After a day of research on my thesis in the Tennessee State Archives, I decided to enjoy my Friday night in Nashville. I headed first out to the new location of Grimey’s Records on the north side of Nashville in a former church. After many years on South Eighth Avenue near The Basement, they had decided to move to larger digs, and were taking advantage of the extra space to have live music performances in the store. I spent an hour or so there, but ended up not buying anything. Although it was beginning to rain, I decided to head to Nicky’s Coal-Fired Pizza in a neighborhood called The Nations where the streets are named for states. In my youth, this had been a rather rough neighborhood called West Nashville, not far from the Tennessee State University campus, but now it has been reborn into a trendy and hip district full of cafes and bars. Although I had enjoyed pizza the night before, I was eager to compare Nicky’s to Emmy Squared, and while they were different, I liked Nicky’s quite a bit. My pepperoni, bacon and mushroom pizza was quite delicious, and the space was cozy and inviting on a rather chilly, rainy evening. Just down Centennial Boulevard from Nicky’s I found a new coffee bar called White Bison Coffee, which was full of glass, chrome and white tables. It wasn’t particularly busy, but I had a delicious latte there, and a chocolate chocolate chip muffin.
Afterwards, my homeboy Otis Logan was supposed to be playing drums at a bar in East Nashville on Gallatin Avenue called The Cobra, so I headed up there, but the rain was growing worse. I kicked it with Otis for a minute, but the group he was supposed to play with wasn’t going on stage until 10 PM, and I had decided to drive back to Memphis, since the weather wasn’t getting any better, and since staying over would have led to me simply spending more money. So I left out, somewhat reluctantly, and got on the Interstate to head back home. But I accomplished what I had come for, and had a bit of fun as well.
I drove up to Nashville on a Thursday night so that I could spend Friday in the Tennessee State Archives doing research for my masters’ thesis, but the weather was a complete wash-out, with rain that would not stop all the way from Memphis to Nashville.
Tennessee’s capital is in the middle of an unprecedented growth spurt, and its downtown in particular is becoming a city that I hardly recognize anymore. The rain was making things particularly difficult, but I recalled reading about a place that served Detroit-style pizza in Nashville, so I looked it up on my phone, and found it. The little bar was in a neighborhood called the Gulch, and was called Emmy Squared. It proved to be a Nashville branch of a New York City chain, and although I was wet and chilled after running from the parking garage to the bar, the interior was cozy, warm and inviting. The pizza proved to be quite expensive, but very delicious, and worth the cost.
Afterwards, I wanted dessert, and to my surprise, I saw on my phone that Nashville has gotten a location of Cafe Intermezzo, my favorite dessert place in Atlanta. Getting there was difficult to say the least, but after running in the rain, I came to a place with a huge Lavazza Coffee sign, but that turned out to be a completely different place, a late-night eatery called The Diner, which looked inviting. The Nashville location of Intermezzo turned out to be in the next block of Demonbreun Street, and was slightly smaller than its Atlanta counterparts, but it had the same excellent desserts and coffees. Being a huge Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup fan, I chose a chocolate and peanut butter cheesecake, and had a chocolate peanut butter latte as well! It was the perfect follow-up to my dinner. Then, with the rain continuing, I headed back to my Air BnB to call it a night. This is certainly not the Nashville I knew in my younger days!
Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and its county seat of Ripley have a significant blues tradition. Petey Wheatstraw was from Ripley, and Noah Lewis and John Henry Barbee were from Henning, the town made famous by Alex Haley. The blues researcher Bengt Olsson had suggested that there had been fife and drum bands in Lauderdale County, so I drove up to the Lauderdale County Library in the hopes of finding information in the back issues of the weekly newspaper, the Enterprise. Unfortunately, to my shock, the county library did not have any of the back issues of the local newspaper. The microfilm of them is instead kept at the Enterprise office, which of course was not open on a Saturday. I soon came to realize I had come to Ripley for nothing at all, but I called an acquaintance Gwen Blackman, who happened to be a block from the library at an agricultural fair, and who attempted to put me in touch with some community people who were old enough to perhaps remember some fife and drum bands or picnics, but she really could not reach anyone on that particular day. So, with little else to do, I ventured over into the Black neighborhood east of the railroad tracks, where I took some photos of historic spots and locations…old stores, old clubs, and old cafes. It was not the research toward my thesis paper that I had intended, but it was fun.
Tunica County, Mississippi once had dreams of greatness. After all, it bordered the most important navigable stream in North America, and had some raised hills along the banks that would provide for a protected townsite, so the early settlers imagined that there would be a bustling metropolis on the Mississippi River in their county. They chose the site for it near an Indian mound, and, appropriately enough, named it Commerce. It was quickly made the county seat of the new county, and for awhile, it lived up to its name as a fairly busy river port. But the river began to eat away at the bluff on which the town was built, and in 1843, part of Commerce sank into the river. The Board of Supervisors chose to move the county seat to Peyton, another river landing to the south, but a few years later, they moved it back to Commerce. With the river continuing to threaten Commerce, a permanent solution was needed, and eventually the decision was made to move the county seat even further south to Austin Landing, which became known as the town of Austin.
I had never heard of Austin Landing or Austin, Mississippi, but one day, while researching the Black fraternal organization known as the Independent Pole Bearers, I came across a Mississippi corporate charter for a Pole-Bearers chapter at “Austin Landing” in Tunica County. That captivated my interest, and a check of my phone showed that the name still appeared at a place near the levee on a road due west of Evansville, another ghost town that I had discovered on a previous journey through the Delta.
So, on a rather grey and overcast winter day, I headed west from Evansville to see what if anything remained at Austin. Online maps showed about two streets, a cluster of houses and supposedly a church. The road from Evansville was beautiful despite the dreary day, running alongside dark swamps on its southern edge, with seemingly historic homes on the northern side. The journey took awhile, but Austin soon appeared dead ahead, a small cluster of houses and trees against the levee.
I soon found that there are no businesses in Austin whatsoever, although I noticed a building that looked as if it might have once been a store. There is also a sort of community building that looks as if it might have once been the post office, and is probably now used as a voting precinct. Although the maps showed a church, I saw no trace of it when I was actually there, and few of the houses seemed old enough to warrant interest, with one exception. That house, an abandoned house on the northern street of Austin looked as if it had been there since the late 1890’s or early 20th century. Other than that, there was no trace of the courthouse, any businesses, the old street grids or, for that matter, the river, which was now safely behind levees and several miles further west.
I later learned that Austin had also been the scene of a massive race riot in August of 1874, caused by a white store owner attempting to shoot a thief. Instead of shooting the thief, he fatally wounded a 5-year-old Black child, and was arrested and charged. But the decision of the sheriff to release him on bond outraged the Black people of Tunica County. Reinforced by Blacks from Friars Point in Coahoma County further down the river, they armed themselves and marched on Austin in an effort to seize the town. In their initial capture of the downtown area, they took over the store whose owner had shot the girl, and seized him and locked him back up in the jail.
Memphis, only 40 miles to the north had been the scene of racial tension all summer, heightened by a racially-charged election between Democrats and so-called Radical Republicans, most of whom were Black, and this election had occasioned the establishment of white militias such as the Chickasaw Guards. At the news of an uprising in Austin, these militias commandeered boats from the Memphis harbor and headed to Austin to put down the Black uprising, which they succeeded in doing after several days. Several Blacks were killed, and many were arrested in both Tunica and Coahoma Counties. Austin would soon lose the county seat to a new town that had formed when the railroad came through the county- Tunica. Today it is a sleepy and forgotten place in the middle of nowhere, and one could not possibly imagine any noise or confusion there. Several of the homes are for sale, for the person that really wants to get away from it all.
Since the closure of Anderton’s Restaurant in Midtown some years ago, Memphis has had a noticeable lack of decent seafood restaurants, and several attempts at it in recent years have not fared well. Nevertheless, good seafood, especially Gulf seafood, is something that I always crave, so when I heard that the good folks at Elwood’s Shack had opened a new place called Elwood’s Shells which specializes in seafood, I had to try it.
Elwood’s Shells sits in an old house next door to Tsunami in the trendy Cooper-Young neighborhood, amidst a very small parking lot. With nearby lots restricted to other establishments, parking is the restaurant’s biggest challenge. But the space is attractive, its interior a riot of coastal and tropical colors, with folk art by local Memphis artist and musician Lamar Sorrento.
The menu is remarkably large, and fairly unique by Memphis standards. There is fried shrimp of course, but also croaker (a kind of fish), grouper and redfish. There are entrees prepared in both the pontchartrain and meuniere styles that visitors to New Orleans or Biloxi have learned to love, and there is also a selection of po-boys and sandwiches. On my first visit, I tried the fried shrimp, and found them delicious, although they were far larger than the medium gulf shrimp that one usually finds in Pensacola or Mobile. They had a delicious breading, and the french fries that accompanied them were equally delicious. A slice of key lime pie to follow was the perfect ending to the lunch. Service was fairly slow but cheerful.
Unfortunately, my one big disappointment was the price. Elwood’s Shells is relatively expensive, doubtless because of the cost of bringing in quality seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. The food is good, and probably worth the price, but I will have to reserve Elwood’s Shells for special occasions or times when I have extra money. But it certainly deserves a visit.