Some of you may know that Highway 61 is synonymous with some of the most important blues music to come out of America. Bob Dylan went as far as writing a whole album, in 1965, about the famous route in that contained some of his most important work; Ballet of a Thin Man, Queen Jane Approximately, Like a Rolling Stone and of course Highway 61 Revisited. Blues legends such as BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley (the list is endless) were all born and raised in the area. And, as fable states, Robert Johnston sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 for the ability to play masterful blues guitar. As you drive Highway 61, which lies alongside the Mississippi River, you can’t help but feel the blues and historic importance of this area of America. Expansive, barren landscape stretching for miles in every direction, the occasional wooden shack in the distance, presumably still housing entire working families as they would have in years gone by. The first town you pass after entering Mississippi is Tunica, or the “Gateway to the Blues” as the sign states. Other than this single sign, atop a 1895 train depot that has been converted into a visitors centre, there isn’t anything else to see. Not sure how Tunica can hold the title of a town without a house in plain view for miles.
Pushing on and we arrived in Clarksdale, where blues history is rich. Unlike Tunica, Clarksdale has a ‘downtown’ area, a few cross-section blocks with a few bars, eating sports and what look like closed shop fronts. On first impressions we were sceptical that anything could be in Clarksdale, everything looked like it had seen better days, or had been shut down for years. How wrong we were. Deciding we had driven enough for one day we pulled off the highway following a sign to Hopson Plantation and the promise of a bed. Hopson Plantation is a building that has had little work done to it since its days of use, a huge building now being used as a local tavern with nightly live music and as luck would have it, a Saturday evening crawfish boil, that required no persuasion for us to get involved with. A huge 3-4lb tray of boiled crawfish, complete with chunks of corn on the cob and red skin potatoes, boiled in the same paprika rich stock. This is proper eating and these little critters are great fun. Hands are your utensils and a roll of kitchen paper is a necessity. Removing the crayfish heads and shells to leaves you with a morsel of sweet meat, similar to a large shrimp, perfect for dipping in melted butter to give more richness. The use of spicy paprika in the stock is liberal and will leave your lips tingling for hours after eating, but that’s all part of the eating experience. Something maybe not part of the eating experience, but an experience all the same, is the crawfish vendor producing a jam jar of clear moonshine that his cousin made in a ‘secret’ location, 100 proof and boy could you feel it!
As for accommodation, again we lucked out. Shack Up Inn sits on the same grounds of Hopson Plantation, a settlement of eight shacks built out of wood and corrugated sheet metal. The shacks are all boutique inside and out, complete with rocking chairs on the porches, breakfast bars and hand-carved, solid wood beds, as well as televisions with one pre-set channel, BB King’s Blues Station. Our neighbour’s shack even came complete with a piano, and we were encouraged by staff to take instruments to our shack from a selection of acoustic guitars, banjos and tambourines to create our own blues sound. If you should even find yourself in Clarksdale, I strongly encourage you to rest your head here, you won’t be sorry.
As evening approached we found ourselves drinking beers with locals and fellow residents staying at the site. It was over these beers that we discovered that local resident and Oscar winner, Morgan Freeman, owns and operates a blues club in Clarksdale, Ground Zero Blues Club. Not only this but a Lincoln limousine was only a phone call away, giving lifts to downtown Clarksdale for patrons of Ground Zero. The phone call was made and a few minutes later a jet-black limousine arrived to collect us, and another couple staying at Shack Up Inn. Ground Zero is a spacious single room, complete with billiards tables, a well stocked bar, and a scattering of tables and chairs allowing you to sit and enjoy the blues act on that night. The walls are covered in names, crudely written in marker pen, I can only assume these are patrons of past and present leaving their mark. Above the bar a number of pictures are framed, mostly fan paintings of Morgan Freeman wielding an acoustic guitar, I wish I had taken pictures of these but the moonshine was kicking in at this point.
Next morning the mother of all thunderstorms hit Clarkdale and prevented anyone from leaving their humble abodes. Of course this lack of activity had nothing to do with the chronic moonshine hangovers everyone that ventured to Ground Zero was experiencing…
Another day and another opportunity to discover what other glories Highway 61 had to behold. Although, not before making a final trip into downtown Clarksdale to sample some legendary local eating spots. First we stopped in at Hick’s Quality Foods, home of the world’s famous hot tamales. Being that both Lu and I have never sampled tamales we decided this was the only option. Tamales are corn-based dough parcels, usually with some form of filling, in Hick’s case a dense beef concoction, laden with chilli. These are then wrapped tightly in banana leaf before being gently boiled or steamed. The end product is something similar to beef cannelloni, although with less bite from the fragile cornmeal package, the filling rich with tomato, and a robust meatiness from the beef, alongside a decent kick of chilli.
Next we travelled a few blocks to the Highway 61-49 crossroads to Abe’s Bar-B-Q, a restaurant that has been in operation since 1924. As this was another barbecue joint we employed our usual test of quality by sampling the humble pulled pork sandwich, with a side of BBQ beans. The sandwich arrived on a soft white bun (nothing fancy) with a mound of chunky, slow smoked pork shoulder, and typical to this area, topped with a handful of light, slightly vinegary slaw. We were glad of the non-toasted bun as this helped soak up majority of the delicious barbecue meat juices. The pork itself was a good mix of flesh and bark (bark being the blackened, outside layer of meat that holds most of the smoky, barbecue flavour). All tables have in-house made barbecue and hot sauce. I opted for liberal dosing of both before shovelling pork in my face. I’d say this was probably the best pork sandwich to date so a new benchmark has been set.
Back to the road and the days driving took us away from the flat plains of Mississippi we were accustom to, instead giving way to mountain terrain, although remaining as unoccupied as Clarksdale and before. We head east, away from the Mississippi River to Jackson, a fairly nondescript town but not to say unpleasant by any stretch of the imagination. The reason for the pit stop, lunch, and not just anywhere, a restaurant I had heard about, the Mayflower Café. This has been a local favourite since opening in 1935, so we felt it worth a visit. Like many restaurants in this part of the country the outside has a huge neon sign advertising Mayflower to the world, inside a more down to earth set-up with a small number of booths and tables. Lunch today was seafood gumbo topped with long grain rice; a dark, full-bodied stew, swimming with shrimp and okra. As well as chicken fried steak (think pork schnitzel but substitute pork for tender frying steak) with gravy, butter beans and deep-fried aubergine. Both were decent enough, but nothing up to the standard we were expecting for a restaurant with such legendary status.
Onwards we journeyed, connecting once again with Highway 61 we travelled further south to the town of Natchez, which sits on the edge of the Mississippi River, looking out to Louisiana. Given its location, Natchez was the trading gateway to the south and as a result many of America’s wealthiest decided to build homes here in the 18th Century. Today there are over 500 grand homes, churches and buildings listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Unusual for an America city, you can easily walk around downtown Natchez due to the smaller streets and closely built housing, a refreshing change to driving from place to place. The beauty of each town house lining the streets of Natchez is unquestionable, and there are far too many to talk about individually. Instead I’ll talk about the lunch we had at one of the grandest homes in downtown, Stanton Hall, built in 1857 and a magnificent example of 18th Century architecture. We sat on the outside patio and enjoyed a starter of shrimp and okra soup, similar in flavour to gumbo and packed with plump shrimps. Followed by chicken club sandwiches, think chicken mayonnaise meets Waldorf salad, on toasted brioche bread, accompanied by a mixed leaf salad tossed with dried cranberries and walnuts (we were thankful of the leafy gesture). Lunch was rounded off with complementary petit scones with grape conserve. Essentially an English high tea with a Mississippi twist. Lovely all the same, and nice to be outside enjoying the sunshine and warmer temperatures.
Our time was drawing to an end in Mississippi, a wonderful state rich in blues culture and southern cuisine. Everyone we encountered along the way was beyond friendly and we were glad that the impulsive decision in Memphis to follow the Mississippi River south, along Highway 61 paid better dividends than we could have ever have hoped for. From Natchez we crossed the Mississippi River into the state of Louisiana, and one of the states we had been looking forward to most. Although on this occasion it would only be a fleeting visit as time was running short to cross the 200 miles of Louisiana into the Lone Star State, Texas. The reason for the heavy mileage in such a short period of time, the Texas capital of Austin, and the final weekend of South by Southwest (SXSW) film, music and cultural festival.
As temperatures rose to 30 degrees and clouds vanished from the blue skies we entered the eastern border of Texas, ready for one hell of a big party. After all, as the saying goes… “Everything’ s bigger in Texas!”