The Mississippi Delta struck me as the land that time forgot. As I drove south on the Delta Blues trail, the only way you could notice it was 2009 was the cars on the road. Other than that, it could just as easily have been 1959 in most of the historic towns.
There is a mix of sentiment and sadness in the Delta. On one hand you have the rich historical ties to the blues, and on the other you have a deep, almost third-world standard of living for many of the residents. There are amazing old buildings next to abandoned storefronts and charming homes are one street over from houses that should be condemned. There is alcohol abuse, rampant obesity, and poverty, but there is also a strong sense of community, friendliness and a genuinely welcoming attitude. I didn’t see any outward signs of the racism the state is known for, which made me naively hopeful.
I did however hear some things on the radio from the area church services that made me realize that the “thought leaders” for the communities weren’t quite on the cutting edge of open-mindedness. The preachers seemed blissfully unaware of how much hate surrounded their message of “God’s love”, which is apparently reserved for heterosexual churchgoers, women who obey their husbands and men who aren’t afraid to show a little discipline to their family. While I’d never listened to radio church service before, I found myself unable to turn the station...the kind of sensation you have when you pass a wreck on the interstate. You don’t want to look, but you find yourself staring. As offputting as the sermons were, there was an infectious, almost magnetic quality to the gospel music that followed. Confusing and tragic, yet somehow uplifting. But enough about church.
The Delta Blues Society has done a great job with the historic markers along the blues highway, and I spent the entire day driving down Highway 61 to Greenville and then back up Route 1 along the Mississippi River to Clarksdale. With Muddy Water’s complete compilation as my companion, I drove through cotton fields from town to town, stopping a couple of times for sweet tea and once for fried chicken (and holy bejesus was it good).
Back in Clarksdale, I pulled into the Shack Up Inn, an old cotton gin plantation that has been transformed into the coolest motel I’ve ever seen. In addition to the ten rooms inside of the actual gin building, they remodeled about ten old shacks on the property.
Each one is named after a person or theme, and mine was named Pinetop after Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, a legendary blues piano player who stayed there while working on the Hopson Plantation as a sharecropper.
In addition to the unique accommodations, the thing I really liked best about the Shack Up Inn was that everyone would sit out on their porch when the sun was setting and drink a beer or two. Most folks would walk around and visit with their neighbors, creating a communal experience usually reserved for overseas travel. If you go in the summer, make sure to bring bug spray for the mosquitoes. They are vicious.
On Monday morning I woke up and headed for the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, which was an hour very well spent. On the way back to Nashville, I went to Handy Andy’s Grocery and BBQ in Oxford, MS.
It’s a cool mini-mart looking place that’s mostly a bbq restaurant. I would recommend knowing what you want to order, as the lady behind the counter is long on sass and short on patience. After fumbling through the menu I got a pork sandwich, which was good but not great.
An hour later or so later in Tupelo, I passed a red gas station that said “Mo’s BBQ”. Immediate U-turn. Mo’s has a smokehouse off to the side of it, and the smell of hickory was evident when I opened the door.
Inside Mo’s is more convenience store than restaurant, so I took my sandwich to go. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the pork by itself. Great smoke ring, tender, juicy and full of flavor. The sauce complimented it well and the slaw, well the slaw was slaw, but overall it was a great experience. The guy behind the counter was really friendly and enthusiastic...he made you excited to order.
As I sat enjoying the sandwich on the hood of my car, I noticed the sign out front. I really don’t think I need to add any commentary.
If you ever find yourself in Tupelo, I would head to Mo’s for sure.
My BBQ/Delta Blues tour over, I reluctantly headed back home via the Natchez Trace Parkway.