Clarksdale, Mississippi Part 2 - Blues at Red's, Tennessee Williams and One Cool Cat Head
Red's Lounge is a small joint that overflows with big fun that's a popular place to hear live blues music in Clarksdale. Decorated with photos, posters, blues memorabilia and cool illuminated musical notes, the walls at Red's speak volumes of the stories that have been told there. A regular player at Red's and elsewhere around Clarksdale is Lucious Spiller, a guitarist and singer who happens to be the nephew of the late great blues man (and Mississippi native) Magic Sam. Spiller often says "You'll be surprised at what I play" during his set and indeed he'll be singing Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" one minute and Jose Feliciano's "Light My Fire," famously covered by The Doors, the next. After telling a story about his days playing bass for Fenton Robinson, Spiller pays tribute to the late star (and another Mississippi native) by performing one of his biggest songs, "Nothing But a Fool." The Hank Williams chestnut "Honey, Baby, Mine," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and songs by Neil Young, Jimmy Reed, Al Green and even the Five Stairsteps find their way into Spiller's set.
A must-visit in Clarksdale is Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. Owned by Roger Stolle, who likes to think of himself as "commander in chief" of the store, Cat Head is the place to go for blues music on CD vinyl, DVD and Blu-ray as well as blues magazines (current issues and vintage used), books (including his own "Hidden History of Mississippi Blues" and "Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential"), vintage posters and other goodies including cork turntable mats featuring Clarksdale's "crossroads" sign. On the folk art side of things, the walls at Cat Head are covered with small paintings and artworks featuring blues artists or that were inspired by the blues; there are some very cool photos available for sale too. But the most precious thing in Cat Head is something that's not for sale, and that is Stolle himself. Stolle has accomplished far more than we can tell you about here, including being a radio personality, a music producer, a contributor to documentary film and a festival organizer. Obviously Stolle holds a wealth of information about the blues and is a massive cheerleader for the genre. Don't be shy about asking him questions; Stolle is affable and at the store almost every day. Cat Head also presents live blues music on occasion.
There are lots of independent eateries in Clarksdale and the only problem you'll have when it comes to meal time is which place to go to. A good place for lunch is the Delta Cafe, located at the Delta Amusement Parlor. Another tiny joint, Delta Cafe is world famous for their chili cheeseburger, and if you want one make sure you get there well before their 2 pm closing time. There's a well-known story about this that everyone in town knows. One day a guy showed up at the restaurant looking to try the chili cheeseburger, but he was late and owner Bobby Tarzi had already turned off the grill and was adamant about not turning it back on to feed this guy. The potential customer begged and cajoled and noted that he had driven all the way from Dallas to get the delicacy. Still Tarzi would not relent and finally the man left dejected. Only after the guy was long gone did Tarzi find out that he was comedian/actor Dan Akroyd, famous for his stint on "Saturday Night Live" and as Elwood Blues in the Blues Brothers movie. To this day Tarzi will tell you "If you want to eat, be on time!"
A great place to take a break from the blues for a bit is at the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum where the great American playwright Tom "Tennessee" Williams is honored. The author of such famed works as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" once lived in the home with his grandparents which at the time was the rectory of St. George's Episcopal Church where his grandfather was rector. Now the four rooms on the upper floor, including young Tom's former bedroom, serve as the museum. Visitors will find walls covered with posters advertising Williams's work, including many from non-American productions of the plays, along with photographs, a timeline of his time in the Mississippi Delta and information on how he incorporated real people and places around Clarksdale into his works. Currently the museum is open by appointment so be sure to make arrangements before you head over.
As we mentioned in Part 1 of our Clarksdale adventure, there are many options for places to stay in the city. One of our favorites is Travelers Hotel, a historic building with history going back 100-years to when railroad workers stayed in the hotel, at the time a bare bones affair. Today, while some of the walls remain bare as they were back in the day, the lobby area is decorated with works by regional artists. The rooms are all upstairs and entry is achieved by tapping in a numerical code that you'll get at check-in (the hotel's front door operates the same way.) Truly a place to unwind, rooms do not have televisions, but you can stay connected with good Wi-Fi. And if you'd like a nightcap when you get home after an evening out on the town listening to live blues music, there's a small self-serve bar in the lobby; just write down what you consumed and you can pay for it when you check out.
And once again speaking of live blues music, another favored Clarksdale venue is Hambone Art & Music. A large space with the stage and a sizable dance floor at one end and the Hopeless Case Bar at the other, the joint also includes the Hambone Gallery, located along the wall in the space between the bar and the stage. Hambone Gallery is loaded with the art of blues man Stan Street and of course much of it is inspired by blues musicians and their songs. It's really cool to be able to listen and dance to an act like Big A and the Allstars and then browse the gallery between sets. No venue in Clarksdale is hard to find but you can easily locate Hambone; just look for the giant mural on the roof of Betty Boop leading a band with skeleton players! Besides hosting shows by all of the area's hottest players, Hambone also has a Jam Night.
There's enough fun to be had in Clarksdale that visitors will not get bored if they stay a few days and spending a week in the city would not be out of the question. There's live blues music to hear somewhere in town every night of the week! For more information and help in planning your visit go here.
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