On a recent Sunday afternoon, I headed down to the South Main Arts District in Memphis in search of brunch. The old Central Station has been turned into a hotel, and I wanted to see if there was a restaurant in it. Ultimately, I found that the restaurants in the Central Station Hotel were not open yet, and would not open until later in November, but I wasn’t disappointed, as I got a chance to see the beautiful Eight and Sand Bar, whose theme is Memphis music. Record albums span the shelves from ceiling to floor, along with a number of books about Memphis music and blues, and a permanent DJ booth. The music theme continues throughout the hotel, including beautiful speakers worked into the walls of the lobby.
I had thought that Vice & Virtue Coffee had a coffee bar in the Central Station Hotel, but I was wrong—it turned out to be in a completely different hotel up the street called the Arrive, which I really wasn’t aware of at all. This hotel also has a music theme, with an old gramophone in the lobby, and a cool bakery called Hustle and Dough! A salted caramel cookie from the bakery went perfectly with a cup of Vice and Virtue coffee, and I enjoyed the lively, vibrant atmosphere of the hotel lobby and bar.
Unfortunately, a cookie and coffee is not brunch, and the old brunch spot at Earnestine and Hazel’s called The Five Spot is apparently closed for good, so I ended up at The Arcade for breakfast, a reasonable stand-by in the area. While it will take more than cool hotels, bars, coffee and bakeries to rejuvenate Memphis, I like the trends I am seeing.
Central Station Hotel and Eight & Sand Bar
545 S Main St
Memphis, TN 38103
ARRIVE Hotel, Hustle and Dough and Vice & Virtue Coffee
When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.
The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.
The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.
Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.
Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.
Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.
One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.
Most people, when they think of Louisiana, think of New Orleans. Monroe is a whole different experience altogether, yet it has a couple of things in common with the better known city four hours to the South—plenty of rivers, lakes and bayous, and great restaurants. In a few of Monroe’s best restaurants, those two things come together, and the most recent example of this is Miro’s, a trendy new waterfront bistro in downtown Monroe.
Formerly a Mexican restaurant called River and Rail Cantina, Miro’s takes its name from Fort Miro, the original French name for the outpost that would eventually become the city of Monroe. It is a large building with the Ouachita River on the west, Walnut Street on the east, and the railroad bridge across the river on the south, and as such, it features beautiful views of the river, both from inside the restaurant and from the outdoor tables on the patio and deck. But it is the food that should lure you to Miro’s. Hamburgers might not seem like a fancy lunch or dinner, but Miro’s makes fancy hamburgers. My barbecue bacon cheeseburger was truly huge, cooked perfectly to order, with crispy bacon and a pleasantly-sweet barbecue sauce. Perhaps most interestingly, they burned a fleur-de-lis into the top of my burger bun. I saw others ordering pizzas, and they looked delicious as well. Prices, while not cheap, were reasonable, considering the quality of the food and size of the portions.
My waitress told me that Miro’s features live music on weekend nights, and it would seem to be a great location for that. Altogether, Miro’s seems a great addition to the North Louisiana dining scene, and should not be missed when in Monroe.
Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.
Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.
I had agreed to drop off a co-worker at work on my way out of town, so I ended up getting on the road at 5 in the morning. I had intended to grab breakfast at the well-known Blue and White Cafe in Tunica, but I found them closed, as they don’t open until 7 AM, and while there was a breakfast restaurant in Helena, Arkansas, I didn’t know a lot about them. So, after looking on my Yelp app and seeing a place called Jim’s Cafe in Greenville, I decided to head that direction, and at Lula, I got on Highway 1. The morning had been totally dark up until that point, but as I approached the community of Rena Lara in Coahoma County, beams of light began to appear just above the horizon of the flat Delta land. The Great River Road Country Store was open, and I stopped there for a soft drink before continuing down the road. Each mile brought an increase in light to the east. Dark lakes, bayous and swamps were steaming in the winter cold, and the road passed through occasional clouds of dense fog. At Beulah, the sun finally appeared, and I stopped there to take pictures of an old, decrepit general store.
When I finally reached Greenville, I came upon Nelson Street, which had a different look than when Sherena Boyce and I had seen it a few years ago. This street had of course been the Main Street for Blacks in the Delta, serving a similar role in Greenville as Beale Street had in Memphis or Farish Street in Jackson. While the redevelopment of such streets in bigger cities have become political briarpatches, in Greenville, nobody has ever really discussed redevelopment of Nelson Street in any normal sense of the term. The Flowing Fountain, its most famous blues club, had burned several years ago, and although a building was rebuilt on the site, it remains closed. Several other sports bars, clubs and cafes remain, all seemingly intended to serve the residents of the nearby neighborhoods. No tourists venture to Nelson Street anymore except to go to Doe’s Eat Place.
Downtown Greenville shocks these days by its emptiness. There were hardly any cars at all, and free parking still does not attract shoppers or visitors to the area. An old Elks Lodge on Washington Avenue was collapsing, despite its obvious historical value. It had been surrounded by a fence to protect passersby and nearby buildings. Jim’s Cafe was in the next to last block before Lake Ferguson, and was relatively crowded. Some men with northern accents were sitting at a table talking about the upcoming elections. I could not tell if they were reporters or political consultants for one of the candidates. Jim’s specializes in breakfast, and I was not disappointed. It is of course not a fancy place, but my bacon, cheese and mushroom omelette was delicious, and they gave me so many hashbrowns that they had to use a second plate for them! The biscuits were great as well.
After breakfast, I walked around the area shooting some pictures. The opening of a brewery and the Downtown Grille a couple of years ago had led me to believe that Greenville was experiencing something of a downtown renaissance. I learned on this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The brewery closed in late 2018, and although the Downtown Grille has remained open, many other places were closed, including the former Key West Inn, which was boarded up, the adjacent Cajun Shot Gun restaurant, and the Columbus and Greenville Railroad depot, with its old kitchen equipment left outside to rot. A block to the north of Washington Avenue on Broadway was a beautiful Victorian wood-frame house which had also been abandoned and left to rot. One of the eaves had a beautiful rising sun pattern in the woodwork, and the house was clearly historic, despite the lack of a historic marker, or any effort at preservation. The current state of Greenville is tragic and depressing, especially considering the area’s deep cultural and music history, and the considerable tourism potential of the city. Clarksdale has learned how to leverage its culture and history for tourism; Greenville seems unable or unwilling to do so.
Every October, the town of Mason in Tipton County, Tennessee sponsors a Unity Fall Festival on the square, in front of what is left of a row of old juke joints known as the Lower End. Last year’s festival was a large celebration, with a stage and live music, as well as numerous vendors. This year’s event was sadly smaller, as the town government was not the sponsor this year. The festival was instead sponsored by the Whip Game Car Club, which of course had far less money to spend on it. They chose to have a DJ instead of a band, and there were fewer vendors this year, and the attendance seemed smaller as well. On the other hand, the weather was warmer, and people seemed to be having a good time.
Sadder is the loss of most of the old “cafes” (as the juke joints were euphemistically called, since Tipton County was dry). The Black Hut collapsed last winter, and is now only a vacant lot, and Saul Whitley closed his Blue Room at some point in the early months of this year, and it has morphed into a more hip-hop-oriented club called Queen and King Lounge. As for the two old historic jukes, the Green Apple and the Log Cabin, they drew fairly large crowds during the day. As always, I would have liked to have taken pictures inside the jukes, but the opportunity just didn’t present itself. The cafes are relatively private and draw a regular clientele, one that probably would not feel comfortable being photographed. On the other hand, I fear that if I don’t get an opportunity to photograph them soon, they may not be there down the road. It would seem that the city is slowly condemning everything and tearing it down.
2019 was the 71st anniversary of a community institution in the town of Bentonia, one of the last Mississippi juke joints. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family opened the Blue Front Cafe in 1948, and from that point forward, it has been a place for great food, friendship and great blues. Duck is not young anymore, but he can still perform, and the cafe is doing as well as ever.
The anniversary took place on the weekend of September 20 and 21, and featured appearances by a number of blues and Southern Soul artists, including R. L. Boyce, who performed with his daughter Sherena and Duck on Friday night in the small cafe, which was packed to overflowing. One unique feature of the event was that the cotton gin next door to the cafe had been restored, and was being used as a much larger concert venue for the southern soul acts that were playing with full bands.
There were food stands around, but I prefer to sit down to dinner, so I drove a few blocks away to a place called Bentonia Bugs, which was also packed to overflowing. There I had a filet mignon and baked potato which were absolutely delicious, and then I headed back to all the fun at the Blue Front. As it turned out, R. L. played late into the night. He was feeling good, and really was not ready to go to the hotel. But we were, and we did!
The historically-Black college band tradition of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the corps-style tradition of the University of Memphis are vastly different, and while Memphis often plays SWAC schools in basketball and other sports, it does not appear that they had ever played a SWAC-member college in football until this fall, when they played Southern University of Louisiana on September 1, in what amounted to a sort of early Southern Heritage Classic. Needless to say, the Liberty Bowl was full.
In the old days, such a band matchup would have been pointless, as Memphis could not have held their own against any SWAC band. As it is, the Mighty Sound of the South has started borrowing elements from the HBCU band tradition, including playing “I’m So Glad” after touchdowns, and including more current popular hits in their repertoire. Even so, although Memphis sounded clean and well-rehearsed, they also sounded truly small and puny against Southern’s much larger numbers. The Human Jukebox was able to blast the stadium with tremendous power, and still sounded in tune and relatively clean. Memphis surprised to some extent by playing a Willie Hutch tune (they certainly would not have done that in my day) and an Adele song. But they proved to be no match for the Human Jukebox.
After the game was over, Southern’s band played their school’s alma mater, which is a mandatory tradition for all historically-Black colleges after a football game. To my surprise, Memphis’ band played their school’s alma mater as well, something that does not usually happen in predominantly-white college bands after football games. Clearly Memphis seemed to have done some scouting of SWAC band traditions. But when Southern kicked off the traditional Fifth Quarter of band battling after the game with a rousing, upbeat tune, we looked over to see how Memphis was going to respond and they were gone, having left the stadium quickly after the final buzzer. Evidently, they wanted none of the competition, and Southern fans were quick to say that the Mighty Sound of the South made the right decision rather than face the musical beat-down that was coming their way. Still, it was a milestone in Memphis band history, and Memphis’ band didn’t look as bad against the Jukebox as they would have in 1989 or so.
What Sherena Boyce, daughter of Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce, started as a birthday party for her dad in August of 2017 has now grown into arguably the largest annual live music event in Panola County, Mississippi. Originally launched in August, this year’s R. L. Boyce Picnic and Blues Celebration was moved to Labor Day Weekend to avoid conflicting with the annual Hill Country Boucherie at Home Place Pastures, and drew a crowd of about 1000 people to Como Park in downtown Como, Mississippi.
Although Sherena is careful to point out that the event is a birthday party and not a festival, this year’s event featured live music from 4 PM to 11:30 PM, including such artists as Andrea Staten, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, Lightnin Malcolm, Lady Trucker, Guitar Lightning Lee, Eric Deaton, The 78 Band, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Kent Burnside, Greg Ayers and Pork Chop Willie.
Of course the star of the show was R. L. Boyce himself, and he performed several times during the evening to an enthusiastic audience. The weather was perfect, and attendees enjoyed free food, free music and great fun.
Fife and drum music was once found in Black communities throughout the South, but by 1970, it was found only in Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, and by 1981, only in several Mississippi counties. With the recent retirement of Calvin Hurt of Panola County from playing,the Hurt Family Band seems to be a thing of the past, and there is really now only one Black fife and drum picnic in the United States, the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which nowadays takes place in Coldwater, Mississippi, after many years at Otha Turner’s farm near Gravel Springs.
This year, on Saturday, the event was hampered to some extent by storms and lightning, but there was enough breaks in the rain that the performers were able to come on stage, and there was a decent crowd outside the Northwest Shrine Club in Coldwater, which was the site of the festival this year. The evening opened with female blues singer Andrea Staten, who covered classic songs by Senatobia artist Jessie Mae Hemphill and longtime Como resident Mississippi Fred McDowell. She was followed by R. L. Boyce, who performed with an Australian blues musician named Dom Turner, who was visiting Mississippi,and with Kesha Burton from Brownsville, Tennessee on drums. Afterwards, the band 78 from Memphis came up to play a mix of originals and Hill Country standards.
Between the bands, Sharde Thomas brought out her Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, and they marched through the crowd with fife and drum, attracting a group of dancers behind them. The second time the Rising Stars played, they marched onto the stage and were joined by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. That impromptu jam session was memorable indeed.
Unfortunately at that point, the thunder and lightning that had been visible to the southwest started approaching nearer to the festival grounds. With bad weather eminent, and having to drive back to Brownsville and then Memphis, I left the event early.