Road trip: Motoring to the deep South, hungry for the blues

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O P I N I O N


Outside Bad Apple Blues Club


This story starts in Atlanta, amid the sprawling stench of urine-soaked streets near the Peachtree/Alabama block of the city, where myself and two other travelers were staying at a hotel that even the valet attendant warned us, “This is a bad neighborhood, man. The $40 is worth it.  Trust me.”

And the desk clerk agreed when we asked her about getting a pizza delivered to this part of town. “Honey,” she said. “Ain’t no one gonna deliver pizza down here.”

And the man outside our 17th-floor window confirmed their stance as he continued yelling throughout the day and night, “Jesus is gonna fuck you up!”

Likely. But give it a rest!

We were in Atlanta to see the Rolling Stones and to start our trip through three southern states in three days.  First, cutting a two-lane track for hours through the middle of nowhere Alabama to get to the world-renowned FAME recording studios in Muscle Shoals by eleven in the morning for a tour.

Then, we would meander further south to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where a small shack on the former Hopson Plantation, now called the “Shack Up/Cotton Gin Inn,” awaited us.

And small jars of homemade peach moonshine and peach cobbler and hearty plates of deep-fried pecan pie and catfish sandwiches and magic gumbo would fuel our lust for the deep blues pouring out into the shackled streets and dilapidated buildings in the middle of the Delta.

Pure beauty.

Atlanta, for me, was a bust.

The day started at 3:30 a.m. as I hurried to get to the Manchester, NH, airport for a ridiculously early flight.  I was a mile down the road from my home when I got pulled over by a local officer at 4 a.m. for doing 40 in a 25 mph zone.  Not a good start.  No ticket, just a warning.   Phew.

I can break down Hotlanta as such.  One: I’ll never go back.  Two: The Stones are still good, the aging cougars are still hungry to whip out their tatas and I have never seen a man in his late 70s look so fine dancing ’round in a belly shirt for hours.

The “hours” part of that sentence I was only guessing, because I left the Mercedes- Benz Stadium eight songs into the show.  Crowds, as I get older, mess me right up.  Make me feel claustrophobic, anxious and distracted.  I like to lean into a rock show, put my mind right into it, let my imagination wander.  But this crowd was massive, stacked from the highest girder to the slickest floor seat. What seemed like millions of Stones fans sang along to every word, rocking their hips, bending their jaws to match Mick’s and Keith’s ageless bellowing.

Time is most definitely on their side.

But, it was just too overwhelming.  So I bolted back to our lousy hotel, crossing paths with the wicked, with the shitty, with the bruised and forgotten, and made it back to our 17th-floor crib and waited to be woken up by my buddies who stayed for the whole show.

Enough about Atlanta. Maybe I just caught a bad whiff that night.

The morning broke with my bearded buddy, Ohio, cranky as all hell, sneering at us to brew some coffee, to get the car from the valet, to shut the hell up.

“Hey, baby,” I said.  “Time to shove off. We got a four-hour ride ahead of us, so comb the night out of your beard.  Linda Hall at Muscle Shoals is awaiting our arrival.”

“Eat a bag of dicks,” is all he said, turning over in bed.  Rude.

Hours later, as Ohio was still on the snide from a lack of caffeine, he swung through an empty parking lot just outside Muscle Shoals. “Damn Dunkin Donuts isn’t even open!” he wailed, spit building on his fuzzy stache.  “Look at this place. It’s empty!”

“I think that’s because you’re in an Arby’s parking lot,” I informed him.  That one was a lay-up.

Through miles and miles on a two-lane highway in Alabama, Ohio and Lou set up shop in the front seat, playing tunes and packing bats of smoke, all while busting my stone for leaving the show.   Bothered me none, these two humps, giddy in their failed attempts.

Out of boredom, Lou was getting the occasional backrub by me from the backseat. He would give an orgasmic moan as I worked his splintered spine with a deep tissue fingering.  Then, again out of boredom, I’d spit on three fingers and slap his ear good and red.  That set him off and killed some time.

Yes, we both are in our 50s.

Inside Studio A

Ten minutes before eleven, we arrived at the famous FAME studios where The Allman Brother, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, as well as countless others, all recorded hits that made them rich and unforgettable forever.   The place smelled eclectic and homey, like shadows of the past were permanently cast into the shag rugs and wood walls fit with plaques and records and picture frames of soul heroes who delivered historic performances within these doors, right where we’re standing, their breath still steaming off the mics.

Linda Hall, the gracious wife of the late/great music pioneer and full-blown ass-kicker, Rick Hall, greeted us upon arrival.  Mr. Rick opened FAME studios back in 1959 and went on to record legions of hits. Changed the landscape of music, as does happen, forever.  Linda still works at the studio daily where they regularly have recording sessions. They were having one that day.
Inside Rick Halls office
Piano used by Aretha Franklin and other artists
Ground Zero
The staircase you DID NOT want to be called up by Mr. Rick.

Mr. Rick passed away a few years back, but the staff still speak of him as if he might start yelling from his legendary office upstairs, calling some poor musician or tech or manager up the narrow staircase where an ass-whoopin’ was about to be laid down.

“Are you the journalist from New England?” Linda asked me when we arrived.

“I guess so,” I said, never quite knowing how to answer that question.

“Good, we’ve been waiting for you.”
I had spoken to Linda earlier in the week when she told me tours start at nine in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.  But, as mentioned, the simply wonderful Linda, held the tour up for us so we could join them.   Southern hospitality at its finest, I tell ya.
The tour was led by a woman very pregnant with twin boys, Sasha Irving, a terrific guide, who started us with a 15-minute video about the history of the FAME.  It breaks down all the wins and losses of Mr. Rick, and his vision to take his recording studio to unprecedented heights, combining rhythm and soul and blues and locking it all in with a sound that can never be reproduced.  A sound birthed by a group of white musicians called The Swampers – nasty boys with a beat born to deliver, in a tone unseen, undaunted, unrepeatable – in this little place, shook from these walls, these wood floors, these shingles of love and trouble.
After the video, the group was led into Studio A, where the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, recorded her first hit in 1967, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You).  Where Jimmy Hughes’s “Steal Away” was recorded.  Where Wilson Pickett sang “Land of 1,000 Dances.”  Magic, I tell you.  Pure Magic.   The details were simple, the studios looked fairly basic, beyond the supreme glow coming from all corners of the room, in the lights, up in the cedar wall slats, from the bones of the Wurlitzer electric piano.
Ohio in Red Lounge

But we had to move on.

“Three and half hours, that’s it, Ohio,” I told him, comfortably numb from the tour – and the bats – from the backseat.  “Sunset in Clarksdale. Let’s see if this she-mobile can move.”

And we covered some ground quickly.  As we listened to a book on tape of Keith Richards, “Life,” we settled in for what we really came down South for: to disappear for a couple days, to get lost and to hear some fucking blues, straight up, unstirred.  And eat the shit out of this town.

We landed in C’ Dale, 70 miles south of Memphis, to find our brother from home, Brady, comfortably planted at the Shack Up Inn’s commissary bar, nursing a cold brew. He had that look in his eye, the look that asks, “Where the hell am I, guy?”  He came over from his life in Arkansas.  But this wasn’t Arkansas.  This is home, baby, for today.
Our shack at the Shack Up Inn called “Sunset”

We watched glory set through a gap between eight or so shacks surrounding us as we hung at a picnic table in the common yard, sipping beer, decompressing from the seven-hour ride.  Lou was cleaning leftover spit out of his ear when he confessed.  “Okay, guy.  This place is something else. Never seen anything like it.”  Sure is Sweetness.

We got to roaming quickly, settling in at Ground Zero, a staple if you come to Clarksdale, one of many.  People by the thousands come to this area every year from around the world, Europe especially, to bask in a part of America that could disappear if left out of sight for too long.  Places like Clarkdale, like Cat-Head, like Reds Lounge and Ground Zero, like the Shack Up and Bad Apple Blues Bar, keep the spirit of the blues alive, if only by a thread.

Welcome to C’ Dale, MS

Look around the town and you might shutter at the sights.  Burnt-out buildings, rubble everywhere, cars driven without front ends.  And I mean no front ends!  Just engines!

But people bought into Clarksdale, not so much literally, but because the vibe was too powerful to ignore.  People from everywhere quit their lives elsewhere to come and live and promote Clarksdale. People sold their lot for Clarksdale. Something told them to just go.  So they came here, to this place so desolate yet so alive.  So broken but so fully formed.  So old yet so wise.

We drank more beer and listened to the Bill Abel Blues Band at Ground Zero and this guy could smash it, playing a disgustingly greasy guitar.  The bassist was so locked in the pocket I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.  The drummer was crushing it in beat.  And the catfish sandwich I stuffed my face with caused my tongue to wag wildly at the spectacle before us.
Inside Bad Apple Blues Club.

After a quick dash back to our “Sunset” shack to repack the bat and readjust, we sipped drinks on our front porch with the night stretched out before us, dark and wide and dead quiet, except for the big wheelers hissing on the interstate beyond.  Next, we’d head to a juke joint known as the temple of blues down here, Red’s Lounge.

Red, The Don of the Blues in C’ Dale, was camped out in a big chair in the back of his tiny lounge.  His dark shades hid behind his white hooded sweatshirt and matching sweatpants.  His face was padded in white.  His eyes were locked on a basketball game he was watching.  Red paid no mind to bluesman, Lucious Spiller, who was tearing it up in a chair in the middle of the floor, just in front of his drummer and feet away from his bassist, a man from Connecticut who moved to Clarksdale for all this.

We took our time at Red’s, basking in Lucious’s presence, in the campy feel of the joint, in the sidewalk scene taking place just outside where someone was selling jars of fruit moonshine, which we bought and drank.  Dang, son.  The shine slid down our throats, never bitter or gassy, just smooth, like a juicy peach.

The next morning, as we cleared the cobwebs out of our mouths, we drank coffee from our front porch, recounting what we saw and felt and experienced, so far.  And we were hungry, again, for some southern fare.  So we went to the Bluesberry Cafe Back Alley Bar to perch our gurgling bellies.  Lucious, known as one of the hardest working bluesmen in the Delta, was back at it, playing on a new stage, tiny as it was, where he entertained the small crowd as we chowed down on pork chops and eggs and Spanish omelettes.

From there, we went to Bad Apple Blues Bar, another juke joint on another broken street in Clarksdale, where the marketing only goes as far as a can of spray paint, with LIVE BLUES dashed in white on a rusty wall just outside.

Inside, though, class was in session.  Sean “Bad” Apple, the owner of the juke, dressed in a shiny purple shirt and pants, was hosting an informal gathering of tourists.

Apple played alongside his straight man and harp player, David, who was in a wheelchair and just learned to play the harmonica seven months back by practicing four hours a day.  Apple played us some delicious Junior Kimbrough and Robert Johnson and Bukka White.  He schooled the crowd on the history of the blues, how it was played, why it was played, where and when it was played.  It was terrific, both educational and entertaining, with the style and charisma of Mr. Apple shining bright alongside the baby blue Christmas lights strewn throughout the juke.

Oh, and guess who showed up to play a song or two?  Yup, Luscious.  Guess that’s how he got so good.

Early the next morning, as Sweetness and Ohio bumped asses in bed, I was up, showered and only hungry for home.  We did it again, firmly planted ourselves in the Delta and took a big bite out of Clarksdale to bring home with us.  I fell in love all over again with the majesty and magnetism of the Delta, the south.  We did it all, or as much as we could, and let the vibe take us.  We didn’t dictate shit.  It’s unexplainable.

Just go.  Really.  Just go.