Still, I ventured further out to where Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s Wonder City juke joint is under construction, and found that the area still resembles a construction site, and is quite aways off the beaten path, yet I can tell that it will be a popular destination for fans of the blues (Wonder City will open the weekend of June 16th and 17th). The road we took east from Alligator leads back to the New Africa Road (quite an intriguing name in itself), and along that road heading toward Drew, we came upon an abandoned gas station with pumps still intact. There are no signs to indicate what the place was called, but it seems a throwback to an earlier era indeed, out in the wilderness east of Alligator. Not all that far beyond it, the road brought us into Drew.

Exquisite Coffees and Baked Goods at Dallas’ Cultivar


While driving from Austin to Mississippi, a friend and I decided we wanted coffee when we got to Dallas. Since it was a Sunday, there was a risk that some coffee bars might not be open, so I looked at the Yelp app on my iPhone and saw a place called Cultivar, which was very close to the interstate, but in a most unlikely place, the old business district of Oak Cliff. It proved to be an inspired choice.
Cultivar is a micro-roaster, roasting small batches of some of the world’s best coffee, always ethically sourced. Although their main business is the sale of roasted beans for home brewing, their coffee shops carry the usual array of cappuccinos, lattes and espressos, along with a small selection of baked goods. After enjoying a breve latte, I purchased a bag of Salvadoran whole bean coffee to take home. I also have to mention the sleek, modernistic interior of the coffee bar, which is bright, cheerful and welcoming. Our visit to Cultivar was altogether pleasant.

Cultivar
313 W Jefferson Blvd
Dallas, TX 75208
(214) 306-9725

(other locations in Dallas and Denton)

Don’t Sleep On Austin’s Snooze For Great Breakfast


When we had gone to Austin, Texas in December, we didn’t get to try Snooze, a self-described “A.M. eatery” that was on an hour wait, but this trip, we wanted to make sure that we tried it, and we were not disappointed. Breakfast is said to be the fastest-growing sector of the restaurant industry, and all breakfast restaurants have certain things in common, but we were pleased by Snooze’s bright, cheerful decor with a mod 1960’s-retro look and feel. While it is easy to get familiar breakfast fare like bacon and eggs or omelets, Snooze’s menu also features a large selection of different eggs benedicts, something which really sets them apart from the others. I chose a bacon and cheddar omelet, and was quite impressed with it, although the breakfast potatoes not so much, as they contained onion, which I dislike in hash browns. We also were a bit disappointed in the lack of a reservation system, and as a result having to sit at the bar to avoid a long wait. But altogether, we were satisfied with our experience at Snooze and will return.

Snooze An A.M. Eatery
3800 N Lamar Blvd, #120
Austin, TX 78756
(512) 410-0670

Other locations in South Austin, Texas, Colorado and California

Celebrating the Legacy of Junior Kimbrough in Holly Springs


Marshall County, Mississippi is recognized as the home of the Hill Country blues, and the home of its two greatest exponents, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. So it was entirely fitting that this year, one of Junior’s sons, Robert Kimbrough, put together an event to celebrate the life and legacy of his father, the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. Over several days, the event featured an exhibition of photographs at Rust College in Holly Springs, a guitar workshop, a jam session and a Sunday afternoon concert on an outdoor stage adjacent to the old VFW Hut on West Valley Avenue. On Mother’s Day afternoon, with impeccable weather, a crowd gathered to enjoy authentic Hill Country blues from Robert Kimbrough Sr. and the Blues Connection, Little Joe Ayers (who had played with Junior), Dan Russell, Memphis Gold, Cameron Kimbrough, Leo Bud Welch, R. L. Boyce with Carlos Elliot Jr and Lightnin Malcolm, and the Kimbrough Brothers, featuring Robert, Kinney and David Kimbrough. Young drummer and guitarist Cameron Kimbrough is a grandson of Junior and son of drummer Kinney Kimbrough, and was especially impressive on drums with Memphis Gold and Leo Bud Welch. Altogether, it was an amazing day of some of the best blues Mississippi has to offer.