The Mason Family Reunion: Great Weather, Good Food, Fun and Fellowship, But No Musicians

Predominantly-African-American towns in Mississippi have a tradition of annual “days,” named for the towns, in which there are live performances, and in which people from those towns return from the North and West and other places where they have relocated for a sort of town reunion. The dynamic does not seem to occur in Tennessee, perhaps because there are few Black-majority towns. One exception is the town of Mason in Tipton County, located in the center of Tennessee’s Delta region, bordering both Fayette and Haywood Counties, and only about 25 miles from Shelby County. Since 2019, the Southern Soul artist Terry Wright has sponsored a Mason Family Reunion at the Zodiac ballpark north of town (although the event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic).

This year, posters went up announcing the event in the Spring, setting the date as the 4th of July. New improvements had also been made to the Zodiac A’s park, including a new snack bar with covered tables and chairs, and a small permanent stage with a DJ booth. At a time when so many Black ballfields have been abandoned or have disappeared, it is encouraging to see this investment in keeping Zodiac Park up to date and viable. Tickets to the event were $30, yet there was already a significant crowd present when I arrived.

Because the small stage would have been inadequate for the expected crowds, the organizers had brought in a larger stage pointed away from the snack bar and toward the outfield. There was no large tent with cafeteria seating as there had been in 2019, and the outfield was mostly people’s personal tents and chairs. Up on the hill were a number of vendors, selling just about anything a person might want to eat or drink. At one of the stands, I recognized Myles Wilson, the former Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, who was also once an owner of legendary Club Tay-May and who had consulted me on my masters thesis about Black fife and drum bands in Tennessee.

In 2019, there were ongoing problems with the power supply to the stage, and that situation continued this year. Early performers had their performances interrupted due to sudden power failures; worse, at least for me, was that I did not see any drums, amps or guitars. I began to wonder if anyone was going to perform with musicians. Eventually I ran into Terry Wright’s keyboard player, who told me that it was going to be strictly a track show. Karen Wolfe was on stage at the time, struggling with intermittent power. I suppose the limited power issue made using live instruments impracticable.

Disappointed, I spent the remainder of my time catching up with people I knew from Mason, which is actually what a lot of people seemed to do. The weather was beautiful even if it was hot, and a lot of people turned out; there was plenty of fellowship, and no fighting. But a blues and Southern Soul show without musicians just seems and feels wrong.

Celebrating the Music of the Hill Country at Waterford, Mississippi

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.

Duwayne Burnside Live at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Henderson, Kentucky

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.

An Evansville Sunset at The Rooftop, and Eric Gales Live in Henderson, Kentucky

Duwayne Burnside’s biggest show of 2021 was at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Henderson, Kentucky in June, a festival which is billed as the biggest outdoor music festival in the United States. Although we were not scheduled to play until Saturday, I decided to book a hotel room in Evansville, Indiana, and drive up the day before. So after work, I headed out from Millington up Highway 51. The weather was hot and sunny, but the drive was relatively pleasant. My car gave me no problems, and I stopped at Union City for a slice of pizza and a fountain drink, and then I headed on across Kentucky and into Evansville.

I had planned on eating at an outdoor bar and grill called The Rooftop, so I could enjoy the sunset over Evansville. As it was, I arrived in the city a little later than I had intended, and the sun went down almost as soon as I was seated. The place was crowded and cheerful, with a singer-songwriter performing, and bright lights strung across the seating area. Unfortunately, I discovered that The Rooftop was more of a place to drink and listen to music than a place to eat. The food was typical bar fare, and although it was not bad, it was neither outstanding nor memorable. The main star of the show were the evening views of downtown Evansville.

After I left The Rooftop, I could not find any coffee bars still open, so I headed back across the bridge to Henderson, Kentucky and the W. C. Handy Festival. One of the reasons I had wanted to come a day early was to see the Memphis rock-and-roll/blues guitarist Eric Gales, and Duwayne Burnside and his bassist Pinkie Pulliam were already in Henderson where the festival was taking place.

Finding parking in downtown Henderson was not at all the hassle I had expected it would be, and the festival, held in a large park along the Ohio River, was easy enough to find. On the other hand, the park was so crowded that it was hard to get anywhere near the stage. Because I didn’t find any coffee in Evansville, I was amazed and thrilled to find a Java Shakes food truck directly across the street from the main festival stage. Of course the prices were not cheap, but a mocha java shake was quite refreshing, and exactly what I had been wanting. Duwayne was backstage with Eric Gales, but Pinkie and I had some difficulty in getting backstage, at least at first. Eventually we were able to get the appropriate wristbands as performers and we were able to get backstage.

Hearing Eric Gales in person was amazing indeed. Although he burst onto the scene some years ago as a rock musician, the blues is never far away from his style, and his band was interesting as well, with two drummers, one of whom was his wife. His good natured talk with the crowd and his frank discussion of his addiction and recovery caught me by surprise, and I was especially impressed with his closing speech to the crowd; he pointed out that despite race or politics, music had brought all of them together on a certain level. Eric Gales’ awesome talent is surpassed only by his deep humility. It was an honor to see him in person.

A Friday Evening in Jackson, Tennessee

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.

One Curfew You Won’t Object To: Curfew Memphis

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to lots of lockdowns and curfews, but in the middle of it came a Curfew of a different sort: the new gourmet restaurant called Curfew Memphis in the new Canopy Memphis Hotel downtown across from the Peabody. Well-known Chef Fabio Viviani is the driving force behind Curfew, whose ethos seems to be that of a sports bar with a gourmet twist.

My first impression was the bright, sleek modern surroundings of the place. With plenty of glass windows, the restaurant has a nice, cheerful open feel, and the seating, which includes couches, suggests comfort and a feeling of being at home.

I ordered a burger, which the menu says was made from “beef belly.” It was beautiful cooked to order, and delicious, with cheese, bacon, and (at my request) house made steak sauce. The accompanying french fries were hot and golden brown. The menu is not large, but includes interesting choices, including a rib-eye steak, which I will certainly have to try on another visit. Prices are not cheap, but I felt the burger was worth every penny I paid. My server was cheerful and very attentive.

The area of the hotel lobby nearest the restaurant was decorated with record albums and small speakers. This seems to be a continuing trend in new Memphis hotels; similar music and record themes are in the lobbies of the Central Station Hotel and Arrive Memphis. Apparently, music is the way Memphis tourism will be marketed going forward.

Curfew Memphis

164 Union Av

Memphis, TN 38103

(901) 467-0308

Friday Night Dinner at The Biscuitry in Bolivar

Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.

Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.

There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.

The Biscuitry

215 N Main St

Bolivar, TN 38008

(731) 212-3214

A Great Dinner and Fun at Barretville’s General Store

Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.

Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.

Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.

But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.

As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.

Barretville General Store

9053 Barret Rd

Millington, TN 38053

(901) 829-0124

A Delta Journey: Gourmet Coffee in Jackson’s New District

Growing up, my family used to meet in October for family reunions in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the “big city” in Mississippi; it had a zoo, malls, a large football stadium, a downtown with reasonably tall buildings, and a number of hotels and restaurants. There was also a large reservoir out to the northeast of town that provided a fair amount of recreation opportunities. But if we thought of Jackson as the “big city,” one thing we never thought of it as was hip. But that began changing over the years, and recently the hipness has been growing ever more rapidly. I discovered that a few weeks ago when I decided to stop at a new coffee bar called Il Lupo while on my way from Monroe to Memphis. I could not even place the location of this new coffee bar, which seemed to be located about where the old School for the Deaf and School for the Blind campuses were. I found that the area had in fact been turned into a mixed-use development called The District, which looked like something straight out of Austin, Texas. A number of apartments, with retail shops on the ground floor sat across a park-like courtyard from an upscale burger restaurant called Fine and Dandy, and another retail building which included something called Cultivation Food Hall, inside of which was the coffee bar.

Cultivation Food Hall, a bright and attractive space, is owned by the same firm that redeveloped the St. Roch Market in New Orleans as a food hall, and features a broad array of different food options. Although I went inside looking for the coffee bar, I soon came upon a gelato stand at Whisk Creperie as well, so I ended up going there first. Then I walked next door to Il Lupo to get a pour-over coffee, which was quite good. There’s no better preparation method if you want to enjoy the full flavor profile of high-quality coffee beans and coffee roasts. Had I not already eaten, there were other attractive food stalls in the hall, including one that was selling authentic Italian-style pizzas, and another that seemed to specialize in breakfast.

The District is currently not easy to get to from I-55, but it is certainly worth paying a visit to.

Il Lupo Coffee

Cultivation Food Hall

1200 Eastover Dr, #125

Jackson, MS 39211

(601) 209-0652

A Delta Journey: Getting On Top Of Things At Vicksburg’s 10 South

Rooftop restaurants used to be fairly common, circa 1973 or so, but have become far rarer in the modern era. Memphis, for example, does not have even one, after having had three in the 1970s, and only in Atlanta and Charlotte am I familiar with places of that sort in the South. So, the idea of a rooftop bar and grill in the small city of Vicksburg, Mississippi had intrigued me after I first heard about it several years ago, and when I learned that it would be open for Sunday lunch on my trip home from Monroe to Memphis, I made plans to stop by.

The rooftop bar, called 10 South, sits atop the First National Bank building in downtown Vicksburg, and is part of a renaissance that has seen the restoration of what was largely a decrepit area along Washington Street. The restaurant has temporary flaps that can convert the outdoor seating to indoor seating in cold or inclement weather, and although the day was sunny, it was chilly, and the flaps were down so that we were inside. But the views of the downtown area and the river were beautiful even so, and to my surprise, the place was quite crowded. Attractive Mississippi artwork adorns the walls, along with quotes about the Delta from famous authors.

But, of course, all the beautiful settings in the world cannot make up for bad or mediocre food, so, happily, 10 South does not disappoint in that department either. The menu leans toward “contemporary Southern,” with Gulf seafood, burgers and more. Making a choice was actually difficult, but I ultimately chose a barbecue burger, and 10 South’s is fairly different from your average barbecue burger. It features candied bacon, and potato straws, the latter innovation one that I was skeptical about. As it turned out, the burger was delicious, potato straws and all. Prices, if not cheap, were hardly as expensive as the elegant surroundings would lead one to expect.

Altogether, the service, view and food were impeccable, and I cannot wait until my next time in Vicksburg to visit 10 South again.

10 South Rooftop Bar and Grill

1301 Washington St, 10th Floor

Vicksburg, MS 39180

(601) 501-4600