Great Pizza and A Pleasant Atmosphere at Oxford’s Southern Craft Stove and Tap

My friend really wanted to go to Oxford to see Larry Dodson, the former lead singer of the Bar-Kays, perform, and that of course meant getting something to eat before the performance. Oxford has over the last few years become something of a culinary destination, with a bewildering array of new restaurants popping up, many of them with an ambiance we would normally expect in a big city. Along with the growth of restaurants, hotels and condominiums has come traffic jams, particularly around the square on weekends, so I suggested that we opt for a restaurant away from the square so as to not run late for the concert.

That led us to Southern Craft Stove and Tap, a New American restaurant in the new development area at Sisk Avenue and Highway 7 in East Oxford. Although we had expected a significant wait for a table, with it being a Saturday night, to our amazement, we were able to get right in. The atmosphere was sleek and modern, the decor all done up in white, chrome and glass; nevertheless, the place still had a fairly comforting and welcoming feel, with a wood-burning oven visible in the kitchen area. Southern Craft has something for everybody, from a food standpoint, with a menu offering salads, little plates, big plates and pizzas. But it is the pizzas that caught our attention, particularly after seeing that wood-burning oven blazing away.

My friend opted for a traditional pepperoni pizza, which came with extremely large slices of pepperoni rather than the small cups we have grown used to. But I opted for something quite different, a “Gulf Pizza” that was made with a white-based alfredo sauce and covered with shrimp. The latter usually comes with onions, but I asked that they be omitted since I am not a fan of onions. Both pizzas came with the slight charring of the crust that is so enjoyable with wood-oven pizzas; the Gulf Pizza reminded me of the old Chesapeake Pizza that Bosco’s in Memphis used to have, although, if anything, this one was even better. My friend and I traded slices, so I can say that her pepperoni was also delicious. On a future visit, we will have to try other menu items, which range from street tacos, to steaks, pork and fish. Prices are remarkably reasonable for a restaurant with such an upscale ambiance. We will certainly be back.

Southern Craft Stove & Tap

705 Sisk Av, #111

Oxford, MS 38655

(662) 234-6007

Blues in the Alley in Holly Springs

Each summer, the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi in Marshall County usually has a series of blues concerts on or near the town square. The town and county are in the dead center of the region of Mississippi known as the Hill Country, and are famous for the Burnside and Kimbrough families of blues musicians. But in both 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the city’s ability to have large events. Several weeks were cancelled, and so at the end of August, a final Bike Night was scheduled, neither on the square nor in the historic area known as The Alley, but rather in the large city park north of the square. The previous city administration had built a brand new pavilion complete with electricity in the park, but the newly-elected mayor and town officials felt that the pavilion was unstable and unsafe, so they had it roped off, and the musicians had to perform on a flatbed trailer in front of the new mural in honor of the Kimbrough family.

Originally, the night was supposed to be dedicated to Duwayne Burnside, but the organizers made a decision to let acts whose weeks had been cancelled earlier make up their missed performances, which led to a degree of argument over which acts would go first. Into that confusion came the new mayor, threatening to shut down the entire park because nobody was wearing a mask. After warning people from the microphone that she would have the police clear the park unless everyone put on a mask, the mayor left, and it was decided that Lady Trucker would go first, then Dre Walker and the Mississippi Boys, with Duwayne Burnside closing out the evening. Since I had time, I walked over to the Rodeo Cafe to get a bacon cheeseburger and to take a break from the heat.

The park was filled to overflowing with folks when I returned. Although there were not a lot of motorcycles, there were a lot of slingshots, the car/bike hybrids with three wheels, and a number of them were done up in neon. Lady Trucker gave a long performance to open the event; in walking around the park, I ran into both Robert Kimbrough and Little Joe Ayers amongst the crowd. But then Dre Walker came on with his band. Dre is more of an R & B singer than a blues performer, and he does almost exclusively cover songs, but he is a consummate showman, and has a way with crowds, especially women. After his performance, I had to go on stage to perform with Duwayne Burnside. Unfortunately, by then it was quite dark, and the city had not made any arrangements for lighting. Instead a few of the slingshots rode up through the crowd to the stage and shined their lights at us, which was better than nothing.

Only at the end of the night, after Duwayne had paid me and I was in my car with the air conditioning running did I realize that I didn’t have my white Kangol on my head which I had been wearing. I had apparently left it in the Rodeo Cafe which was by then closed. I never saw it again.

How To Enjoy Chicken and Support the Delta Blues

I doubt if anyone was all that happy when Bartlett, Tennessee lost its Steak N Shake location, although it had ceased being 24-hours-a-day almost two years before. Slim Chickens had entered the Memphis market earlier with a location in Southaven, but I really did not know much about the Arkansas-based chain. I recalled seeing a location in Jonesboro on a trip up there a few years ago, and recall them being a sponsor of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. But Memphis already had a lot of chicken places. How different could this one be?

As it turned out, Slim Chickens is both similar to some of its competitors, and also quite different. It is primarily a chicken finger restaurant, like Zaxby’s, Abner’s, Guthrie’s or Raising Cane, although the atmosphere is a little more upscale than those. It also sells wings, which the others don’t, and chicken and waffles, which is quite unique at this price point. Also unlike any of the other restaurants is your choice from among a whopping 18 different dipping sauces for your wings or tenders; you get a choice of two flavors with your order. And finally, the mason jar desserts are unique and delicious; I had a brownie-flavored one. They are kept cold and ready for your order, and you get to keep the mason jar afterwards.

But another unique facet of Slim Chickens is that the restaurant carries a blues theme. Not only are they a proud sponsor of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, but guitars decorate the walls, and great down-home blues plays from the overhead speakers. So eating at Slim Chickens is more than getting good food—you’re helping to support the blues as well. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Slim Chickens

8477 Highway 64

Bartlett, TN 38133

(901) 347-2665

The Way The Cookie Crumbls (Or Doesn’t) in Memphis

Perhaps few foods comfort us more than cookies—they hearken back to a time when our mothers baked them for us; the pleasant smell of warm, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies can bring a special feeling of nostalgia. Unfortunately, freshly-baked cookies are not so easily accessed these days. While recent years have seen the emergence of a number of bakeries, these typically have seriously limited hours, closing anywhere from 2 or 3 in the afternoon to 5 or 6 in the evening. Getting a cookie after dinner can be a challenge, aside from a few communities that may have a branch of the recent Insomnia cookie chain.

Enter Crumbl, a new chain that hopes to revolutionize the retail cookie business. While Crumbl does not have Insomnia’s delivery option, nor its significantly-expanded hours, it offers a number of unique features. First, the cookie menu changes on a weekly basis, with only a chocolate chip and sugar cookie option remaining constant. Differing flavors are intended to be served chilled, or warmed, as is appropriate for the flavor. One cookie is truly huge; they can be bought individually, or in a box of 4, or in a party pack. They are fairly expensive, but as I said above, one cookie could easily be split by two people. Although they are soft and delicious, unlike Insomnia’s products they hold together and do not crumble easily, which is ironic, considering the name. I actually prefer Crumbl’s cookies to Insomnia’s, which, while delicious, generally have to be spooned out of their paper sleeves like cobblers.

There are a few things to be aware of with Crumbl. One is that they offer curbside pickup, but not delivery; there is an app that you can use to pre-buy cookies for pick-up. Another is that the lines can be truly outrageous at times, particularly on weekends. Finally, while some locations offer Crumbl-branded ice cream, the Memphis location does not, at least not yet. All the same, Crumbl makes a fun outing after a dinner in East Memphis. The products and flavors will not disappoint, nor does the cheerful ambiance of the place and its staff.

Crumbl Cookies Memphis

711 S Mendenhall

Memphis, TN 38117

(901) 410-1950

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.

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.

Hill Country Blues at a Graduation Party in Holly Springs

Marshall County, Mississippi is one of those out-of-the-way places in the South where old traditions and ways have retained a foothold. The county is the epicenter of the Hill Country Blues style, and the related Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of the Kimbrough family, and blues is often the soundtrack for picnics and family gatherings.

On May 22, a family graduation party turned into a virtual music festival in Holly Springs, as the family had booked Hill Country greats Duwayne Burnside and Garry Burnside to perform in their front yard. They also had a DJ and plenty of good barbecue, and a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered, with cars up and down old Highway 4. Although it was quite hot, it didn’t deter the party-goers, and after the sun went down, things cooled off some. It was actually a big night for Hill Country blues in Holly Springs, as Kenny Brown was also performing at a historic home on Salem Avenue for the first of the summer Blues on the Porch performances. Blues is still the soundtrack of summer in Marshall County.

Duwayne Burnside Brings The Hill Country Blues to Memphis at Railgarten

Duwayne Burnside is one of the sons of the late R. L. Burnside, and is a living legend of the Hill Country blues tradition in North Mississippi, but peculiarly, he has not frequently played in Memphis in recent years. That changed this summer, with a weekly residence at the outdoor Railgarten venue in Midtown, which got under way on May 7th after a couple of cancellations due to weather.

A number of Memphis blues aficionados and musicians came out, including the legendary Stax Records drummer Willie Hall, who sat in with the band on a tune. Actually, Railgarten makes a nice venue for blues, with its massive array of outdoor tables and bars. In pleasant weather, it’s perhaps the best venue in the city. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused modifications in its operations, and things are not entirely back to normal yet. The diner, which once featured a more adventurous culinary menu, is closed, as is the ice cream parlor, and currently only bar food is available. But there seem to be renovations going on at the diner, and hopefully it will be reopening in the future.