Friday, August 3, 2007

Sleeping in again, we headed back into town at around eleven. Our goal today was Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous. We entered the restaurant in a manner that reminded me of descending the steps into a subway. Yet the dark environs within are cheerful, festooned with glowing reviews, movie star signatures, local memorabilia and street signs. At Rendezvous, the pork ribs are dry rubbed with lots of spices. Even I, a non-foodie, could detect the chili powder that adds a kick to the meat. On the side, we found sweet and spicy sauces. But the meat was tasty enough to eat without the wet stuff. I think my favorite part of the meal was the response to my request for some sweet tea; I received an entire pitcher alongside my glass. Around the South, that kind of hospitality is fairly commonplace. But as a Californian, I think that my region's ignorance of the bliss that is sweet tea is a dirty darn shame. Once we finished our lunch, we headed south of Memphis in search of the birthplace of the blues.

Our trail was Highway 61, the connecting thread between Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. We were headed for Clarksdale, birthplace of the blues (or at least the closest facsimile on our itinerary). While I'd heard various types of musical homage to this great road for years, from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon, I found the actual road to be a little depressing, at least at first. Leaving Memphis, every mile or so offered tacky billboards and gaudily fronted exits meant to draw travelers to gambling operations further west. I read somewhere that blues artists were sucked away from roots-places like Clarksdale for obvious and understandable reasons. I could imagine the "gaming" hucksters slapping together some iron sheds and chicken wire and stringing Christmas lights in their casino-hotels to recreate simulacra of the places we hoped to visit for real that evening. Of course, we would settle for simulations on this day anyway, the Wood Family occasionally being willing to abandon "authenticity" for convenience on our road trips.

After about an hour we turned off the highway in Clarksdale and headed for our night's accommodations: The Shack Up Inn. Now, let me preface this next comment with a piece of background. Our family has stayed in some pretty cool places. We've roomed in every teepee motel in the country, slept in an Airstream trailer transformed into a 50s-themed guest room, and stayed at an inn composed of tree houses. But we have never stayed in such a cool place as the Shack Up Inn. I mean, think about it: if you were visiting Clarksdale, Mississippi, mythical site of the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil for eternity to gain a few fleeting years of musical fame, and the stomping grounds of blues-greats like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, a place whose music arose from the tears and joys of the cotton fields, would you want to stay at a Motel 6? Well, if you would, Clarksdale may not be for you anyway. But if you want to experience something entirely different, the creators of the Shack Up cobbled together a rambling B&B that features sharecropper shacks.

For months Jenny and Vienna would roll their eyes when I'd mention our planned accommodations on this part of the trip. "Oh, great," they'd enthuse wanly, "sharecropper shacks!" But as soon as we entered our lodging for the night, a shotgun shack called the Pinetop Perkins, everyone agreed: this place is awesome. From its rickety floorboards to its oxidized tin roofs, our cabin was a delight of tiny surprises. There's no phone, but there is a television set -- that only plays blues music. There's an old icebox, with a can of beer chilling inside (a Colt 45 supposedly "left by previous guests"). And throughout the cabin we found old photos, historical amusements like stereopticon viewers and volumes of cards that form 3-D pictures, and memorabilia left by earlier tenants. Oh, and on both beds: moon pies. Since the Shack Up Inn also saw fit to add air conditioning and free wireless internet connection that somehow worked despite all those tin roofs, we were smitten.

Vienna decided to grab some rest, so Jenny and I headed into town to check out the Delta Blues Museum and the local Greyhound Station. I've always loved the look of art deco bus terminals, so a fellow who helps to run the Shack Up Inn called ahead and arranged for us to receive a personal tour. The Clarksdale terminal is a gem that had fallen upon hard times, but has recently been refurbished. Even its running dog lights up on some evenings, galloping in red neon. We also enjoyed our trip through the nearby museum. Along with audio-visual displays dedicated to famous and virtually unknown blues artists (some who had only been discovered in their later years by "blues researchers"), we were particularly intrigued by a collection of photographs entitled "Delta Dogs" that featured dogs found within local environments: junkyards, fields, lonely roads, and the like. Before long we headed back to the cabin, having planned to return that evening to Ground Zero, a renowned downtown blues joint.

As Jenny and I returned to our shack, someone invited us to head over to the commissary where a fellow shucked oysters. Before long we were hunched over a bar and chatting with folks about whatever came up, the conversation turning to its own peculiar rhythm. There was no particular order to whose oysters would be shucked first, so we waited for quite a while (I nursed a beer that someone offered) and shot the breeze. The funny thing was that we could never quite tell who owned this place, who were friends of the owners, and who were guests. Everyone relaxed into an impromptu chatting jam session that eschewed formality. Folks smoked, cursed, traded randy jokes, and passed the time. Jenny and I, typically folks who pass through places like this, settled into the group and visited. The fact that the oysters, nestled within ice filled trays, were delicious became incidental to the pleasures of this place.

That evening, Jenny, Vienna, and I returned to town and grabbed seats at Ground Zero. A bartender had suggested that we arrive by eight to ensure decent spots for the nine o'clock show, so we had plenty of time to dig our meals and enjoy our surroundings. The place's walls were covered with the writings and signatures of previous patrons. The musicians that evening were the house band, a hard working group that seemed to crank it up with every song. I was a bit bummed when the young guitarist singing "Kansas City" confessed to never having visited the town for which the song was named, and I began to question whether this experience was worth the $21 we paid. But when the lead guitarist/singer, "Big T," joined the band, with his deep resonating voice and fingers flying across the guitar, I knew that we'd made a good call. We stayed a couple of sets and decided we were ready to crash for the night.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood