To truly embrace the music heritage of the South, you have to go a step beyond big-city meccas such as Nashville, Memphis, Austin and New Orleans. These cities have earned their distinctions as must-visit destinations for any true music enthusiast, but the joys of music tourism in the South are the authenticity and history that can also be found in a variety of smaller towns — such as Clarksdale, Mississippi.
We previously told you about Bristol, the birthplace of country music. Clarksdale is similarly recognized as the capital of the blues, the most important root source of modern popular music. Soul music founder and pioneer Sam Cooke was born here. A marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail designates the cabin Muddy Waters, the “father of modern Chicago blues,” called home while working on the Stovall Plantation. Another marker can be found at the Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died after a car accident on Highway 61.
The town is enjoying a relatively strong economic upswing in recent years, due to the growing popularity of the Delta Blues Museum, music festivals such as the Juke Joint Festival and the Sunflower River Blues Festival (August 9 – 11), and the Ground Zero Blues Club, whose name is a reference to the Clarksdale claim to be “ground zero” for the blues.
The club, opened in 2001, has helped rejuvenate Clarksdale’s historic music culture and drawn attention due in part to the prominence of its owners: actor Morgan Freeman, native son and Memphis entertainment executive Howard Stovall, and local attorney/businessman Bill Luckett. It features live music, mostly by local Mississippi Delta artists, every Wednesday through Saturday.
For one of the last true “juke joint” experiences, however, you’ll also have to check out Red’s Lounge on Sunflower Avenue. You just don’t pass up the place with a pit smoker outside the front door and acoustic blues wafting out nightly.
Check out www.clarksdale.com for a listing of almost weekly music festivals between now and October, and plan to stay somewhere downtown such as The Lofts at the Five and Dime for easy access to most of Clarksdale’s best shops, clubs, restaurants and museums.