Feature, Food, Road Tripping, Travel

Delta Sojourn : An Escape to Clarksdale, MS

delta-sojourn-escape-clarksdale-ms

“The blues echoes right through into soul, R&B, and hip-hop. It’s part of the make-up of modern music. You can’t turn your back on the blues.” – Ronnie Wood

It’s October and fall has arrived in the Mississippi Delta but here the seasons move in quietly. The nights are still warm, with only the cotton fields giving away the change. They bow under the weight of their crop – heavy, full, and creamy white until sunset, when the fiery streaks of pink and orange filling the sky reflect against the fields.

My best friend and I are well over 15,000 miles into our road trip by the time we land in Clarksdale, MS and, as it often does, the universe seems to have caved and molded itself to our needs. After three months on the road, with only one week left to go, our road-weary selves are thrilled at the thought of home, while also heartbroken to face the end. And so, the Delta embraces us, giving us a place to pause as we head into the final stretch of our journey.

Clarksdale, Shack Up Inn
On the grounds of the Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, MS

Clarksdale, both in reality and ethos, is the perfect place for this – for contemplating what has gone and what shall come. An hour and a half drive south of Memphis, TN, and an hour west of Oxford, MS, it’s not the sort of place you stumble upon unintentionally. The population only hovers around 17,000, and yet it’s still the largest town for many miles in any direction. This isolation, though, has led to a cultural and historical preservation that is worth the extra effort to get here.

Most people are attracted by the city’s musical legacy, grounded in reality by homegrown blues greats like Sam Cooke and John Lee Hooker, and expanded through superstition, for Clarksdale is supposedly the home of the mythical crossroads where Robert Johnson bartered away his soul to the devil in exchange for musical greatness.

 

Now, the Delta Blues Museum stands less than a mile away from the rumored spot where that soul-searching and sad music was supposedly born. Throughout the year, festivals such as the Delta Blues Fest (September) and Juke Joint Festival (April) bring fans from all over the world to hear world-class musicians, a few of whom have been playing in Clarksdale since the heyday of the blues in the 1920s and 30s.

Even during the quiet stretches in between, there’s no shortage of music to be found. Morgan Freeman’s club Ground Zero has a reliable lineup of local and touring acts, while travelers looking for an authentic juke-joint experience pack into Red’s Lounge a couple blocks away. Predictably, audiences at Red’s are far more white and middle class than the juke joints from Robert Johnson’s era, but the performers don’t seem to care. After a few rounds, everyone is entranced by the thrum of the steel guitar.

Red's Lounge, Clarksdale, MS
Red’s Lounge, Clarksdale, MS

There are an unimpressive handful of hotels in the area, but travelers are better off trying to score a room at the Shack Up Inn, just outside of town. Part hotel, part creative oasis, the Shack Up doesn’t even attempt to court luxury travelers. Its motto is emblazoned across its website and check-in desk, clearly stating “The Ritz, We Ain’t.” While they don’t offer room service and you won’t find a spa for miles, there is no shortage of character.

The Shack Up Inn began in the 1990’s when the owners bought a handful of abandoned sharecropper shacks from local plantations and stuck them in a field, creating a small haven where they could drink beer and play their guitars well into the night. Over time, they realized there were other like-minded folk who would pay for that experience and so it has expanded gradually and organically. Now there are 20 shacks scattered across the old Hopson plantation, with a renovated barn at its center containing a few more-conventional rooms, a restaurant, music venue, and gift shop.

Clarksdale, Shack Up Inn
On the grounds of the Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, MS

Our shack, named the Robert Clay after the man who once lived there, is both simple and spacious. The décor seems unchanged since Clay’s day, although it’s impeccably clean and very comfortable. An old piano holds forth in the living room next to an even more ancient television, which plays nothing but old blues recordings around the clock.

While this ramshackle collection of old buildings and decorations could easily seem cheap and tawdry, it is a dizzyingly beautiful place. Every element, from the corrugated metal siding on the barn to the rusty old Ford trucks out at pasture in the yard, seems like some Brooklyn hipster’s fever dream. And yet, the Shack Up Inn manages to walk that fine line between schlock and authenticity. It feels really well-loved, and so it is easy to love it.

Most shacks here have a full kitchen, as well as wide, breezy porches that are perfect for low-key meals. However, if you don’t feel like cooking, the Shack Up Inn’s resident restaurant RUST offers up a fine hamburger, well-cooked steak, and a never-ending supply of cheap beer.

For the true local experience, however, you’ll want to hunt down a bag of Delta hot tamales. Found in back room restaurants and tiny grocery stores throughout the area, the tamale is an unexpected staple of the south, reflective of the complex cultural and migratory history of the region. While similar to their Mexican ancestors, Delta tamales have taken on their own form. They are longer and thinner, with simple, uncomplicated fillings of chicken or beef.  Larry’s Hot Tamales is one of the most popular places in town to pick some up, but half the fun is finding all of the hidden away joints.

The Southern Foodways Alliance has a nice breakdown of the history and significance of hot tamales in the Delta here, as well as a map so you can follow the tamale trail yourself. The history is fascinating and a perfect illustration of the patched-together, cultural mishmash that is really at the heart of Americana.

Red's Lounge, Clarksdale, MS

Our paper bag of a dozen is quickly soaked through with oil, which is unnaturally orange but smells incredible, like roast corn and slowly braised meat. We eat the tamales with our fingers as we sit on the porch of our shack, acutely aware of how different our lives are than the people who made this land, this place, and this food possible.

After a few days of full-retreat mode, venturing out only for quiet walks, music, food, and booze, Katie and I have gathered some of our travel swagger back. We are ready for the next leg, on to Memphis and one step closer to home. So, naturally, we discover a flat before we even get out of the parking lot.

This is Clarksdale, though, and they sing their blues, they don’t cry them. Within thirty minutes, a passing gentleman has knocked the stubborn tire loose and sent us down the road to his pal at the tire shop, who patches us up and sends us on our way with a shy, genuine smile but no bill. When we protested, he relented and accepted a box of hot donuts from Daylight Donut, a few doors down. We made sure to get extra for our own ride, not quite ready to let Clarksdale go for good.

 

VISIT

Delta Blues Museum

Blues Alley Lane, Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 627-6820

Hours: 9am – 5pm

 

MUSIC & DRANKIN’

Ground Zero

387 Delta Ave

Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 621-9009

Hours: 11am – 2am (closed Sundays)

 

Red’s Lounge

398 Sunflower Ave

Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 624-5992

**Call for Hours & Shows. Usually a $5 cover.

 

EATIN’

Rust

1 Commissary Circle (At the Shack Up Inn)

Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 351-0699

Hours: 6pm – 9pm (Weds & Thurs), 6pm – 10pm (Fri & Sat), 10am – 2pm (Sun)

CLOSED Mondays and Tuesdays.

Note: The Juke Joint Chapel Bar, which shares a space with Rust, lists their hours as 8am-8pm or later, if you’re just looking for beer.

 

Larry’s Hot Tamales

947 Sunflower Ave

Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 592-4245

Hours: 11am – 8pm

 

SLEEPIN’

Shack Up Inn

1 Commissary Cir

Clarksdale, MS 38614

(662) 624-8329

 

 NOTE: An earlier version of this article was originally written for Catapult’s Travel Writing Workshop with Departure Magazine Editor Jessica Flint. Her help and guidance was so valuable and I am forever in her debt for helping encourage this blog into existence.

Clarksdale Delta Sojourn Pinnable Graphic

Leave A Comment

Leave a Reply