In previous Juke Joint Festivals, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art has been sort of the nerve center for the festival, but this year it seems that the organizers wanted to downplay that, perhaps due to the pandemic. Most of the artists that would usually have played at Cat Head in previous years were relocated to the Wade Walton Stage on Issaquena Avenue. An early morning exception however was Little Joe Ayers, one of the last living original Hill Country bluesmen, who opened the festival day with an awesome set in front of the store accompanied by his son Trenton, who for many years was part of a duo with Cedric Burnside.
Whereas the second generation of Hill Country bluesmen have adopted a more aggressive and electrified sound, Little Joe has remained true to the music’s rural roots, playing both traditional blues standards like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and favorite tunes from the Junior Kimbrough songbook like “Do The Rump.” There’s no better way to start a blues festival, and an enthusiastic crowd gathered despite the early hour.
I had read several months ago that a new restaurant had opened in Grenada, Mississippi called Molly’s Place. I had seen that they shared a courtyard with another Grenada restaurant called Orleans Bistro, and that Molly’s had on at least one occasion booked live music. So, in the hopes of finding another place for my jazz group to play, I decided to head down to Grenada for dinner.
Grenada, unfortunately, has seen better days. Many of the buildings around its square are vacant, and there is a considerable amount of abandonment. Molly’s proved to be in a block where an uncertain downtown revival seems to be fighting to be born. There are rental lofts on the square nearby, sort of an AirBnB kind of thing for tourists, and a few restored buildings that house an art gallery, some local businesses, and the bar and grill. The restaurant proved to have an aviation theme, and the inside was fairly dark, modernistic and sleek. Unfortunately, the menu was quite limited. I had intended to order a hamburger, but I soon learned that Molly’s does not have bacon to go on a burger, so I decided to opt for something else. I ended up ordering the ribeye, which was fairly expensive, but it was in fact quite good, despite ribeye not being my favorite cut of meat. It came with french fries that were also quite good, and a decent crowd of locals was gathered at tables and around the bar.
The person I would have needed to speak with about booking music was not there, but the bartender indicated that when summer came, they would be booking some music for the outdoor courtyard.
After dinner, I decided to do some driving around Grenada before heading back, as this is a town I have rarely spent time in. The main thing I noticed was the degree of desolation and abandonment throughout the downtown area. Down a street, I came to the ruins of the Pioneer meat packing plant, and then into a warren of tiny, run-down hovels that looked like a throw-back to a different (and worse) era. People were out and about within the area, but I decided that it was probably not a good place to attempt to take pictures, and I headed out.
The railroad depot was absolutely amazing. It was built in 1870 by the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad to replace one that had burned, and is probably the one thing in Grenada worth seeing. Made of brick, it is a rare two-story railroad station, with large, long platforms on each side. In the early evening, it seemed eerily quiet and almost abandoned, although it is still in use.
Far to the east, I came upon a road where there were some large night clubs like the Rolling Stone, a laundromat and some convenience stores. But nothing much seemed to be going on, so I rolled on. Highway 51 however was a different story, with a lot of cars and people about. Wilson’s Electronics, the record store, was still open, with a lot of cars parked in front, and I debated going inside, but I decided against it. Further north, near downtown, there were a lot of people in and out of a game room on a side-street across from a store. But the place seemed to be primarily a pool hall and not a live music venue, so I gave up on finding any nightlife on a Friday night in Grenada, and headed back to Memphis instead.
I usually enjoy myself quite a bit at the annual Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, but this year’s festival was both wet and harried, as it poured down rain most of the day, and as I was scheduled to perform with Duwayne Burnside twice.
Upon arriving in Clarksdale, I found that the festival authorities would not allow me to park in the performers’ lot because I didn’t know the password. So I had to park down by Yazoo Pass coffee bar, and I managed to get there for a toffee cookie and a latte. But by then, the rain had really picked up, and I wanted to check out the new restaurant that had taken over the old Pinkbar on John Lee Hooker Street, the Hooker Grocer & Eatery.
With no umbrella, getting there took some doing, using shop awnings as cover where possible, and I still managed to get quite wet. Then, with the restaurant being new, Hooker Grocer proved to be packed to the rafters, with people waiting for tables. Ultimately, I managed to get seated, but the menu was fairly limited, expensive and strange. I ultimately opted for the burger, although without the mustard sauce or pickles, and to my disappointment, they didn’t serve bacon, nor french fries. What I got was a relatively dry burger with cheese, no accompaniments, and a canned drink, for nearly $20. That being said, I loved the blues-themed decor of the place and its atmosphere. Their dinner menu looks more interesting if I ever have the time or inclination. A young woman was inside the restaurant selling R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough T-shirts, hand-made, but she didn’t have my size, and it was nearly time for me to perform at the Cat Head stage. However, now the rain had started in earnest, coming down in torrents, and I with no rain gear nor umbrella. Eventually, it slacked up enough that I felt comfortable heading to Cat Head, where the show was still going on bravely, under a tent that periodically would grow heavy with rain and then deposit it over the heads of the fans. I learned there that due to the rain I would likely have no trouble getting my car into the area to unload equipment, so I struggled back to the parking lot where I had parked the car, and then drove back down to the Cat Head stage.
By the time I got equipment unloaded into Cat Head store, it was just about time to set up and perform. There was very little room for a keyboard, but I managed to get set up, and Duwayne gave a rousing performance as best he could, while water occasionally poured down from overhead on amps, keyboards and our heads. I had left my keyboard bag inside the store, and suddenly, I looked around behind me and realized that the store had closed at 5 PM, which led to immediate panic. With the bag locked inside the store, I would have no way to put my keyboard back up afterwards, or protect it from the weather. Fortunately, when we finally finished performing, I learned that someone had thoughtfully brought it outside before the store was locked. And the rain had stopped enough that I was able to load up and head in search of dinner before my next performance.
Restaurants tend to work from a limited menu during Juke Joint Fest, which annoys me year in and year out, but I managed to get seated at Levon’s with less difficulty than the previous year. Last time, they had been serving their normal, full menu, but this year, to my disappointment, they too had created a limited JJF menu, but at least their signature pizzas were on it. Sherena Boyce soon joined me, and we enjoyed a leisurely dinner before we had to head to Pete’s Bar and Grill for my second performance of the night.
Pete’s is an old hole-in-the-wall near the Riverside Hotel, which normally does not have live music, but which makes a great setting for blues. On this particular night, Garry Burnside kicked off the evening of music, and I was not scheduled to perform with him, but he invited me to sit in, and I agreed. David Kimbrough, son of the late Junior Kimbrough, also came and sat in. He had been sick and some were not expecting him to be there, but he performed and sounded good. With Duwayne, we played until about 11 PM, and it had started raining again.
Sherena said she was going by Red’s Lounge to check on her dad R.L., but I loaded up my equipment and headed out back to Memphis, with lighting flashing off to the west. Although it had been a wet and somewhat frantic day, I was pleasantly content.
Just outside of a town called Morgan City, Mississippi, I spied what appeared to be a large historic home across the flat fields near the Yazoo River. It looked truly massive in the distance, so I decided to backtrack and take a drive down the side road along the river to get a closer look at it. When I arrived at the home, it seemed somewhat smaller than it had appeared from the highway, and was clearly also not as old as I had imagined, probably dating from the early 20th century. But it was still a beautiful home, facing the Yazoo River, but there was no historic marker, or any indication of its name or significance.
Morgan City itself was a small village, about six blocks by six blocks. The old commercial buildings of its main street were largely abandoned, which is not unusual for Delta towns, but Morgan City’s deterioration seemed a little more severe than some of the other communities in the region. A group of elderly Black men sat in front of the Village Grocery, the first abandoned store front that I came to. They consented to my taking a picture of the building, but were unwilling to be in it, which disappointed me, as it would have been a much more effective picture with the men in it, than just a picture of a building.
As I took pictures of the main street, it began raining lightly, and a woman asked me why I was taking pictures. I explained to her about my blog, and that I was on my way to the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni, and she said she was headed that way when she got off work.
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.
Juke Joint Fest weekend in Clarksdale is generally rain-free, but the last couple of years have been an exception. 2017 was a complete wash-out, and this year was harassed by rain, but not quite as bad as the year before. With a day of free music on five-or-so stages, not including informal pop-up performances around downtown, the festival is a surfeit of great blues and roots music, and the only real dilemma is choosing between equally great bands on different stages at the same time. The one stage that consistently features the best in Mississippi blues is the stage in front of Roger Stolle’s landmark Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art on Delta Avenue. Stolle is the big mover and shaker behind the Juke Joint Festival, as he is with all things blues in Clarksdale, and his store is a mandatory first stop for the first-time blues tourist in the Mississippi Delta, offering books, magazines, DVD’s, vinyl records, compact discs, posters and homemade folk art, including priceless works by Super Chikan himself. The stage in front of the store started early this year with Little Joe Ayers from Holly Springs, and as the day progressed featured such Hill Country artists as Kent Burnside, David Kimbrough, Andre Evans and the Sons of Otha fife and drum band, R. L. Boyce, Robert Kimbrough Sr and Duwayne Burnside. The rain ended about noon, but then heavy winds blasted through downtown Clarksdale, and soon the whole downtown area was without power. But the musicians in front of Cat Head managed to salvage something from the afternoon, with an informal jam session featuring Duwayne, R. L. Boyce, David Kimbrough and others. Kesha Burton, a young woman from Brownsville, Tennessee that Boyce and Willie Hurt have been mentoring got an opportunity to play the bass drum with Otha Evans, and the drum set during the acoustic jam session during the power outage. Despite difficulties, it was a satisfying day of blues indeed.
When a young Lebanese man from Port Arthur, Texas named Clifford Antone got kicked out (or perhaps dropped out, depending on who you ask) of the University of Texas after a marijuana arrest in 1970, it seemed like an end to a promising career. The Antone family were prominent businessmen in Houston, owning an import firm and a chain of sandwich shops that specialized in po-boys. Other young men might have fallen into a depression, or started on a downward spiral into harder drugs and ruin, but Clifford Antone decided to open a night club. Yet when Antone’s opened in 1975 on a then-moribund East Sixth Street in downtown Austin, it was hardly the kind of club that people would have expected success from, for it was a blues club, and the blues revival had fizzled out by the end of the 1960’s. Nor was Austin well-known for blues, despite a Texas blues legacy that was primarily centered around Houston. But all of the best names in blues from around the country played at Antone’s, and by the time of Clifford Antone’s death in 2006, his empire had added a record store and a record label as well. The record store belongs to other owners now, and the record label was sold to Warner Brothers after a bankruptcy, but the club, despite occasional closures and numerous relocations, remains the absolute best blues club in Texas, and probably one of the best blues clubs in the world. So it was quite an honor for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce to be invited to play there, along with Marshall County bluesman Lightnin’ Malcolm, who has increased in popularity over the last several years. The club was packed to overflowing, despite the cold, rainy weather, and the crowd enjoyed every minute of the proceedings. The drum chair was held by the late T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud Ford, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena provided the juke joint dancing and played the tambourine. Seen in the crowd was noted music journalist Matt Sonzala. It was a great night indeed.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.
The late Jim Dickinson was passionate about Memphis’ Beale Street. He carried on a running feud in song with the Memphis Housing Authority and Memphis’ city government over its rough treatment of Beale Street during so-called “urban renewal”, and it was almost certainly at Dickinson’s suggestion that Alex Chilton’s early working title for Big Star’s third album was “Beale Street Green”, a reference to the green fields that surrounded the entertainment district once the surrounding neighborhoods had been destroyed (the poetic title would later resurface as a movement of instrumental music on one of Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects). So when the Orpheum Theatre commissioned Dickinson to put together an album as a fund-raiser, he responded with a recorded paean to his beloved street, now endangered by civic ineptitude, an album called Beale Street Saturday Night. The album was somewhat bizarre, consisting of two unbanded sides that played continuously. Songs and interview clips faded seamlessly into one another, more like a radio documentary than an album. For years, the album was a highly-sought collector’s item, but it has now been lovingly reissued by the Omnivore label, and to celebrate that fact, Shangri-La Records in Midtown sponsored a performance of Sons of Mudboy, that most elusive group of Memphis musicians and folklorists, centered around Cody and Luther Dickinson and Steve Selvidge, along with Jimmy Crosthwaite of Mudboy and the Neutrons, the supergroup that started it all. Hearing a Sons of Mudboy concert is like taking a crash musicology course in Memphis music. First, there are no genre barriers, as the group works seamlessly from blues, to rock, to bluegrass, folk or gospel. Some of the songs are originals, or at least songs that were original to Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvedge or Lee Baker of Mudboy and the Neutrons, while many others are covers, which range from Furry Lewis to Sleepy John Estes to Mississippi Fred McDowell. This performance was somewhat unusual in that it opened with Jim Dickinson’s “Power To The People” which is usually a closer, and so it closed with the Hill Country blues standard “When I Lay My Burden Down”, where they were joined by the great Sharde Thomas on the cane fife. A crowd of about 100 people enjoyed the unexpected sunny weather (storms had been predicted) and pleasant temperatures, the perfect setting for a great afternoon of Memphis music.
Buy Jim Dickinson’s Beale Street Saturday Night here if your local store doesn’t stock it:
Keep Up With Sons of Mudboy here: