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
On the last weekend of September, Memphis-based blues and southern soul singer Gerod Rayborn asked me if I would play keyboards with his band for a blues show taking place at Como, Mississippi. The show turned out to be the Bikers’ Rally and Blues Show at LP’s Ballfield on the Hunters Chapel Road, east of Como, a location which has a rich history in regards to the Hill Country blues.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, LP’s was a place where Black fife and drum bands came together to perform at picnics or in friendly competitions, and there are historic photographs of Otha Turner, R.L. Boyce and other Hill Country musicians that were taken at the ball park.
Unfortunately, the venue was inherited by a son of the original owner, who has redirected it away from the traditional Hill Country music in favor of rap and hip-hop, car shows and southern soul.
Although fans of southern soul often refer to themselves as “blues fans”, and the terms “blues” and “southern soul” are used interchangeably, there is a vast difference between Hill Country blues and the kind of music that is performed at a southern soul performance, such as the one I was playing at. Southern soul could best be described as a modern genre that seeks to continue a vein of Black music that was largely abandoned elsewhere with the coming of disco, funk and ultimately rap. Lyrically naughty, and often concerned with cheating, southern soul is rural music for rural Black folks. Of course, through migration and family relationships, the genre has a following in larger cities as well, even in the north, but references to things like “trail rides” clearly establish the country frame of reference.
Working for Select-O-Hits Music Distribution for 20 years, I knew a lot about southern soul, but I didn’t expect the absolutely tremendous crowd that showed up for the event on this particular Saturday afternoon. Bikes were everywhere, and a lot of the new bike/car hybrids known as Slingshots. The warm weather was perfect for the event, and lots of people had come down from Memphis, particularly to see the headliner, Big Pokey Bear, whose song “My Sidepiece” was currently the hottest thing going. In addition to bikes and near-bikes, there were classic Corvettes and large RV’s, where some people had made themselves at home, watching college football in between the acts on stage.
Bev Johnson of Memphis radio station WDIA was the master of ceremonies for the event, and she soon brought up the first act, a band called the Smooth Groove Experience from Memphis, which featured a female singer. They were quite good, but as we were the next band up, I had to start getting ready to go up on stage.
After our performance, I hung around the event for awhile, as I had intended to check out all of the various performers. But my girl was in Hernando at the Front Porch Jubilee, and when she called and told me she was missing me, I decided to leave and meet her at the other event, which I did. She and I ended the evening at the Brick Oven Pizza Company in Hernando, after which I headed back home to Memphis, thoroughly tired but with a sense of satisfaction.
I love catfish, and I love blues music, so when a place puts them together, like Hernando, Mississippi’s new Catfish Blues restaurant, I am intrigued, to say the least. Because in its earliest days, the restaurant was running as a buffet only, I had held off on trying it, but finally my girlfriend and I decided we could delay no longer, and we were pleasantly pleased with what we found. Catfish Blues is located east of downtown Hernando, near the railroad tracks on Commerce Street in a building meant to resemble a train depot. The room is expansive and cheerful, with plenty of blues memorabilia on the walls, including pictures of North Mississippi stars like Duwayne Burnside and the Rev. John Wilkins, and there is plenty of room for live music, which typically happens on Saturdays. On the Friday night we visited, there was no live music, but the star of the show was catfish, which comes in two ways. The traditional catfish has the usual cornmeal batter, while the “Robert Pettiway” is a New Orleans-style breading which more resembles what you would get at Middendorf’s in Louisiana or Tug’s Casual Cafe in Memphis. Its name commemorates Robert Petway, the bluesman who first recorded the song “Catfish Blues.” Altogether we found the service cheerful and the prices fairly reasonable. If it wasn’t the absolute best catfish we had ever had, it was darn good, and overall a pleasant experience. We will certainly return.
The Clifton Gin was a large building that loomed over the West End neighborhood of Hernando, Mississippi where many blues musicians lived and played their trade in nearby jukes. The Rev. Robert Wilkins, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson all lived in the area for a time, and Mississippi Joe Callicott was from nearby Nesbit, Mississippi. Now each year, the city of Hernando commemorates that musical legacy with an event called the Front Porch Jubilee, held on the grounds of the historic gin, as part of Hernando’s larger Water Tower Festival. This year’s jubilee honored the legacy of the late R. L. Burnside, and members of the Burnside family were presented with a plaque. Performers included Jack Rowell and Triple Threat, Desoto County native Kenny Brown, who was mentored by both Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, rockabilly legend Travis Wammack, and R. L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric, performing with Trenton Ayers as the Cedric Burnside Project. In addition to the great music, there was a considerable amount of great food too, including some excellent pulled pork and the homemade ice cream from Senatobia-based Bliss. A warm afternoon turned to a chilly evening, but a stalwart crowd of about a hundred stayed to the end of Cedric’s last set. It was a great day of blues in Hernando.
I got up early and ate breakfast downtown at the Marriott because the panel I was to speak on at the Urban Music Summit was supposed to begin at 10: 30 AM. Things were actually running a bit behind schedule, and I ran into Janie Jennings as well as Carlos Broady, the super-producer from Memphis. I grabbed a lunch out at Harbor Town at the Movie and Pizza Company, and then made my way back to the convention for a listening panel that was to take place in the afternoon. During our critiques of artists, the sky turned black in the west and warning sirens started going off downtown. Later, after the panel was over, I drove down to Hernando to Windy City Grill for dinner, discovering that large areas of Hernando were without power and that there was a considerable amount of damage. To my dismay, I found that there was absolutely no power at all in Bartlett or Raleigh. Worse, in front of the movie theatre on Stage Road, trees had been uprooted and strewn across the parking lot. The nearby Starbucks was one of the few places with power and open for business, so I sat in there awhile, drinking coffee, and listening to people talk about the storm, which some were calling a tornado. When I got back to my house, the power was still off, but it was clear that we had suffered major damage. The tree in our front yard had broken apart, and parts of it had struck the corner of our house, and two large trees in the back yard had fallen and demolished our neighbors’ fence to the back of our house. I lay in the dark, trying to call the insurance company on my cellphone, but I couldn’t get through.