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.
55 thoughts on “Highway 61 to the Delta Blues, Mississippi Calling”
wow, what an amazing adventure! Love that your article is so accurate! thank you for sharing 🙂
My pleasure. 🙂 In fact, writing it let me live it all over again. If you get the chance and have not already been, both Tennessee and Mississippi are so very beautiful and well worth your time.
WOW! what an amazing adventure!! 🙂 thank you for sharing, I want to road trip now!
It was a whole set of brilliant experiences that I loved sharing. I’m only home from our last road trip two days ago, and I’m already raring to go for the next. It’s addictive, this travelling. 😉
What a fun trip! I am sorry you have food allergies, that would be really hard. That salad sounds really yummy! I love taking little roadtrips and haven’t really done one in about 2 years. My mom would really enjoy these places.
I have been known to ask my husband to let me smell the stuff I can’t eat. 😉 But I’m much happier being well, and it’s manageable. Roadtrips are probably my favourite thing. We’re just back from one to the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Absolutely incredible scenery.
Would love to visit Dockery Farm! Thanks for the guide!
It’s worth the detour…and the battle with satnav 😉 It’s not overly “touristy”, but you can play some of the early blues songs from a display there, and it sounds so right in the setting.
It sounds like you learned a lot about the different local cultures! This is so neat and great to hear to be honest. I did a road trip a few years back from Philadelphia to LA and I believe we drove through Nashville. It was definitely a “slow travel” trip, but yours sounds enjoyable. Side note: I’ve never seen so many Cracker Barrels in my life.
It was a fascinating trip. I need to write up the other two parts for Nashville and Memphis, now I’m getting into the blogging groove.
We’ve got a yen to drive the West Coast up from San Francisco, but I’m not sure when. The Nashville to Memphis tour took a few months to hatch, mainly because we both wanted to do it so much, we were afraid of messing it up with bad decisions. As it turned out, it was one of our best trips. I must have had my eyes closed for the Cracker Barrels. 🙂
What an adventure! I’m British too and would be rather unnerved by a wall of weaponry too haha. I find that completely bizarre. Anyway it sounds like an incredible journey – much more interesting than what most British people see of America – NYC or Florida etc! I’d love to stay in an American motel on a road trip but think I’ve seen too many films where people get murdered in them haha!
It was really odd. To our right, lots of mugs, shot glasses and t shirts. To our left, knives and guns.
Although places like Memphis and Nashville are incredible, I’m coming to the conclusion that I love the out of the way towns tremendously.
And don’t forget, to murder you in a motel, someone would have to manage not to fall over your big bags, which are always parked just in front of the motel room door, as you thought you’d best drag them in from the car overnight… 😉
What an epic road trip! You had me at Miss Scarlett! We hope to visit the US and properly immerse ourselves in its culture, just like you guys did…thank you for sharing this
That’s brilliant. 🙂 Miss Scarlett was a fine gal, once we’d worked out what she used in place of a handbrake. I hope you plan and have just as good a trip as we did, and I definitely want to read all about it!
Great post. I love doing road trips and this sounds amazing.
We’ve only recently got into them, but we’re sold! Did another last week, which was brilliant despite a lot of liquid sunshine.
What an awesome trip! I love that you’ve included so much detail and some great tips. Sounds like you had a great time! 🙂
We absolutely did. Still buzzing about it now, nearly a year later.
Sounds like a great adventure; I’ve never really done a road trip as such but sounds amazing!
We only got into road trips fairly recently. Last week we were in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales and had a brilliant time. Definitely recommended.
I know nothing about the blues, but this does sound like a fun road trip (except for not being able to find food for you – I’d be hangry!) Must have been wonderful chatting with locals too.
Meeting people is always my favourite part of the trip. A secret stash of Kind bars helps offset the risk of the hangries, so once I’ve found them, I’m sorted. 🙂
It’s good to know I’m not the only one who names every rental car I have! Sounds like a must-do roadie, the blues club would be fun to stop in on.
Strangely the only car with no name is the one my husband currently drives. 😉 I was so very happy when our first US car rental from Natick near Boston was a Little Red Corvette…
My partner and I would love to do a road trip through the South and hit up some legendary blues spots – he’s a musician himself and is infatuated with the area. Thanks for giving us lots of ideas for things to do!
It was an incredible trip. I’ve got separate posts to finish for Memphis and Nashville, and plenty of music in both. Our life is really meandering between gigs. Sounds as though we’d have loads to chat about. Before we even got on to Chicago, and Kingston Mines 😉
I’ve always loved the song ‘Walking in Memphis’ and have wanted to do a road trip like this ever since. Dockery Farm looks great! And now I can’t get the song out of my head again haha…which isn’t a bad thing 🙂
Me too for Walking in Memphis.
In fact it was the first thing on our playlist when we sat down to plan the trip. And it’ll be going through my head constantly when I write up the Memphis leg. 🙂
Wow what an adventure, it looks like you got to see and experience so much!
It’s definitely one of those trips that makes you appreciate all the experiences that come your way.
Even though I’m American, I still have never been to Mississippi or Tennessee! I’d really love to go to both states one day. =) Especially since there is so much musical history in that part of the US! Also, I feel your pain with eating while traveling – I’m vegetarian and it can make finding places to eat authentic food a little difficult!
I end up eating veggie at lot of the time, simply because veggie restaurants seem far more knowledgeable about what goes in their food. If you head to Nashville or Memphis, I’ve got veggie recommendations for both. 😉
What a great trip. I love the old south. It’s so beautiful. Have you been to Tupelo, Mississippi? There isn’t much there, but that is where Elvis Presley was born and you can ‘tour’ the home where he was born. It’s very small and humble. If you’re an Elvis fan at all, it’s something you should do.
We didn’t make Tupelo this trip, but we clearly should have. It sounds wonderful. The closest we got to Elvis – apart from Sun Studios – was the peanut butter sandwich recipe stuck to the fridge at our Airbnb in Memphis.
Love how you write, you have amazing natural talent 🙂 Also, glad to know I’m not the only one who names rental cars! Sounds like a great little road trip 🙂
Aw, thank you. *blush* What a lovely thing to say.
Naming the rental cars is great fun. I’ll leave you to guess the make and colour of “Baby, You Move Too Fast”.
This is such an interesting post! I love the Tina Turner costumes!! The gospel brunch also sounds really cool.
The brunch was a brilliant experience. We’d somehow managed to book brunch (before we flew out from the UK) even though we only intended to hear the gospel session. They had great voices and filled the place with sound.
This is so cool! We just visited Memphis, where soul was born and was heavily inspired by the blues. It was so interesting and amazing to learn about the evolution of the music of the african american diaspora. I love that you turned it into a whole road trip, too!
Memphis is such a cool city. I’m writing up that part of the trip now, so it should be blogged soon. Glad you had a great trip there too.
Beautiful writing! My mother is a huge blues fan and she would love this journey. Glad you were able to stay in a couple of motels – it’s not a real American road trip until you do! I’m subscribing so I can read more of your missives.
Ah, thank you! There will be Memphis and Nashville soon, along with a UK road trip we took last week. I’ve been fascinated by your roadside observations and loving your keen eye for how people live.
And I do love motels. All human life is there at the breakfast buffet.
Such a fun adventure! We’ve been itching to do a road trip through the southern states (now to get over to the US for a long enough period). You visited several stops that would be perfect for our future itinerary! Thanks!
Ah, you’re going to have such a good time! And I most definitely want to hear all about it.
Great post! With my goal to visit all 50 states before I turn 40 I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got to Mississippi, so your post will be such a great resource as I plan my travels in the south! I’m particularly interested in Natchez; I’m reading a book that is set there and have heard it’s quite beautiful.
What a wonderful way to reach 40! We’re nowhere near a full set of states yet, but I have a yen to explore some of the less visited places. I’d love recommendations. I also read a book set in Natchez – mine was an apocalyptic novel, so I don’t know if we’ve shared the reading experience too.
Sounds like such a fun trip! I’m a fan of staying in cabins and the Shack Up Inn sounds great.
The cabins did look great: all with porches and gathered around the grassy area, with some people playing music at lunchtime.
What an awesome road trip! I absolutely love going on road trips throughout the USA. I’ve gone from St. Louis to Nashville, and really enjoyed it.
Ah, don’t tempt me with more lovely choices! We had such a brilliant time, and we’ve been pondering where to go next. Around Big Sur’s a possibility, as is New Mexico around White Sands National Monument. I’d not thought of other options from Nashville but your trip sounds great too.
Pretty awesome trip you got there! Can’t imagine how it must be to listen to the blues in the middle of nowhere-Mississippi right near the famous Crossroads in Clarksdale.! When I was going from Memphis to New Orleans I was frankly not brave enough to go to Clarksdale on my own – I’d heard stories that it was a pretty rough place. Would have loved to visit Ground Zero though.!
Hearing the blues rolling across the fields at Dockery will stay with me forever. We did eventually get a picture of the Crossroads after a bit of junction hopping, causing Miss Scarlett’s satnav to get mightily confused.
As for Clarksdale, it generally seemed ok. We attracted a bit of attention at one of the strip malls, but nothing bad. And I think you’d be fine in Ground Zero at night on your own providing lovely Limo man is available to drop you back to base.
Yours sounds a fabulous trip. We’d originally considered New Orleans too, but we didn’t have enough days to make it anything more than a fleeting visit, and that didn’t seem right.
I know very little about Mississippi. So, this was really helpful and informative! I love how you focused on blues music and history. I will make sure to go to the Dockery Farm if I make it down there!
It’s worth getting lost for. 😉 The first time our satnav took us to another farm about 5 miles off the road. Just us and tumbleweed. But when we found the right place, it was so worth the journey.