Driving Into the Heart of the Blues: A Mississippi Delta Road Trip

What: 2015 Audi A3 Quattro

Destination: Deep into the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

The Route: From Memphis, take Highway 61 (the “Blues Highway”) to Tunica, Mississippi. Then it’s another 30 miles south to Clarksdale and 30 minutes to Merigold. After a jog through Cleveland, it’s east on Highway 8 to the final destination: Dockery Farms, one-time home to the father of the Delta Blues.

The 2015 Audi A3 Quattro and my friend Jackie. (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

His story: I first visited the Mississippi Delta back in the spring of 2001, when The Oxford American hired me to survey whatever was left of the blues bars there. Not a bad assignment! Memphis and the Delta may be the home of (in no particular order) saucy pork barbecue, blues music, and Elvis Presley — all true, and God bless it — but there’s more there if you don’t mind digging. I fell in love with the rural quirkiness, the hard-to-reach wonders, even the sometimes-manufactured authenticity, and have come back more than a dozen times over the years. Recently I had the chance to return for a few days, and I spent the time cruising around in a 2015 Audi A3 Quattro, visiting old favorites, and meeting new friends.


Clarksdale, Mississippi (Photo: Pigdowndog/Flickr)

Driving south from Memphis into Mississippi on Highway 61, the “Blues Highway,” I saw the familiar barrage of billboards advertising the seafood buffets and past-prime casino entertainment. Once among the poorest counties in America, Tunica is now awash in gambling and tourism money, fed by the famous two-lane podunk road turned four-lane highway, on which you can cruise to blackjack tables, golf courses, and more.

Late in the morning I turned into one of my favorite places: The Willows Sporting Clays shooting range, operated by Harrah’s. I first went there with a family of Memphis blacksmiths, in 2007. I’d never fired a shotgun before, but I’d played Big Buck Hunter in barrooms. I wanted to try the real deal, but I didn’t want to kill anything. What I wanted, it turned out, was to have a guide drive me from station to station on a golf cart and release clay disks into the air so I could blow them way. Good times. (And if you do want to kill animals, they offer guided deer, quail, and dove hunts, complete with dogs.)


The author at the Willows Sporting Clays (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

While in Tunica, I like to eat a chicken fried steak or a catfish fillet at the Blue and White Restaurant, a classic American roadside stop. For those accustomed to more modern dining experiences, be warned that unless you tuck yourself at a table back by the bathrooms, you’re sitting in the smoking section.

Heading south from Tunica are 30 miles of the straightest, flattest road you’ve ever seen, uninterrupted by geographic features — or what you might call scenery. It’s cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans for as far as the eye can see. Sometimes a little yellow cropduster flies low.


(Photo: Kimberley Vardeman/Flickr)

But then you’re there: Clarksdale, in all its shabby glory. Back in 2001, the town seemed back on its heels, closed-down even. But now, despite a decent number of still-derelict buildings, it’s seeing a revival, brought about by a collection of dedicated local characters who fix up old joints, open cafes and bars and restaurants, and are very glad to see you.


Hanging with Madge in the courtyard of the Delta Bohemian (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

There are a number of unconventional places to stay, including the Shack Up Inn, east of town, where you can sleep under a corrugated tin roof in a modernized sharecropper shack dating back to the 1920s. If you want to sleep like a landowner, try the Clark House, the impressively grand pre-Civil-War mansion built by the town’s founder.

The innkeeper there, Billy “Poor William” Howell, also rents the so-called Delta Bohemian, a cottage in the back yard of his home across the river. On this last trip, Billy’s wife, Madge, handed me a beer and showed me the place. A blues phonograph spun in the tiny kitchen near a raw wooden table surrounded by mismatched chairs, and the upstairs bedrooms were colorful and comfortable. I’ll definitely bed down in one of those next time. (And every time, I’ll eat a pulled pork sandwich with slaw at Abe’s Barbecue.)


“At the crossroads of 49 and 61…” (Photo: Eoin McNamee/Flickr)


A room at the Delta Bohemian (Photo: Delta Bohemian)

Billy also conducts $20 pedicab tours around Clarksdale, on which he shows you the local listening and eating spots, and talks about local history, distant and current. I recommend this, as long as you’re not easily embarrassed: Passengers become part of the spectacle. The amused townspeople all seem to know and like Billy, but they tease him about his glittery pedicab, and shout warnings to passengers about their driver. Billy and Madge are both native to the town, and they’re reliably up on the live music happenings, which aren’t always (but often are) advertised on the official calendar kept by the Mississippi Blues Trail website.


A pedicab tour ‘round Clarksdale (Photo: Matt Dellinger)


Leo Welch plays at the Ground Zero Blues Club (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

The night I was in town, they led me to Ground Zero Blues Club, a juke joint meticulously made to look older and more improvised than it really is. It was created in 2001 (before Ground Zero meant lower Manhattan) by actor/local son Morgan Freeman and local lawyer Bill Luckett. It’s open every day, serves food, it’s right next to the Delta Blues Museum, and it’s big enough to accommodate bus-fulls of foreign tourists. I sat with a group of Swedes and Ukranians who had dodged tornadoes the day before, eating fried green beans and listening to the rambunctious bluesman Leo Welch, who recently released his first album at the age of 81.


McCarty’s Pottery, a magical hideaway in Merigold, Mississippi (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

Half an hour south of Clarksdale sits Merigold, Mississippi, a town that would be overrun with hipsters were it not so for from a major city. Willie Seaberry hosts blues and soul music revelers at Po Monkey’s juke joint every Thursday night out in the country. And in town, McCarty’s Pottery offers a civilized oasis every Tuesday through Saturday. Lee McCarty and his late wife began creating their handmade ceramics — both functional and decorative — some 60 years ago. And over the years they built an entire world: Inside a tall wooden fence, a lush, rambling garden connects the workshop and store, Lee’s house, and a lunch spot that offers sophisticated cuisine with no stuffy pretension. For dinner, try the grilled steak and steamed crawfish at Crawdad’s, a short walk from McCarty’s.


Crawfish and fried pickles (Photo: Steve Bott/Flickr)

True blues pilgrims will want to drive another 20 minutes, south through Cleveland and east on Highway 8, to Dockery Farms. The plantation was the stomping grounds of Charley Patton, the father of the Delta Blues, who taught or influenced a generation of musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, “Pop” Staples, Robert Johnson, and “Son House.” Many of the original farm buildings are still standing, and if you look carefully you’ll see the porch of the old brick commissary, now burned down and overgrown, where the legends used to sit and sing on hot afternoons.


Dockery Farms, where blues was born (Photo: Matt Dellinger)

I drove back to Memphis listening to Charley Patton. He only made a few dozen recordings, and they’re not all blues, but his gravelly voice, heard in scratchy mono, brings the mud of the wide open Delta to life.


For minimum sweat, visit the Delta in the spring or fall. For maximum blues listening, visit during Clarksdale’s annual Juke Joint Festival, held mid April. For optimal enjoyment, budget entire hours for unscheduled conversation, and talk to whomever you meet. The Delta’s getting better at the tourism thing, but it’s always been good at the hospitality thing.

Matt Dellinger is the author of Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the last Great American Highway.

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