Our itinerary was ambitious, so after our boisterous morning in Mamou, we had to hit the road again.
After a spell we stopped off for a cheap bite at a fast food joint, and then it was my turn to take the wheel. I love driving, especially when the road is open and the speed is fast. We moved northward, surrounded by bayou and blue skies, up through Louisiana and the edge of Arkansas before crossing into Mississippi. The desolate terrain became the dominant attraction as we neared our destination. It was getting dark as we arrived in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a dusty town steeped in rich musical history. It was just about 8pm, with just enough time to get the key to our shack.
That’s right: shack.
This place, on Hopson Plantation (think: Cotton Pickin’ Blues) is called the Shack Up Inn. Jesse stayed here years ago, in the shack next door to the one we’d reserved, and he’d had nothing but good things to say. Our shack was labeled “Crossroad,” which was perfect, really. After all, Clarksdale is the home of the famed crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil. (In case you were wondering, it’s not exactly a sacred site. We went down to the crossroad…and there’s a gas station there now…)
The old sharecropper shack is amazing inside. There’s an old upright piano (the website calls it well-tuned, which sadly was the opposite of the truth), old cozy wood, relics from eras gone past, books full of writings by previous guests.
The Shack Up Inn manages to keep its authenticity, while still providing some comforts of modern life. Each shack is equipped with a microwave, fridge, coffee maker, indoor plumbing, heat/AC… there’s even free wifi.
But as their website makes clear, “the Ritz [they] ain’t!” If you’re looking for luxury, look elsewhere. But if you want to live some history, let loose, and enjoy yourself for a night or two, this place is perfect.
Clarksdale is by no means a big, bustling place. It was getting late that Saturday night, and the only food option we could find was a carry-out only place called Owens Soul Food. We ordered some chopped BBQ sandwiches and headed back to the shack to eat them out on the covered patio. The sandwiches were sloppy deliciousness.
After dinner we headed to Red’s, an original juke joint with live music on Saturday nights. We headed over, paid the $7 cover and were kindly led to two open seats. The music was what one goes there for, and there they delivered. Robert “Bilbo” Walker was fantastic to watch: an accomplished musician and quite the showman!
There’s cold beer for sale, the place is filled with smoke (but when you come places with smoking bans you notice this everywhere down south). Annoyingly, a giant TV was sitting right next to our table (muted at least), but horribly bright and distracting. Surprisingly, there seemed to be very few locals there… the majority of patrons being white, middle-aged, out-of-towners. If people find it necessary to frequently remind me what a historic, authentic experience I’m having, I’m increasingly skeptical. We were both a bit disappointed in that regard, but perhaps we were just there on the wrong night. Other reviews I’ve read online lead me to believe that the experience varies, so if I find myself in Clarksdale again, I’ll definitely give Red’s another try.
After sleeping soundly and comfortably in our little shack, we got up and sought some breakfast. If we thought late-night Saturday grub was hard to scrounge up, Sunday morning eats were damn near impossible to find. We ended up taking a 30 minute drive to Tunica, MS, where we visited Blue & White Restaurant. Sadly I didn’t bring my camera on this side trip, but we did snap some phone shots. Coloured true to its name, this charming place was full of people wearing their Sunday best. Though I usually steer clear of buffets, this one looked clean and delicious. Plus, it was only $10 a pop, and that included coffee and peach cobbler. The spread was a bounty of scrumptious Southern fare: fried chicken, turnip greens, roast beef, candied yams, cornbread, and the like. I hardly had room for that cobbler, but, I mean, I couldn’t not eat it, right?
After that we drove to Helena, Arkansas, a small town past its prime with a wealth of beautiful decay. As we strolled through the empty streets, I was especially sad not to have my camera, but it was nice just to walk around.
There are businesses to visit in Helena, but since it was Sunday, it seemed that everything was closed. The winds whipped across the fields as we drove back to Clarksdale, and by the evening, rain had set in.
The only place we could find open for dinner was Stony Pony Pizza. The expansive interior was a shock of clean modernity. There were big TVs showing the Bears game, and Wilco flowed from the speakers, reminding me I’d soon be visiting my dear Chicago home. We got a pepperoni & jalapeno pizza, some refreshing drinks, and a nice break from the downpour outside.
Our first night in the Crossroad shack was pretty quiet, save for a mouse. On the second night, as the place was pummeled by wind and rain, I fell asleep wondering if the shack was going to take off, and subsequently dreamt of Munchkins and Oz. Luckily (though a flying shack might have been cool… maybe), we stayed put. By morning it was bright and sunny, so we packed up the car and headed for Memphis.
P.S. If you want to hear a cool podcast about Robert Johnson’s legend, check out this episode of one of my very favourite radio shows, Radiolab.
We’re not done yet! Here’s the rest of the Blues, BBQ & Bourbon Roadtrip posts!:
Part 5 – Memphis & Nashville, Tennessee
Part 6 – Kentucky