Tourists flock to Memphis for Beale Street, Graceland, the Stax Museum, the Rock-N-Soul Museum, and many other musical and artistic attractions, but oddly, they rarely venture across the river to the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, unless it is to gamble at Southland Gaming and Racing. But the city on the Arkansas side has a vibrant music history as well, with the Black community centered around South Eighth Street, a wide-open equivalent of Beale Street, where musicians, pool-hustlers and gamblers frequented establishments like Sam Ervin’s Cafe, the Harlem Inn, Jones Hotel and Cafe or Lucille Perry’s Cafe Number 1. Howlin’ Wolf once lived in West Memphis, and occasionally played live on KWEM Radio Station, where a young Jim Dickinson once heard him, fascinated. Some of Memphis’ best Black musicians played nightly at the Plantation Inn, at the far east end of Broadway near the river bridge.
In this vibrant environment, in 1963, William Maxwell decided to open a barbecue joint near the intersection of South 14th Street and Broadway, which in those days was Highway 70. Experts tell us that most new restaurants don’t make it two years, but 55 years later, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is still going strong, even if its hours are a little more erratic. After all, Mr. Maxwell is now 84 years old, and has health issues, so the restaurant is only open when a relative is available to run it day to day. Still, on the day I visited, after several attempts over the last few years when they were closed, Mr. Maxwell was sitting in the restaurant as people came in to buy their pork shoulder or bologna sandwiches. Of course, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is nothing fancy, and I learned the hard way that they don’t take credit or debit cards, but they do make some tasty barbecue in an authentic down-home environment.
106 S 14th St
West Memphis, AR 72301
(Call before visiting, as the hours have become somewhat unpredictable)
Indian Pass is a large saltwater estuary located along the Florida gulf coast between the towns of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola, an area famous for oysters, although hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. The original Indian Pass Raw Bar was located along Indian pass, but that didn’t stop the name from becoming controversial when the owners decided to open a location in Midtown Memphis. Perhaps because the early logo featured a Native American war bonnet, there were complaints about the name on social media and threats to boycott the restaurant. But a visit to the location today shows that the theme is Florida sun and seafood. The owners have actually done a great job of re-creating the atmosphere of the Florida panhandle, from the bright white and aquamarine color scheme to the beds of authentic oyster shells all the way around the building. But of course the reason you go to any restaurant is the food, so I decided to try the charcoal-grilled oysters. After all, if you’re at an oyster place, you might as well try what they’re known for. The charcoal-grilled oysters proved to be amazing. Every bit as good as Drago’s in New Orleans, and the best I have ever had in Memphis. Of course, oysters don’t always stay with you, so I followed them up with a slice of peanut butter pie, and that too was amazing. One of the odder things about Indian Pass is its honor system for beer. You get your own beers from the cooler, and fill out a ticket each time you get one. Of course a strictly-worded sign warns that you must be of age. But the overall atmosphere is very informal, and taking a late afternoon lunch at Indian Pass is like sneaking off to the coast for 45 minutes or so. It’s a great experience, and I will be back.
Indian Pass Raw Bar
2059 Madison Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill
Authentic blues in an authentic environment is hard to come by these days, and when the Memphis juke joint Wild Bill’s closed in December, it became just that much harder to find. But in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the occasions when The Hut is open, great blues musicians hold forth for a local crowd in the kind of rough, non-descript setting that is appropriate.
The Hut is a former American Legion post in the Black community of Holly Springs. Located near the intersection of West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street, it is a small, white building set down in a ravine far from the street, a structure which looks as if could only hold about a hundred people. Yet it is cozy, has a kitchen, has ample graveled parking, and on a recent Friday night was full to the rafters, with the great Robert Kimbrough Sr. on stage as I walked in.
Robert, a son of the late Junior Kimbrough, is a favorite musician around these parts, but despite all the enthusiasm for his performance, the order of the night was to highlight female blues performers, an event organized by Fancy! Magazine owner Amy Verdon called “Lady’sNight at The Hut.” The original band consisted of Robert Kimbrough, J. J. Wilborn and Artemas Leseur, aided occasionally by Johnny B. Sanders, who had come up from Jackson. These men backed singers Iretta Sanders, and Lady Trucker, whose performances brought many dancers out, including R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. There were also a number of visitors from other parts of the country who traveled to Holly Springs to see the show. Robert Kimbrough came back on stage to close out the first set with a version of his dad’s song “You Better Run”, and then the band took a break.
Unfortunately, during the intermission, two women in the crowd got to fighting, which led to the police being called, and an early end to the evening, as a lot of people chose to leave. But that too has always been part of the blues. Authenticity is not for the squeamish.
The nightlife space at 4202 Hacks Cross Road in the Southwind area of Memphis has been through many incarnations, from its opening as The Daq in 2010, to the Ice Bar, to its current iteration as a location for Mr. P’s Hot Wings, but the one consistent thing is that it has been a spot for some of the greatest nights of Memphis music that I can recall. So when I had seen on Facebook that my old friend Larry Springfield was scheduled to perform at Mr. P’s on Friday night, I made plans to attend.
However, to my surprise, for some reason, Larry Springfield did not perform, and another band played instead, The Lyric Band, featuring the singer Bird Williams, a band I recalled faintly from a show I had attended several years ago in Olive Branch. A check of the internet showed that Bird Williams has been performing quite a bit in Memphis recently, particularly out in the Hickory Hill/Southwind area of town, and it was easy to see why, as he is a gifted singer and performer, backed by a first-rate band. Unfortunately, in a bit of a design flaw, the entrance to the kitchen passed directly in front of the stage, which means that one’s view of the stage is constantly interrupted by the coming and going of servers with plates of food. That was always an issue, even when it was The Daq or the Ice Bar. But the place was packed from wall to wall, everyone was enjoying themselves and having a good time, and there was absolutely no drama of any kind. As Mr. P’s continues to book live bands and singers, I will certainly be back.
Mr. P’s Hot Wings Plus
4202 Hacks Cross Rd, # 121
Memphis, TN 38125
I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
2017 had its ups and downs, but one of the better stories in Memphis was the opening of a lot of new restaurants, the vast majority of them really good. One of them, Sunrise Memphis, recently appeared in a building where nothing has ever seemed to work. The place, on Jefferson Avenue between downtown and the Medical Center, has been a barbecue restaurant and a French cafe specializing in crepes, both of which came to a dismal end. But Sunrise seems headed for better things, at least in part because Memphis still is woefully underrepresented when it comes to breakfast restaurants, despite some beloved gems, and also because it has a unique twist on getting your day underway. Although it is a sitdown restaurant, Sunrise operates more like a fast-food place. You stand in line, move up to the counter, and order your food, they give you a number and then you sit down. The menu is a little strange compared to ordinary breakfast restaurants, and the focus is on biscuit breakfasts, Asian-tinged breakfast specialties, bowls and tacos. However, there are a few standard breakfast options, and a couple of omelettes. Prices are reasonable, the eating space is brightly-colored and cheerful, the music overhead is the classic sounds of Memphis, and the coffee is Memphis’ own J. Brooks. There’s really very little not to like, although I didn’t like the lack of parking. However, the block walk I made to and from my car probably did me some good, although it was likely offset by how much I ate. Pay Sunrise Memphis a visit for breakfast. It’s worth it.
670 Jefferson Av
Memphis, TN 38105
5 AM-3PM Daily
If a person said that they were going to the liquor store to eat, you might think they were a little out of it, to say the least. But if they were in Memphis when they said it, it might make a little sense. The Liquor Store is an upscale diner and bar located in the Broad Avenue Arts District in the Binghampton neighborhood of Memphis, located in a building that for many years was indeed a liquor store. The current restaurant has a strong Cuban/Calle Ocho/South Beach vibe that is at once bright and captivating. Great Cuban music plays overhead, the restaurant’s interior is all done in white, aquamarine and red, and both the cups and staff T-shirts are emblazoned with palm trees. Despite a few Cuban items on the menu, the bulk of the offerings are more traditional. Breakfast is served the entire day, and is delicious, with many of the items locally sourced. The bacon/blue cheese burger is also as good as any burger in Memphis. As befits a place called The Liquor Store, there is of course a full bar as well. However, despite the bar and breakfast tendencies, the hours are somewhat curtailed, with the restaurant closing at 4 PM on Sundays and Mondays, and at 9 PM every other day. Still, it is a great new destination in Memphis for great food in a pleasant environment without spending a lot of money.
The Liquor Store
2655 Broad Av
Memphis, TN 38112
I had been hearing about a new restaurant that had opened in the old Brunswick community along Brunswick Road, and I had even ventured out there after church a couple of Sundays and found it closed. Finally, I learned that the place was called The Brunswick Kitchen, and that they were only open for lunch during the week, and for breakfast until noon on Saturdays. So on the first Saturday morning in November, I made a trip out Brunswick Road and across the railroad tracks to the restaurant, which is located in a low, brick building that used to be a general store. Although there are a few parking places in front of the building, The Brunswick Kitchen routinely attracts crowds that fill up the overflow parking on the gravel lot across the street.
The restaurant’s interior is cheerful. The room is spacious, almost like a camp dining hall, and the space is filled with memorabilia and historic photos of the Brunswick community. The restaurant bustles with activity, but the staff are friendly and full of smiles, and seem more like members of a family than employees of a business. Despite the busy-ness, there is rarely a wait for a table.
As for the breakfast menu, it is nothing special, just standard breakfast fare such as bacon and eggs or omelettes, but the prices are low, and the simplest of items are prepared with loving care and exquisite attention to detail. I opted for a bacon, cheddar and bleu cheese omelette, which was absolutely amazing. It came with hash browns, which were golden brown and crispy, just as I like them, and with a biscuit, butter and grape jelly. Meals are cooked after you order, and depending on the size of the crowd, can take a bit of time to come out, but the coffee is good, and the waitstaff great about refilling your cup.
A word of caution is in order, however. The Brunswick Kitchen is NOT the place for a leisurely brunch on Saturday, as they close at noon! It is also in a fairly remote location between Bartlett and Lakeland, so from most parts of Memphis proper, it is a bit of a drive. You will have to get up early to make it there, but it is worth it. I am also told that TBK has started opening on Friday nights to serve catfish. I will have to try that next.
On the last weekend of September, Memphis-based blues and southern soul singer Gerod Rayborn asked me if I would play keyboards with his band for a blues show taking place at Como, Mississippi. The show turned out to be the Bikers’ Rally and Blues Show at LP’s Ballfield on the Hunters Chapel Road, east of Como, a location which has a rich history in regards to the Hill Country blues.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, LP’s was a place where Black fife and drum bands came together to perform at picnics or in friendly competitions, and there are historic photographs of Otha Turner, R.L. Boyce and other Hill Country musicians that were taken at the ball park.
Unfortunately, the venue was inherited by a son of the original owner, who has redirected it away from the traditional Hill Country music in favor of rap and hip-hop, car shows and southern soul.
Although fans of southern soul often refer to themselves as “blues fans”, and the terms “blues” and “southern soul” are used interchangeably, there is a vast difference between Hill Country blues and the kind of music that is performed at a southern soul performance, such as the one I was playing at. Southern soul could best be described as a modern genre that seeks to continue a vein of Black music that was largely abandoned elsewhere with the coming of disco, funk and ultimately rap. Lyrically naughty, and often concerned with cheating, southern soul is rural music for rural Black folks. Of course, through migration and family relationships, the genre has a following in larger cities as well, even in the north, but references to things like “trail rides” clearly establish the country frame of reference.
Working for Select-O-Hits Music Distribution for 20 years, I knew a lot about southern soul, but I didn’t expect the absolutely tremendous crowd that showed up for the event on this particular Saturday afternoon. Bikes were everywhere, and a lot of the new bike/car hybrids known as Slingshots. The warm weather was perfect for the event, and lots of people had come down from Memphis, particularly to see the headliner, Big Pokey Bear, whose song “My Sidepiece” was currently the hottest thing going. In addition to bikes and near-bikes, there were classic Corvettes and large RV’s, where some people had made themselves at home, watching college football in between the acts on stage.
Bev Johnson of Memphis radio station WDIA was the master of ceremonies for the event, and she soon brought up the first act, a band called the Smooth Groove Experience from Memphis, which featured a female singer. They were quite good, but as we were the next band up, I had to start getting ready to go up on stage.
After our performance, I hung around the event for awhile, as I had intended to check out all of the various performers. But my girl was in Hernando at the Front Porch Jubilee, and when she called and told me she was missing me, I decided to leave and meet her at the other event, which I did. She and I ended the evening at the Brick Oven Pizza Company in Hernando, after which I headed back home to Memphis, thoroughly tired but with a sense of satisfaction.