Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on Clarksdale’s excellent coffee roasting firm Meraki Roasting Company, but on a recent trip to meet with a British festival buyer who was scouting for talent to take to his festival in the UK, I stopped in for a pour-over and ran into a youngster playing the guitar and singing blues. That is not all that surprising, as Meraki is part of a larger youth after-school program called Griot Arts, which includes music as part of its program. But what was surprising was how talented and accomplished the young man was. I talked with him and he told me his name was Omar Sharif Gordon. What I learned is that the blues has a future. The constant claim that the music has no support among young people, or that it is the “least popular music in America” is not necessarily the truth. There are some talented young people choosing to take up the blues, and they need promotion and encouragement. Let’s embrace them with the same enthusiasm we show toward the legends.
My last stop of the evening was to see Lightnin Malcolm at the Juke Joint ChapelJuke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn complex at Hopson Plantation, just outside of Clarksdale. But the venue is always crowded, and it isn’t always easy to get a good view of the stage unless you get there early. Also, by the time I arrived out there, I was exhausted, so I caught Malcolm’s first set of songs, and then I headed back to Memphis. All in all, despite the rain, wind and power outages, it was a great Juke Joint Festival this year.
When I left Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, I headed out to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue to catch the Duwayne Burnside and David Kimbrough performance. Pete’s is another juke joint in Clarksdale that generally has live music only during the Juke Joint Festival, but it is a perfect venue for live blues, just a block or so from the legendary Riverside Hotel. Unfortunately, the performance started late, as the musicians were waiting for someone to arrive with an amp or microphone, and the first set only involved Duwayne Burnside, as David Kimbrough was nowhere to be seen. Of course Duwayne is one of Mississippi’s most gifted blues performers, so it was still an enjoyable show, and I heard that later, after I had left, that David did show up and perform with Duwayne. But Lightnin’ Malcolm was performing out at the Shack Up Inn, so I decided to head out there and see if I could catch him.
Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
For a city of nearly 20,000, Clarksdale, Mississippi is severely under-represented when it comes to restaurants, particularly fine dining. During Juke Joint Festival, the problem becomes more significant, as the main restaurants are either on special festival menus with limited choices, or outrageously crowded, with wait times that can exceed an hour and cause you to miss a performer you were hoping to see. But on the way to Mardi Gras in February, I had become aware of a place in Rena Lara, about 10 minutes from Clarksdale, that has ribeye steaks and live music on weekends. The Great River Road Country Store, from Highway 1, looks like a gas station, but looks can be deceiving. Of course you can purchase gasoline there, and inside, it has all the usual items you would expect in a country store. But once inside, you notice a vast array of tables, and a large performance stage. The fact is, on weekends, the Great River Road store turns into a combination steakhouse and live music club. I arrived too early for the live music, and the rain was pouring down outside, but I ordered a rib-eye steak, and I was thoroughly pleased. Ribeyes are not my favorite cut of meat, yet this steak was tender, with no tough fat or gristle, and excellent flavor. There was nothing particularly fancy of gourmet about it. Just a delicious steak, with Texas toast and a baked potato. As for the atmosphere, it was interesting as well, with some children who were related to the owner dressed in hunting gear and running joyfully around the premises. The woman who was serving me explained that the owners’ son owned Catfish Blues in Hernando, and was opening a new steakhouse in Senatobia called Delta Kitchen, which I had already heard about. Although the Great River Road sells food everyday, steaks are only cooked on weekends. It’s worth a drive down into the Delta for great food, great fun and occasional great music.
Great River Road Country Store
3915 Highway 1
Rena Lara, MS 38720
This year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale had to contend with any number of unusual obstacles this year, including rain, a downtown power outage that lasted several hours, and in the afternoon, a sudden blast of wind that overturned tents and sent them blowing down streets! What was so odd about it was that the rain had ended several hours before, and there had even been periods of beautiful sunshine in the hours leading up to the wind gusts. Despite all the problems, musicians continued playing acoustically where they didn’t have power, and all the power had been restored by the evening performances in the juke joints.
Natchez bluesman Y. Z. Ealey is 81-years old this May, and is a brother of the much better-known Southern Soul artist Theodis Ealey, of “Stand Up In It” fame. Y. Z., Theodis and their brother Melwyn were all blues musicians from the town of Sibley, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez, but Y. Z. has largely been a factory worker who plays music more as an avocation. Given the extent to which we have been losing our elder statesmen of blues over the last several years, I was determined to catch Ealey’s performance in Clarksdale at this year’s Juke Joint Festival. So I made my way to the Coahoma Collective , which had formerly been Ms. Del’s General Store, where Ealey performed in the courtyard with his band. His style is a swamp-pop infused style which demonstrates the fact that Louisiana is merely across the river from Natchez, and his current band features some younger musicians, and on this occasion, a clarinetist. But Ealey is still in fine form and voice, and his performance was definitely a high point of this year’s festival.
Although we tended to stay close to the Cat Head Stage during Juke Join Festival, so as to not miss the stellar line-up of blues artists there, we did venture out to some of the other stages, as well as the local and regional artists and other vendors who set up under the tents along every major street in downtown Clarksdale. Many of these vendors sold fine works of art, the majority of them with a blues theme, as well as beautifully hand-crafted cigar box guitars. A few of the tents were promotional efforts by local or regional businesses, one of them a hotel corporation that is openly a four-star luxury hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi, and which plans to take over two budget motels in Clarksdale and upgrade them to luxury status. Another new hotel, the Travelers’ Hotel, is under construction in an old historic building in downtown Clarksdale. Some of the artists appearing on other stages included Joyce Jones from Potts Camp, with her son Cameron Kimbrough on drums and Little Willie Farmer from Duck Hill, Mississippi. Those looking to recharge their phones or get some shelter from the occasional rain ended up at Meraki Coffee Roasters on Sunflower Avenue, where they could enjoy light baked goods and fine pour-over or French press coffees, at least until the rain and wind knocked out power to most of the downtown area.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
The annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi has grown into one of the largest music festivals in Mississippi, with four days of live performances, many of them free. Blues musicians from the Delta, the Hill Country, South Mississippi, other states and even other countries come to Clarksdale each April to perform, and hotel rooms are hard to come by.
This year we kicked off our Juke Joint Fest weekend by heading to Bluesberry Cafe on Friday night, where the Hill Country blues legend Duwayne Burnside was performing with his band. Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best blues guitarists in America today, and the little cafe with a stage was filled to overflowing with blues fans and fellow musicians. Burnside’s performance was followed by an appearance of R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi, sharing the stage with Colombian bluesman Carlos Elliot Jr, who has taken the Hill Country style of blues back to his home country in South America, and has even brought Hill Country musicians to Colombia. Although the weather outside was nasty indeed, inside Bluesberry was good times and good feelings. It was a great way to start Clarksdale’s biggest weekend of the year.