We’d long harboured thoughts of a trip down the Mississippi Delta, and we’d finally found time and cash to make it happen. Our journey started in Nashville and was due to end in Memphis, but in between we had a hankering for the Delta Blues. At Nashville Airport, we collected Miss Scarlett, our hire car. Her name was evident from the outset, both by virtue of her paint job and her Southern satnav drawl. Having negotiated our initial misadventure of heading the wrong way on I40, we settled in for our three day trip to Mississippi before returning to Memphis.
I40 to Memphis
I40 lulled us into a false sense of security at the start of the trip. Once we’d left the edges of Nashville, it turned into a rather fine dual carriageway in the countryside, with very little traffic. The scenery is spectacular, including Natchez Trace State Park, where we were really tempted to linger.
We did stop at Parkers Crossing, the site of a civil war battlefield midway between Nashville and Memphis. There’s an interesting visitors’ centre, and you can find out more about the battle and the area here. I hope I won’t spoil it for you by recounting that my husband was muttering “behind you” as we left the building.
Lunch On the road
By this stage it was, rather unnaturally for this trip, thrashing down with rain, and our thoughts turned to lunch. Being possessed of food allergies, this is never an easy stop for me, so we were forced to reject two possible venues, both of which might have been feasible for husband alone (and I did urge him to eat without me, but he was being sweet and insisted on waiting).
We saw a sign to Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen, and headed off the highway, burning with curiosity. A spirited dash to the door saw us welcomed by a fine sign.
Well, Howdy All, Y’All Too
A quick look at the food available indicated that I’d struggle to find something suitable, so we browsed the gift shop and left. The wall of weaponry was a bit of an eye-opener to we Brits. We also stopped off at the Casey Jones Museum at Jackson, where we would have explored more had we not been too late for much in the way of food options. It looks well worth a return visit though. We finally crashed a Subway at 4.30, where a massive chopped salad truly hit the spot.
We elected to stay in Brownsville the first night, and were delighted to find that we’d booked a real roadside American motel. The room was immaculate, spacious, and full of all the necessities, including a coffee maker and a fridge. Miss Scarlett cooled her tyres right outside our door, and we were able to nip across the road for food.
This is the Econolodge where we stayed that night. Highly recommended.
The morning brought a brilliant surprise. Across the car park from the motel were three small buildings that we hadn’t really noticed the night before. And what a bonus they turned out to be. First was the WestTennessee Delta Heritage Center. This small but fascinating place had all kinds of local tales to tell: beautiful photography from the state parks, a look at the cotton trade, and a stunning autumn display of pumpkins, reminding us that we were really in the USA. The weather had cranked back up to the unseasonal highs we’d been experiencing in Tennessee making the visit even more pleasant. Lovely staff there too…go pay a visit!
Beautiful autumn display at the Delta Heritage Center
Out at the back of the Delta Heritage Center were two more unexpected treasures. First was Flagg School; Tina Turner’s elementary school. It has an exhibit of some of her costumes, along with the school room benches.
Stage costumes for Tina Turner on display at her elementary school
Next door is the blues shack of Sleepy John Estes: simply furnished, with peeling paint and poignant. This was a great start to our Blues adventure.
Peeling paint on the walls and a simple metal bed.
The home of Sleepy John Estes, one of the Blues pioneers
Highway 61: Gateway to the Blues
We negotiated the part of I40 south of Memphis that will continue to give me nighmares. Six lanes of chaos was an interesting experience. As we drove towards the state line, the road conditions grew ever more grim, until we crossed the border into Mississippi when we were greeted by resurfaced roads and communities with fountains amidst lush lawns. Not quite what we were expecting.
It’s a beautiful drive south. We were back in 80 degree temperatures again – an historic high for Tennessee, certainly, if not Mississippi – and the sky was brilliant blue with cotton ball clouds. Alongside the highway, we stopped for information at the Gateway To The Blues Centre, and the gracious Welcome Centre at Tunica. Those ladies sure know southern hospitality and we felt wonderfully welcomed to the area.
We’d booked in at the Comfort Inn, part of the same chain as the EconoLodge from our Brownsville stay. This too was comfortable and airy. We got talking in reception to a lovely couple who we imagined as the Obamas some 20 years on. Much putting the world to rights – noting that this was pre-election campaign time – took place over a large luggage trolley.
Ground Zero Blues Club
For our stay, we knew we wanted to go to Ground Zero Blues Club, featuring musicians from the Mississippi delta. Enquiries at reception indicated that Clarksdale was a one cab town, and that cab not always operating. So after a call to the club, we were delighted to be offered a ride in their limo – “just tip the driver” – and it duly arrived to collect us. Now this was a real limo – old, creaky doors – and how I wished it could have shared some of its stories. But its driver did, and we had a fantastic trip there and back, chauffeured by the guy who was also doing some of the club’s maintenance that night.
Ground Zero: We were dropped off here by the lovely guy driving the limo, who returned to painting the back wall, while we settled in for the gig
That night we saw Mississippi Bigfoot, formed in 2015 after first performing at Ground Zero. Their first album Population Unknown was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. There were two great sets, some food from the kitchen via friendly staff, some mardi gras beads for my memories and a limo ride back to our hotel in the depths of night.
Mississippi Bigfoot on stage at Ground Zero
We went back two days later to the Delta Blues Museum next door. This is a labour of one man’s love for the blues.
Gospel Brunch at the Shack Up Inn
The Shack Up Inn at the Hopson Plantation is a whole experience in its own right. You can stay there in cabins, but we just drove out on a series of back roads to the most amazing collection of Americana. From the old railroad and railroad cars, rusting signage and strange artefacts to bottle trees and cigar box blues, it’s all here.
The Shack Up Inn, not far from the legendary crossroads of Highway 49 and Highway 61
We saw the Divine Angels sing their hearts out over brunch, and found ourselves an interesting mini-sideshow in our own right as stray Brits in town.
The Divine Angels providing Gospel for the Sunday brunch at the Shack Up Inn
Dockery Farm – Where the Blues began
Miss Scarlett had a bit of trouble with Dockery Farm. By satnav, she took us to three different places. The first two were beautiful, in the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by cotton fields. The third was actually Dockery Farm.
I don’t think I can convey adequately to you the sense of arriving there late on a quiet sunny afternoon. We were almost the only people there, and able to just wander the buildings with the wind in the trees and the scent of flowers in the air. So very beautiful. So very peaceful.
Birthplace of the Blues, Dockery Farm
We met a couple having a photo shoot with their young daughter. He was an agriculturalist, and we spent a happy half hour comparing the state of agriculture in the UK and USA, while a cat rolled lazily in the dirt, and the Sunflower River babbled in the background.
I can’t show you the beautiful emptiness of this place, but I can invite you to imagine the sound of the Blues seeping across those rolling fields, above the noise of the river running behind and the rustling of the grasses in the breeze
Dockery Farm was my surprise of our whole Tennessee, Memphis and Mississippi trip. I had no idea how much I would love the place. When I’m stressed out, just looking back at the pictures makes me relax, smile and remember. Similarly, Brownsville, with its Delta Heritage Centre was a delight; I’d like to see more of the town too.
You should pop into the Welcome Centre at Tunica. Not because you need lots of leaflets, but simply because you need to experience that southern charm and courtesy.
For something completely alien to anything you have seen, the Shack Up Inn is a feast for the eyes. I have no doubt that if you stayed in the cabins here, you’d hear some interesting stories. Ground Zero Blues Club is also something you can’t replicate elsewhere.
I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.