One of the best things about our slow return to normalcy has been the reappearance of the festivals we missed in 2020. The North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic held at Betty Davis’ Ponderosa each year at Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County was founded by blues musician Kenny Brown and his wife Sarah to commemorate and preserve the Hill Country blues traditions, and especially the legacies of the Kimbrough and Burnside families. Held over two nights, the festival generally attracts several hundred people from all over the world; sadly, this year, most of the international visitors were unable to attend, due to ongoing travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Still, several hundred people attended on Friday night, seeing performances by Jimbo Mathus and Kent Burnside, and Duwayne Burnside with his band. Lots of musicians were backstage, including Little Joe Ayers, and there were great charcoal-grilled hamburgers for the performers.
An even bigger crowd attended on Saturday, when artists like Memphisippi Sounds, R. L. Boyce and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band performed.
Early on Saturday morning, June 19th, I headed to a restaurant called the Merry-Go-Round on North Fares Avenue in Evansville, Indiana. Fares was once Highway 41, and the restaurant was located in an area of several sketchy motels, but the number of cars around the building convinced me I was in the right place. Inside, the restaurant was a combination of antiques and Trump posters. I was not happy about that, but Evansville has few breakfast choices, and I saw that the customer base seemed relatively diverse, so I stayed.
The Merry-Go-Round goes back to at least World War II, and has a definite old-school vibe; the places sells burgers and ice cream, even if breakfast is the main reason people go. And a good breakfast it proved to be. Although the place was fairly crowded, the restaurant is large, and I had no problem getting a table.
My next step was to find a local coffee bar for a latte, so I drove over to the Honey Moon Coffee Company on Weibach Avenue, but as I arrived there, Duwayne Burnside called me and said that he wanted us all to soundcheck at 10 AM at the W. C. Handy Festival stage in Henderson, Kentucky, rather than at 11 AM as I had supposed. So I had to get my latte to go, and head south on Highway 41 across the bridge into Henderson. Fortunately, there was a blocked-off lot where we were allowed to park as performers.
The weather was extremely hot, and there were not a lot of people in the seats when I arrived, but then we were the first act to perform, and we did not go on stage until noon. To my amazement, they had a beautiful Nord keyboard on stage, and we had access to the food tent until it was time to soundcheck with Pinkie Pulliam, Charles Gage and Duwayne.
By the time we performed, there was a much larger crowd in the seats than when we arrived. The view from the stage over the crowd and out to the Ohio River was quite beautiful, and the show was fun to play. There were even some boats out on the river enjoying the show from the water. One of the things I was pleased with is that Duwayne Burnside gave the crowd authentic blues when so many of the other acts seemed more rock oriented.
Afterwards, I got my car and headed back across to Evansville. I grabbed a late afternoon lunch at Blu Burger Bar, the Evansville branch of an Indianapolis chain, located in the city’s old bus depot. The building has been lovingly and beautifully restored, and the food was outstanding.
My last stop before checking out of my hotel and leaving Evansville was at a store I had never seen before called Meijer. I vaguely remembered the name from trips to Cincinnati, but I had never been inside one. To my amazement, Meijer seems like a cross between Wal-Mart, target, Costco and Sam’s Club, all in one. The building was bright, mostly glass and chrome, and impeccably clean. I had intended to take some Double Cola back to Memphis, but Meijer didn’t have any in stock; however, they did have some Tchibo Coffee imported from Germany, and I bought that to take home.
Unfortunately, my car which had performed so well going up to Henderson and Evansville did not do as well going back. It started hesitating at times, and by the time I reached Dyersburg, the check engine light had come on. I stopped at a O’Reilly Auto Parts there, and learned that the fuel rail pressure sensor was going out. Despite difficulty, I managed to make it to the house.
I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in Brownsville, so I headed out Highway 70 from Bartlett, and stopped in Mason, Tennessee to see if there were any announcements about upcoming events now that the pandemic seemed to be waning. To my surprise, there were several events coming up, including a retirement party for the Zodiac A’s, the local softball team in Mason for 35 years, and a community gospel concert at Fredonia Missionary Baptist Church. The biggest event coming was the July 4 Mason Community Family Reunion sponsored by the southern soul artist Terry Wright, for which I had already pre-purchased tickets.
However, in Brownsville, I could not reach my friend on the phone, and after driving around the town for a half hour or so, I headed on to Jackson, Tennessee. First, I drove by Reggie’s Bar-B-Que to pick up some bags of their pork rinds, which are unique and unlike any other brand, and then I headed from the east end of town toward downtown. Along Whitehall Street, I came to an old and seemingly-abandoned motel which seemed frozen in time. I decided to stop and photograph it, and to my surprise, an elderly couple came out of one of the rooms, so apparently the motel wasn’t quite as abandoned as it seemed.
Downtown, I pulled up to the Blacksmith Bar and Grill, and, faced with the prospect of eating dinner by myself, I posted a message to any of my Jackson friends on Facebook to meet me up at the restaurant. To my surprise, one of my friends from Huntsville responded, Codie G, who was in town doing contract work for the U.S. Army. We had a decent time catching up with one another over dinner, and then, resisting the temptation to run by Green Frog Coffee, I hit the road back to Bartlett.
Marshall County, Mississippi is one of those out-of-the-way places in the South where old traditions and ways have retained a foothold. The county is the epicenter of the Hill Country Blues style, and the related Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of the Kimbrough family, and blues is often the soundtrack for picnics and family gatherings.
On May 22, a family graduation party turned into a virtual music festival in Holly Springs, as the family had booked Hill Country greats Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside to perform in their front yard. They also had a DJ and plenty of good barbecue, and a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered, with cars up and down old Highway 4. Although it was quite hot, it didn’t deter the party-goers, and after the sun went down, things cooled off some. It was actually a big night for Hill Country blues in Holly Springs, as Kenny Brown was also performing at a historic home on Salem Avenue for the first of the summer Blues on the Porch performances. Blues is still the soundtrack of summer in Marshall County.
Duwayne Burnside is one of the sons of the late R. L. Burnside, and is a living legend of the Hill Country blues tradition in North Mississippi, but peculiarly, he has not frequently played in Memphis in recent years. That changed this summer, with a weekly residence at the outdoor Railgarten venue in Midtown, which got under way on May 7th after a couple of cancellations due to weather.
A number of Memphis blues aficionados and musicians came out, including the legendary Stax Records drummer Willie Hall, who sat in with the band on a tune. Actually, Railgarten makes a nice venue for blues, with its massive array of outdoor tables and bars. In pleasant weather, it’s perhaps the best venue in the city. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused modifications in its operations, and things are not entirely back to normal yet. The diner, which once featured a more adventurous culinary menu, is closed, as is the ice cream parlor, and currently only bar food is available. But there seem to be renovations going on at the diner, and hopefully it will be reopening in the future.
Getting dinner in Clarksdale can be difficult during Juke Joint Festival, so this year I called ahead and made reservations at Levon’s so my friend and I would not have to wait for a table. But one of the cooler (and most mysterious) things about Clarksdale is the way poetic and inspirational slogans appear on the walls of abandoned buildings and walls around the town. This year, there was a new one across from the shuttered Delta Theatre, which read “Strength Lies Within,” a good slogan for my friend, and I photographed her beside it accordingly.
This was the first year at Juke Joint Fest with the new Traveler’s Hotel in downtown Clarksdale, and for the first time, there was a new performance tent across the street from the hotel in a parking lot. I had not paid a lot of attention to the location earlier, but when I walked back that way later in the morning, the Southern Soul Band was playing there. I recalled them from Como Day in 2018, when they had been a crowd-pleaser. There was a classic car show in the intersection nearby, and the crowd seemed pleased with what they were hearing. I enjoyed them as well as I headed around the corner and into the Blue Cotton Bake Shop for some coffee and baked goods.
The announcement that 2021’s Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Mississippi would actually be held in person and not merely virtually online was a sign that things are tentatively moving toward normalcy, and along those same lines was my discovery that Kathryn’s on Moon Lake would be open for Friday dinner on the festival weekend.
The pandemic was not kind to restaurants anywhere, but things have been unusually difficult for Kathryn’s, which is located in a remote area of rural Coahoma County between the town of Lula, the communities of Dundee and Coahoma, and Clarksdale. Situated on Moon Lake, an oxbow lake that was once the main channel of the Mississippi River, it is now cut off from the nearest big town of Lula by a closed bridge which flunked an inspection and is not scheduled for repair. The detour requires people approaching from Lula to drive significantly further to reach the restaurant now, and makes what was already a remote location even more so. However, when I arrived, I found the little restaurant crowded, for Kathryn’s is simply the best restaurant overall in Coahoma County, and the absolute best place in the Clarksdale area to order steak.
Inside, the restaurant has the feel of a Delta hunting lodge. Stuffed fish, oars and other lake-related items are displayed decoratively on the walls, along with historic articles about the restaurant and the lake. Sophisticated jazz music plays low. Tables nearby burst with laughter, and most patrons seem to know each other. The servers are mostly young teenaged girls.
Prices are not cheap, but you don’t go to a place like Kathryn’s in search of cheap. You come here for great food, and if you do, you won’t be disappointed at all. My filet mignon was perfectly cooked to order, as was my baked potato, which came just as I asked for it, with butter, bacon and cheese only. Service was very attentive; my diet coke was refilled regularly throughout my visit. After bread, potato and steak, I had no room for dessert.
This was my second visit to Kathryn’s; the first had been decent, but this visit was outstanding. Kathryn’s is truly becoming one of Mississippi’s best restaurants.
My friend and I were debating about where to meet for dinner when my Facebook timeline suddenly showed something called The Barn at Cedar Hill Farm. I had heard of the farm, but neither of us knew about the restaurant, so we made the decision to meet there for dinner and to try something new.
Cedar Hill Farm, as it turns out, is a 120-acre working farm, and although its address says Hernando, Mississippi, it is actually located in a community to the south called Love, Mississippi, which was formerly a railroad station on the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad (now the Illinois Central). It functions as something of a tourist attraction, especially on holidays such as the Easter season. When I arrived at the spot, kids were being photographed on haystacks in front of seasonal displays, or on old tractors; other kids were being pulled around on wagons behind tractors.
The Barn is Cedar Hill Farm’s restaurant destination, born of a certain degree of desperation, as the COVID-19 pandemic cut into the farm’s ticket revenues; the restaurant consists of a vast array of outdoor tables and a large indoor dining area as well. The menu was surprisingly diverse and somewhat upscale, including grilled steaks. All guests receive complementary home-made potato chips, which are frankly addictive. They are spiral-cut and lightly fried, served with dipping sauce. My friend and I opted for catfish dinners, which were quite delicious, but after dinner, we saw and smelled the steaks being grilled outside. I will certainly be trying a steak on my next visit. Desserts come from Area 51 Ice Cream and City Hall Cheesecake, both well-known Hernando institutions.
In addition to delicious food, Cedar Hill Farm also has a small store, which sells a number of food and home gifts, including local honey and fudge, which we bought.
So for great food and fun in a pleasant environment, head out to The Barn at Cedar Hill Farm. You’ll be in Love in more than one way!
After a coffee at Coffee Central in Hernando one Friday night, I drove past a shopping center on Commerce Street where I noticed a new sign that read The Parish Oyster Bar and Restaurant. Within a week, I had gotten a call from my friend Ronald Grayson asking me if I had heard of the place; he actually was with the owner at the time, and told me the owner was a friend of his. Within another week, the restaurant had opened.
Just to avoid confusion, it needs to be said that there is no connection between The Parish Oyster Bar in Hernando, Mississippi and Memphis’ Parish Grocery, which I reviewed last summer, although both are New Orleans-themed restaurants in our metropolitan region. Po-boys are the primary focus of the Parish Grocery, while more upscale seafood dishes characterize The Parish in Hernando. My friend and I arrived at 3 PM and still faced a significant wait for a table, given that it was the restaurant’s first week open.
Inside, the owners have done a great job of recreating the atmosphere of New Orleans. A white-aproned man shucks oysters behind the bar, while great Louisiana music plays from the speakers. The walls feature decorative flour-de-lis patterns, and the air is full of the smell of frying seafood.
I opted for the fried shrimp with french fries, and I was quite impressed with the seasonings used in the shrimp. Furthermore, the french fries were crispy and flavorful, and there was a mountain of them. My friend was pleased with her catfish filets as well. Afterwards, neither of us had room for dessert, but the desserts sounded delicious, including creme brule and bread pudding. By far, The Parish offers the most authentic New Orleans food experience in the Memphis area, and is worth the drive to Hernando.