Celebrating Mason, Tennessee’s Important Legacy

Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. 

Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city. 

Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991. 

One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely. 

I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason. 

Mason, Tennessee: Twilight for the Lower End?

I have often wondered why West Tennessee has less of a blues culture than North Mississippi. Aside from bluesmen associated with Memphis like Gus Cannon or Furry Lewis, Brownsville’s Sleepy John Estes, or Humboldt’s Cary Tate, there’s just not that much blues in West Tennessee, and although one would expect to find bluesmen from towns like Covington, Somerville or Jackson, Tennessee, I can’t name any off the top of my head. The one town that always appeared to have a blues culture was the little town of Mason, Tennessee in Tipton County, whose row of “cafes” along Front Street was known collectively as “The Lower End.” But time hasn’t been kind to Mason either. The venerable blues club called Club Tay-May burned in the 1990’s and was never rebuilt. The oldest buildings on the Lower End are also gone, their location marked only with steps and a raised sidewalk. The three or so cafes that remain did not seem to even be open on a late Friday afternoon, and if there ever is live music in any of them, I could find no evidence of it. I decided to grab a late afternoon dinner at Bozo’s Bar B Que and head back to Memphis.

Disillusionment on the Lower End

Every time I visit Front Street in Mason, Tennessee, it seems that another building has been torn down, burned down, or has just fallen down from age and neglect. The once proud row of jukes, known locally as “cafes”, has been reduced to three or so which clearly have seen better days. Called the “Lower End” or the “row”, the clubs made Mason a sort of rural African-American Las Vegas, a milieu of “players” that a local resident once described in a feature article for the Commercial Appeal.

But the glory days are long gone, as are Club Tay-May, the Purple Rain, the Black Hut, the Red Hut, most of them reduced to vacant lots. As a photographer, musicologist and blogger, part of me wants to photograph what remains…after all, it may soon be gone. But there are a number of older African-American men and women hanging out on the porches, and I suddenly feel that taking their picture would be disrespectful, almost an intrusion. 

I face this dilemma all too often as I drive through Delta areas, looking for old architecture, juke joints and holy sites of the blues. Often I will see a perfect photo opportunity, and yet I will know that my taking it would either anger local residents or at least raise suspicions about who I am and what I am doing, and I hate the tortured past of race relations that makes this the reality in towns like Mason. 

So I don’t take the photo, riding past instead, feeling disillusioned and hopelessly cut off from that world that I find so attractive. Up on Highway 70, a group of young men are shooting basketball, and outside the old Fields School, another small group of young people is standing around in the gathering dusk. A sign says that the old school is now Club Maserati. Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, the other reason that I have come tells me that they are closing for the night and cannot serve me, and down the road Gus’ World-Famous Fried Chicken is also closed for the night. Suddenly I realize that I came out to Mason for nothing at all.