Category Archives: mississippi

Shack Up Inn/Cat Head in Clarksdale, Helena/Arkansas and Hot Springs

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Shack up inn

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Hot Springs bath house

This trip has been very hit or miss, with places I am glad we went and others I could do without. Sadly Hot Springs is a miss. Haven’t been here in 28 years and it seems down at the heels and sort of spooky. We are staying at a spiffed up motor court and although the owners have done a very good job of tarting it up, the neighborhood is shabby, with a very unspiffed up motor court (Dame Fortune, which we found via airbnb) a stone’s throw away and some shuttered old hotels.  It’s also at a busy intersection so lots of loud cars and motorcycles. (I’m getting fussier in my old age…) The famous old baths downtown look faded and the crowd is a bit rough.  Dinner was at Deluca’s Pizza, which was good except for the service and the weird glamour shot photos on the walls.

 

We did have an interesting day, driving backroads through the cotton fields of the Delta and the still-dying towns. Helena, Arkansas, which I have visited twice before, is still desperately poor, although there are valiant efforts at redevelopment.

Helena chef

In a food shop downtown, a nice chef whipped us up some sauteed shrimp atop a baked potato seasons with rosemary and garlic. We ate it outside, sitting on park benches atop the levee, looking out at a loading dock on/near the Mississippi River. We drove back roads to Hot Springs…another America, Trump’s America, faded towns and worn-out  places.

The day began with a visit to the Shack Up Inn, a collection of old shotgun shacks and cotton bins converted into lodging in a field south of town. Noah and I stayed in one of the shacks almost 10 years ago. The place has grown — there’s now a suburb (“Shackville”) adjacent to the original cluster and a new funky office/store/restaurant/ music venue. A very small wedding was taking place during our visit. We also stopped in at Cat Head, a blues music and folk art store run by a passionate and very knowledge blues fan originally from Ohio. The town still looks pretty bombed out and the black neighborhood in particular is very poor but it still seems to draw lots of blues fans, especially foreigners. I was sad to hear that Rat, the kind man who owned the famous Riverside Hotel died. He gave us a very memorable tour of the hotel 10 years ago. (He was an older man then.)

We also drove through to Friars Point and Lula, two desperate towns just north of Clarksdale en route to Helena. No change there that I could see.

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Greenwood, Money, Cleveland, Merigold, Clarksdale : Mississippi Delta

Great drive here from Birmingham. We took the longer more backroads route from Birmingham through Tuscaloosa back into Mississippi. It was technically maybe 2 hours longer than using the interstate but seemed much shorter because there was so much to see: one small church after another (picture a neighborhood street but lined with churches not homes); vast fields of cotton; big new McMansions, the occasional old beauty and many tumbledown shacks and trailers (although not as many as I remember from my last trip here 10 years ago).

Greenwood is a well-heeled town with an elegant looking spa hotel on the main strret, a great book store (Turn Row which I liked better than the more famous one in Oxford), an excellent local crafts/gift shop next door with excellent local pottery. We had a stylish lunch at the surprisingly sleek and contemporary Delta Bistro, which has white walls with colorful contemporary art. We ate surprisingly light  fried green tomatoes dotted with chunks of crabmeat and excellent jalapeno catfish cakes with “comeback” sauce akin to a spicy Russian dressing. The  famous Italian restaurant in town, Lusco’s, is open for dinner only. It gets rave reviews!

Heading north to the tiny town of Money, we drove over the Tallahatchie bridge (made famous by the Bobbie Gentry song) and drove past the gracious-living old home where “The Help” was filmed. (The lady at the gift shop tipped us off.). Then we stopped at an old church where blues legend Robert Johnson may be buried (“may” being the key word) and the crumbling weed-strewn wall of the remains of the drug store, Bryant’s, where the Emmett Till tragedy began. (There are very helpful historical signs in these lonesome spots).

Onto the bigger city of Cleveland where we dropped in at the famous meat market/restaurant which was setting up for what looked like a good dinner, with the tables at the opposite side of the room from the meat counter. My favorite t-shirt was in a shop next door (“Jesus loves this hot mess”) plus some “fighting okra” gear (apparently the real mascot of Delta State). (Later read that Trump has opened its first small town hotel in Cleveland. Ick.)

Next a quick stop in the worn but interesting town of Merigold where we sound the famous pottery shop (after passing by it twice) on a residential street. We were excited to find the famous juke joint Poor Monkey on the other side of Highway 61, a wooden shack with hand painted signs on the edge of a field along a tree -lined dirt road. The sign said it was open for music on Thursday only (this was a Thursday) but we soon found  out that the owner died almost exactly a year ago and the place is closed indefinitely.

Delta Bistro, Greenwood

Robert Johnson believed to be buried in Money, MS

We stayed at a remarkable airbnb in Clarksdale, an elegant old White House run by a bohemian and charming Southern belle who grew up on a “farm” nearby. (We’re guessing it was a plantation from the presumably inherited furniture and photos inside the White House.)  We stayed in  a beautiful old room with a well-appointed bed, old faded lamps, and three of four walls were windows.  The other two rooms weren’t occupied and the owners live elsewhere so we had this huge house to ourselves. The ground floor had an eccentric mix of old to-the-manor-born furnishings and contemporary art and photos of the belle during her modeling and design days in NY City.

Our loquacious host, sent us to a great place for dinner that we never would have found otherwise — Kathryn’s on the Lake, about a half hour outside of town on Moon Lake. Very unassuming on the outside, just a plain lakeside building, inside it had knotty pine walls, taxidermy, local art and red and white checked oilskin tablecloths. Clearly a favor of locals, four good old boys sat in one corner, another big family in another. The food was outstanding– steak filet, onion rings, a squash casserole, Kentucky Alexander (yes, I will be dieting when I get home) and excellent service.

At night, we went to Ground  Zero for blues. Not the best. It was open mike night and the talent was spotty but interesting to see who gave it a go. The pros on stage were good. A weathered old black guy named “razor blade”, willowy white girl playing guitar, a white middle aged guy from England also on guitar (and particularly good!) and a young black guy on drums. We were struck again by how many Europeans were there as well as some very drunk Aussies. We were hoping to go to Red’s (a more “authentic” juke joint) but it didn’t offer music on Thursday. We did find out that unlike in the past, blues can be found almost every night in Clarksdale now. The city seems to have made a concerted effort to do this, which is good news and useful for the future. Red’s, for example, has music on Wednesdays, as well as the weekend.

 

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Cotton fields/Tula,  Elvis Birthplace & Johnnys drive-in/Tupelo, and Avondale neighborhood/Saw’s Soul Kitchen of Birmingham 

Tula, Mississippi

Alabama at last. Wanted to come here for ages, not sure why but my friend Kathy Jones Is from Mobile which may have contributed to my curiosity. We are staying in yet another great Airbnb in the Avondale neighborhood, in a lovely old wood house with a big front porch on a street with well-renovated old once-modest homes. Yet another “historically hip” neighborhood east of downtown, akin to Cooper-young in ’emphasis, East Nashville, Silver Hill in Albuquerque and wherever we were in Salt Lake. I seem to be drawn to these places… call it the Royal Oak factor (my parents had an art gallery in this suburban Detroit city, an outpost of coolness before the whole place turned hip.

16th Street Baptist

But I’m afraid that the NYTimes 36 Hours Birmingham sort of oversold the city, as Dirck politely put it. Nothing has bowled us over beyond the 16th Street Baptist church where the infamous bombing that killed 4 girls during the early 1960’s still stands regally. We walked around a very quiet downtown (on a Wednesday morning) and read civil rights signs that are part of the walking tour here, which was interesting but we skipped the big civil rights museum because we spent hours at the Memphis one.

Sloss Furnace

We did have a good soul food/smoked meat sampler at Saw’s  Soul Kitchen in our neighborhood and the Sloss furnace, a former industrial site for producing pig iron, now a museum) taught us about Birmingham’s reputation as  “The Pittsburgh of the south.) The Red Mountain hiking area through the woods of an old mining area wasn’t terribly interesting or scenic and the trails were poorly marked so never made it to our destination (Grace’s Gap).

Harvested cotton “module”

About half of this 19th century Avondale airbnb house is off bounds and being renovated but we have all the rest of it to ourselves, and there is plenty of space. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, a lovely sitting room with an old fireplace, comfy couch, interesting paintings, wine and fresh bread awaiting us. So nice. We got here at about 5 and quickly set out on foot to explore, landing at Naked Arts, a good crafts gallery. The owner, who still has a Belgium accent although she’s lived here for decades, suggested a good street to walk on and a good restaurant (39th street to 41st street, where we ate at Avondale Brewery— delicious grilled sandwich with pork belly, fried egg and cheddar cheese; a salad with greens, bacon, watermelon, feta) and there was a talented guy singing and guitar-playing good covers. We also had excellent soul food the next day at Saw’s.

elvis birthplace, Tupelo

During our morning in Oxford, we enjoyed our fantastic Airbnb in the countryside , which had the most comfortable bed! And then we enjoyed the huge second floor screened in porch where we ate homemade coffee cake, left for us by our host, and watched the sun stream in through the pine trees. We walked past the chicken and rooster house on the property to a big workshop where the co-owner, a metal worker, was making big sculptures. Nice guy and he suggested a great drive nearby where we did, as promised,  see fields of cotton near the tiny town of Tula ready for harvest and post-harvest cotton compressed into large “modules” about the size of a mobile home.  We continued on a pretty back road (highway 334) to Tupelo, where we enjoyed Elvis’s birthplace and church, which was surprisingly interesting. Screens dropped down on three walls of the tiny church for a film reenactment of a Pentecostal service, complete with a young impressionable Elvis. Facts I never knew: Elvis had a twin. Stillborn, sadly. Also, Elvis’s dad Vernon spent time in jail. A bad check. We ended up eating burgers at nearby Johnny’s Diner, sitting as fate would have it, in Elvis’s booth, eating delicious burgers that arrived wrapped in waxed paper. Old school.

Another nutritious meal. I haven’t had orange crush since maybe 1974. Too sweet.

Almost forgot that we visited the home of another very famous Mississippian – William Faulkner. Rowan Oak couldn’t be more different than Elvis’s humble home. It’s a lovely white columned gentlemen’s estate with a giant trees lining the path to the front door.

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National Civil Rights Museum/Memphis, Memphis BBQ/not on Memphis, City grocery, Square Books and Snack bar in Oxford, MS

I went to the Lorraine Motel where MLK was murdered for the third time today and was amazed to see that a woman who was protesting a proposed civil rights museum on the site back in 1989 was still there with her protest signs. She apparently thinks it memorializes the murderer. I disagree. I was as impressed today as I was during my second visit to the site (when it was a museum) about 9 years ago with Noah. It does a powerful job of laying out what led to the Civil Rights Movement and eventually MLK’s murder, with a dramatic finale: the (now glass-enclosed) motel room where MLK was shot on the balcony.It was poignant to visit this place now, with so much racial unrest. Still.

 

The City Grocery, Oxford,MS

Tonight we are staying in another really cool Airbnb in the woods south of Oxford,MS.  It’s on the ground floor of a house in a rural area with an unlikely contemporary art gallery (the Tree House Gallery) on the edge of a two lane winding country road. We have our own apartment with not one boring piece of furniture, artwork or rug. Shabby chic, interesting art everywhere, antiques, rugs from foreign lands. It’s a treat. And there is a huge screened in porch above us that I hope to linger on tomorrow morning.

Our Airbnb in the woods outside Oxford

Not surprisingly, my stomach is rebelling from all the rich food we have been eating. We tried another BBQ place recommended by locals (Memphis BBQ in Horn Lake, MS) but didn’t like it as much as Central BBQ – atmosphere was too fast foody. In Oxford, we stopped to browse in  the charming and very Southern square at the famous Square Books and had a beer on the second floor balcony of  The City Grocery, a beloved second story old bar overlooking the square (which reminds us a bit of Franklin, TN) and ate rich food at Snackbar nearby (fried oysters in a creamy sauce for me and dirck and I split “Vietnamese coffee ice cream” which had thru-the-roof butterfat content. My stomach is starting bubble up again just thinking about it.)Locals were raving about new places — Saint Leo’s (for pizza) off Oxford’s Square and Grit in the tiny town of Taylor (famous for the Taylor Grocery, a southern restaurant in a building that barely looked open anymore (part of the charm, apparently). Sadly, it wasn’t open on a Monday.

Memphis airbnb

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Clarksdale Mississippi – again

Clarksdale Mississippi gets a nod from me for the second day in a row, oddly, after I read this morning that a restaurant there bankrolled by the actor Morgan Freeman, who is a Clarksdale native,   is closing after ten years in operation. My meal there was about seven years ago,come to think of it, while I was doing a writing project in the Mississippi Delta and it was clear that Madidi, the restaurant which specialized in “Americanized French cuisine” (I remember it as Southern fine dining, with prices to match) would never break even in such an impoverished place. It was clearly a labor of love. Guess the cast and crew of “The Help,” which filmed in Clarksdale, also couldn’t save it from extinction. Last I heard Freeman does have another restaurant there – a popular blues bar, pool hall and restaurant called Ground Zero (see photos above).  He opened another branch in Memphis, where my son and I listened to a very good female singer a few years ago.

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where the 2012 Oscar contenders were filmed in Hawaii and Mississippi….

When we weren’t distracted by the presence of Elton John at the table next to us during a recent dinner at a Honolulu restaurant, we chatted with an older couple sitting next to us who are natives – and I asked them where some of the scenes from The Descendants had been filmed in town. They mentioned a neighborhood a little north of where we were eating.  Weeks later, a handy newspaper article offered more specifics which is good to know for our next visit to Hawaii, when I’d like to go to Kauai. The film locations on that island include: the Tahiti Nui bar in Hanalei; the St. Regis in Princeville, Kipu Rance and Hanalei Bay.

The same article mentioned the film locations for The Help and darned if I haven’t been to one of those locations – Clarksdale, Mississippi. It also was filmed in another Mississippi Delta town that I think I’ve also been to: Greenwood and another town I’d like to go to Jackson and its historic Belhaven neighborhood.

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Clarksdale, Miss/Ms.: songs/albums inspired by

I got to wondering how many songs have been written about Clarksdale – after reading about Robert Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale album – so I did a quick search on itunes. I found 50 songs with either Clarksdale in the title of the song or album (most were song titles) -and they had great titles like

Stranded in Clarksdale

Clarksdale Moan

Crying Down in Clarksdale

Down Around Clarksdale

Slow Night in Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Burning

No We Ain’t From Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Waiting  for me.

The performers included Elvis Costello whose Clarksdale Sessions songs were recorded at a studio in Clarksdale, Son House, and Jelly Roll Morton. I couldn’t find a recording of Robert Plant singing Walking into Clarksdale but I did find a good cover by Nanette Workman. Also enjoyed Charlie Musselwhite’s Clarksdale Boogie, and Super Chiken (a local favorite) singing Clarksdale.

Might be fun to download a few of these for your trip – I think I will next time.

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