Brownsville, the county seat of Haywood County in West Tennessee is in most respects a fairly typical Southern town. It has the typical town square with the county courthouse in the center, and a number of historic homes. But it also has a talented and bizarre hometown artist named Billy Tripp, whose outdoor permanent art installation The Mindfield towers over the buildings on the square. For many years, The Mindfield shared its name with one of Tennessee’s very best restaurants, the Mindfield Grill, but that community institution was not able to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early in 2022, Brownsville gained a replacement when Livingston’s Soda Fountain and Grill opened in the town’s old post office just off the square. The new restaurant has a very different vibe from the old Mindfield Grill, which was somewhat upscale. Livingston’s, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. If the atmosphere is nostalgic, it is also cheerful and bright. Unlike the Mindfield Grill, Livingston’s sells breakfast, milkshakes and ice cream floats. But there are a number of similarities, too. Both restaurants had reasonable prices, and both restaurants had amazing food. And they share something else…..former cooks for the Mindfield work at Livingston’s. At any given time, the place can be filled with local residents and out of town visitors, but there is rarely a wait for a table, and the food rarely takes very long to come out. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but hours can be different on different days, so be sure to contact them if you are visiting from out of town.
Saturday April 23 was the main day of Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, a bright and sunny day, but extremely windy. In fact, the wind was so severe that it blew down a number of the vendor tents along downtown streets. When I arrived at the Wade Walton Stage, one of the free stages throughout the daytime, Memphisippi Sounds was on stage, the duo of Cameron Kimbrough and Damian Pearson. While there are not a lot of young Mississippi Hill Country artists, this group is one of the best emerging artists from the region. They were followed by Garry Burnside and his band, and then Duwayne Burnside and his band, and finally Kenny Brown, who was mentored by Mississippi Joe Callicott and the great R. L. Burnside. Around the same time, Como bluesman R. L. Boyce and Lightning Malcolm were on the Sunflower River stage next to Quapaw Canoe Company.
2022 brought some new openings to Clarksdale as well as some sad closings. The Riverside Hotel, famous as the the former hospital where blues great Bessie Smith died, has remained closed since it was damaged in a storm, and a fundraising effort is underway to keep it from closing permanently. Yazoo Pass, although open to a limited extent during weekdays, has closed at night, and was open only briefly on the festival day. But Sean “Bad” Apple’s new blues club in the former Club 2000 building, as well as the opening of the new Buster’s Blues Club next door show that the renaissance in Clarksdale still remains strong coming out of the pandemic.
After a dinner at the Hooker Grocery, I made my way over to Pete’s Grill on Sunflower Avenue for Duwayne Burnside’s night show. While the daytime stages are free to the public, the night shows inside the various juke joints require wristbands or paid admissions, but the shows are generally well-attended, and Duwayne’s was no exception.
As events go, the annual Juke Joint Fest has played perhaps the biggest role in making Clarksdale, Mississippi a tourist destination on the world stage, and over the years it has grown into a bigger and bigger event. Although the official festival generally takes place on a Saturday, it has come to encompass four days of live music and events, some of them official and others not. This year, the Juke Joint Fest kicked off on Friday with a parade in downtown Clarksdale, the first such parade during the festival I can recall. It was breaking up on John Lee Hooker Street just as I walked up to the Hooker Grocery, perhaps Clarksdale’s most upscale restaurant.
After dinner, I walked down to Meraki Coffee Roasters, the youth-run coffee bar which was also quite crowded. Although it usually closes early in the afternoon, Meraki extends their hours during the festival, and it is something of a hub for visitors and performers alike. The streets were full of local residents and tourists in a festive mood, and music was everywhere. Making my way back to Yazoo Avenue, I met up with Duwayne Burnside whose band was setting up to play at Bluesberry Cafe, which was packed to overflowing. After his performance, I was tempted to swing by Red’s Lounge, but as it was late and the next day was an even bigger day for the festival, I headed back to Memphis.
The South Central Chapter meeting of the American Musicological Society was held in March at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and the trip gave me an opportunity to spend a Friday evening in Nashville, as I was not scheduled to give a presentation until Saturday.
So after checking into my hotel in Murfreesboro, I drove up to Nashville to go to my favorite pizza place, Emmy Squared, which specializes in Detroit style pizza. But as I arrived in The Gulch district where it is located, it began raining, and I had to walk through showers to make my way to the restaurant. The place was crowded, and I had to wait nearly an hour, but the pizza was just as good as I had remembered from my first visit several years ago.
After dinner, I decided to go to Rudy’s Jazz Room, which is the new jazz club in the Nashville area, after the venerable F. Scott’s closed some years ago. I had not heard of the jazz pianist who was playing, but he was quite good, and I enjoyed the entire experience. Rudy’s Jazz Room is in fact a room for listening, and despite the place being crowded indeed, I was able to be seated comfortably and to hear the music. Low lighting and the ambiance of a living room characterized the club.
Afterwards, I wanted to grab a dessert, and fortunately Nashville has a branch of Atlanta’s great Cafe Intermezzo. Although it closes earlier than the original location in Atlanta, I was able to get in and to enjoy a piece of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake and a Viennese coffee. It was a great way to end a fun night in Nashville before driving back to Murfreesboro and to bed.
Say “East Village” and most people probably think of New York City, but since the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library and the nearby headquarters of the Heifer Project International, a hip, trendy new district called the East Village has been developing in Little Rock, Arkansas east of I-30 and downtown. Perhaps the centerpiece of this district is a new coffee bar and roasters called Fidel and Company.
Fidel is a warm and welcoming spot; it’s sleek and modernistic, with plenty of glass, lighting and outdoor sunlight streaming in. There are varieties of Fidel roasted coffees, as well as Onyx coffees from Fayetteville, and plenty of inviting baked goods, both sweet and savory. There is also a lovely outdoor patio area, although it was too cold for people to make much use of it on the December day I was there.
I bought a bag of Fidel whole bean coffee to make at home, and it was great. Unfortunately, the website seems peculiarly geared to local orders for pick-up, so it does not currently seem possible to order bags of beans for mail order delivery. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.
Little Rock’s River Market District lies along President Clinton Avenue, and is the city’s premiere entertainment district, equivalent to Beale Street in Memphis, except for the fact that the River Market has a far better selection of shopping options as well as the clubs and restaurants. On a cold December Saturday, just down from the diner where I had eaten breakfast, I encountered a coffee bar called Nexus Coffee and Creative, and, on the theory that you cannot have too much coffee on a cold day, I headed inside. The inside was in fact warm and cheery, and the place has their own roastery where they roast their coffees. There is also a sort of local art/antique market inside, which had some interesting items, including cigar-box and coffee-can guitars. The intent of the place seems to be to function as a community hub, sort of the “third place” between home and work that Starbucks often talks about. But locally-owned entities like Nexus are better equipped to do this successfully than large corporate chains. And Nexus’ coffee was very good.
Down the block, I found the large Central Arkansas Library, but what attracted me inside of there was a used book store. Our library in Memphis has a good store of that sort, and the one in Little Rock was as well., There weren’t as many old books in Little Rock’s store, and the prices seemed a bit higher, but I left with four books, Unlike a lot of other entertainment districts, the River Market has something for day and night.
I was in Little Rock on a Saturday morning for a gig with Hill Country bluesman Garry Burnside, and it was downright chilly after my previous weekend in New Orleans. I am the kind of person that cannot start the day without breakfast and coffee, so I had scouted out a place online called At The Corner Diner, which is located right at the entrance to the President Clinton Avenue/River Market area downtown, but I feared it would be outrageously crowded. It did prove to be somewhat crowded, and yet, I was able to get a table fairly quickly, and I was impressed with the modern, stylized decor, the cheerful touches of red throughout the interior, and the general festive atmosphere.
At The Corner calls itself a “modern” diner, and I am not sure what that entails, but like a similar establishment called the 24-Hour Cafe in Austin, it seems to mean diner food with a bit of a gourmet accent. Prices are not as cheap as an old-fashioned traditional diner, but they are fairly reasonable, and there are plenty of familiar comfort foods on the menu. I chose an Arkansas Breakfast Sampler, which is a typical bacon and eggs and biscuit breakfast, but even here there was a neat gourmet twist, a cup of fresh fruit; I’m not always the biggest fan of fruit but the fruit in the cup was so fresh and so sweet that it made a pleasant addition to the meal. As any breakfast establishment should, The Corner had several coffee options as well, and as cold as it was, people were definitely taking advantage of it.
For those not in the mood for breakfast, At The Corner also has a fairly diverse selection of hamburgers, other sandwiches, and salads. When in Little Rock, it is definitely worth a visit.
En route to my birthday weekend in New Orleans, I decided to stop off at the natural halfway point in Jackson, Mississippi for a rest, and my phone showed me a new coffee place in Highland Village called Coffee Prose, which I had not seen on previous visits to Jackson. Incredible as it may seem, on all my various visits to Jackson since my childhood, I have never had occasion to visit Highland Village shopping center, although it is one of the oldest shopping areas in the city. I found it beautifully decked out for Christmas, and the weather was pleasant enough that people were sitting outside in the courtyard.
Coffee Prose is not easy to find from the parking lot, but it is on the courtyard, and as the name suggests, it features an array of hot and cold coffee drinks, some baked goods, and a small selection of used books. The coffee was quite good and the prices were reasonable. I didn’t find anything amongst the books that I absolutely had to have, but the concept of combining books and coffee makes sense. Fueled with caffeine, I was able to get back on my way to the Big Easy. There is a second Coffee Prose in Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood as well.
Memphis once was challenged with regard to espresso-based drinks, but now the situation is reversed, with a seemingly-endless array of coffee options across the city. However, few of these were in the downtown area. The recent opening of Crazy Gander Coffee Company on Monroe Avenue fills that much-needed gap. At a time when a well-known national coffee chain has talked about being a “third place” between home and work, the Crazy Gander delivers on that concept, providing a bright, cheerful, welcoming and serene island from the noise and bustle of downtown Memphis. Bold gold and turquoise chairs contrast with the black-and-white maps of downtown Memphis on the walls, and the atmosphere is perfect for laptop work or just a lunch-break decompression from the stress of the workday. And the coffee drinks are absolutely delicious as well. Of course like everything downtown, there is a bit of a parking challenge, and the Crazy Gander closes fairly early, at 4 PM each day. But it is worth the effort to visit, and is within walking distance of most downtown hotels.
Oxford restauranteur John Currence opened the first Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi in 2008. A few years later a second location opened in Birmingham, Alabama, but more recently the chain has expanded rapidly, with locations opening in the Florida panhandle, elsewhere in Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee. Although Memphis was once a fairly challenging city to find outstanding breakfast in, that situation has changed over the last decade or so, and the city is now virtually saturated with breakfast spots, most of them quite good. How will Big Bad Breakfast compete?
Compared to many other breakfast spots, BBB is fairly upscale. The restaurant regionally sources its coffee, grits and pork, and prices are not particularly cheap. But the food is good, and unlike some fancy breakfast places, there are plenty of traditional breakfast items on the menu, including omelets. There is also a lunch menu which includes burgers, but the lunch menu can be ordered at breakfast, and the breakfast menu can be ordered at lunch. There is no dinner, as BBB closes at 2:30 PM.
As for the surroundings, the dining area is pleasant and bright, with plenty of glass windows open to the outside, and although the place seemed crowded, I was immediately shown to a table, and food was delivered fairly quickly after my order was placed. As for the food, it stacked up well against other local options; of course, it’s hard to mess up breakfast. But BBB has another nice twist. Many of its pork products are available to be purchased and cooked at home. Although Memphis has a lot of breakfast options, Big Bad Breakfast does not disappoint.