For Day 3 of our escapade through the South, Becca and I chose to go out of our way and visit Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the blues. It might have made more sense to visit Birmingham, almost a true halfway point between Charlotte and New Orleans. But Becca has a family connection to Mississippi, and Clarksdale had more of a history and vibe that interested us. And as you’ll see, our lodging in Clarksdale was also a major draw.
We hit the road from Charlotte at about 4:00 in the morning, getting an early start in order to grab breakfast at the Waffle House on South Boulevard by the I-77 entrance. We were the only two customers in the joint. Angie and Shelly took good care of us despite the time and the fact that they had about a hundred late-night take-out orders going on the griddle.
After breakfast, we hopped on I-85 and took it all the way through South Carolina into Georgia, where in Athens we gassed up and grabbed a biscuit and grits from Mama’s Boy near the University of Georgia. (Go Dawgs.) We didn’t stick around long enough to check out the university or the Athens area, as we figured the holidays would make the college town pretty quiet. So we got back on I-85 just as the rain started to come down, and as we passed through the spaghetti interchanges of Atlanta, I drove about two miles an hour just to get us out of Georgia alive.
We got onto I-20 and crossed into Alabama, where we found ourselves in the Central Time Zone. At around noon local time, we stopped in Birmingham for lunch at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. We knew that Nashville was the home of the original Hattie B’s, but folks had told us that the line at that location could wrap around the block. We later learned that they weren’t kidding. But the Birmingham location, to my knowledge, made for a good substitution. The Damn Hot chicken seared the top of my mouth right off. Becca said even the Medium spice was too much for her, and she can handle a good deal of heat. Hattie doesn’t hold back no matter where you get her food, I guess. Before we got back on the road I washed my hands for a full two minutes to get rid of any residual spice.
Becca took over driving as we left Birmingham, and as we traveled west on I-22 we set our next destination as Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. We gassed up again in Hamilton, Alabama, a little town just about twenty minutes outside of Mississippi. As we crossed into the Magnolia State, the sun came out and the roads turned sunflower yellow and trees seemed to look a little taller and greener. I kid y’all not, it was like when The Wizard of Oz goes color. Becca’s face lit up as we entered the home of her dad’s side, a part of her history that she’s just now learning more about.
At around 2:15 we pulled into the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo. For fifteen bucks, we got access to the two-room shack in which young Elvis was born and a museum all about the artist’s upbringing, career beginnings, and launch into superstardom. But the Elvis birthplace also gave incredible insight into life in Mississippi during the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the Great Depression, and in the early years of the Civil Rights movement. To me, it seemed like a much cooler experience than what glitzy Graceland had to offer. (Becca and I thought about stopping at Graceland while planning our trip, but we saw the ticket prices online and said “No thanks.”)
We got back on the road with Becca driving us down US-278 all the way to Clarksdale. While the sights along the road were marvelous, we ended up getting stuck behind a slow and impassable hay truck for the last fifteen miles of the trip. But when we got into town at about 4:30, it wasn’t a long drive to find our home for the night: The Chateau Debris, a stately old house located near Downtown and filled with all sorts of relics, music regalia, and ghosts.
Yes, ghosts. I said what I said. The house is straight-up haunted. Look for yourself:
I don’t want to turn you away from the place. If you come to Clarksdale, you should consider staying at the Chateau Debris. The owner John has kept this house in pristine condition, and every single inch of wall, floor, and ceiling has personality. We were fortunate that we came to town on a Tuesday night during the holidays, which gave us the run of the entire house. We explored the library in the Sun Room and checked out the premises as much as we were allowed. But we most of all loved our room, the Bordello Room, which was decorated to look derelict and filled with boudoir-style artwork which was meant to seem haunted.
Of course, when I say “meant to seem haunted”, I mean it was haunted. You can’t tell me the ghosts of the women in those pictures weren’t watching us sleep and gossiping about us in the thick of the night.
Speaking of ghosts, at about 6:00, we were just about ready to head into town to explore when the spirit of Robert Johnson kicked my ass and put a guitar in my hands. He told me to play him a song and I said, “Mr. Johnson, I haven’t performed to an audience in almost two years.” Well, about that time he told me he’d drag me to the crossroads and leave me for his friend the Devil if I didn’t play him something. So I came up with this chord progression, which I will now share with you in case you are a musician and ever want to do something with it:
- Verse/Chorus?: Dm G Dm C A7 Dm (repeat)
- Bridge: B-flat Dm B-flat C A7 (back to verse/chorus)
So once Robert Johnson stopped possessing me, Becca and I walked down Second Street towards Delta Avenue, which seemed like Downtown Clarksdale’s main drag. We got a couple of po’ boys at Stone Pony Pizza, a local joint opened in 2009 and owned by fourth-generation Clarksdaleian cousins Buddy Bass and Joe Weiss. It had the feel of an old Mississippi dive – not that I would know much about Mississippi dives – but it gave off a modern flair, showing the growth of the character of the city and the whole state in general. The blackened and fried local catfish was incredible, and of course we had a side of fried pickles to go along with it. The cost of a Blue Moon? Less than four bucks. To hell with Brooklyn. To hell with New York. Mississippi knows what’s up.
After dinner, we hit up Hambone around the corner for some drinks and Delta blues. Hambone stands as the pride and joy of Stan Street, an absolute king who came up as a blues musician in New York before hitting the tour circuits across Canada and the South. After spending a quarter of a century in Florida, Stan settled down in Clarksdale and opened up Hambone in 2005 as both a music venue, a gallery for his awesome art, and a community space. Stan welcomed us in like we were part of the community; he poured us some Christmas shots, chatted with us about the music scenes all around the country, and introduced us to a few locals and friends of his who helped him run the Hopeless Case Bar inside the gallery. (Again: Beers – and good ones, too! – were four dollars. God bless Mississippi.)
Luckily, Becca and I were in time for one of Hambone’s Tuesday night concerts, that night featuring the esteemed Watermelon Slim. The two of us made up about a third of the audience at the start of the show, but about fifteen minutes in, we were the only two guests in attendance. So Becca and I got a solo show, and we sat through the whole bill entranced by the slide guitar work of Slim, an award-winning master of the blues who has toured in festivals all across America. He introduced himself to us as Bill (his name being William Homans III) and regaled us with stories of his time as a truck driver, a Vietnam veteran, the son of a civil rights lawyer, and a self-taught traveling musician. After the show he chatted and drank with us and Stan for a while. I’d say go listen to Bill’s work on Spotify, but you should also throw a few bucks his way and pick up some merch as well.
We stayed well past the end of the show to take some more shots with Stan and Bill and some other folks who came in after the music. By the time we got back to the Chateau, it was about 10:00 CST and Becca and I realized we’d been up an hour longer than we thought due to the time zone change. So when our heads hit the pillows, they hit them hard, but although we wanted to fall asleep in the big empty house we had all to ourselves, we couldn’t help but feel the chill of all the eyes from all the pictures surrounding us. We loved the haunted vibes. We’d picked the house for that reason. But every creak in the old house and whistle from the wind outside kept us jumping awake.
And yet, an aura of good vibes surrounded us, protecting us from any evil spirits or gossiping ghosts that might have tried any funny business throughout the night. Maybe it was the good hospitality from our hosts at the Chateau, the Stone Pony, and the Hambone. Maybe it was the music of Watermelon Slim. Whatever it was, it helped us finally find the peace we needed to slip into a deep and dreamless sleep.
While Clarksdale on a weekend might have shown us the city in full swing, Becca and I loved our quiet night with the blues. It showed us what life was like in Clarksdale on literally any given Tuesday. Folks were willing to open their doors and whiskey bottles to a couple of complete strangers. Of course, family showed us hospitality in Charlotte, but this was the first time we didn’t know what kind of folks we’d encounter on our trip. In Clarksdale, we met some of the finest, and I don’t know how we could repay them for treating us so kind.
To be honest, the relaxing evening came in handy. We’d need every bit of our strength for our first night in New Orleans. You’ll hear all about the dark spirits we stumbled upon along Bourbon Street in the next edition of The Great Southern Escapade.