Walking into Clarksdale
When Char and I entered Clarksdale, Mississippi on Saturday, April 23, 2011, we came with no agenda whatsoever. In what might have been our closest journey yet to a beatnik experience, we imagined ourselves traveling in a 1960’s VW Beetle rather than our SUV. The trip reminded me of words penned by Ray Bradbury some 61 years before…
“They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man… They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all…” – from “The Settlers” / The Martian Chronicles
We took our time entering town… stopping for breakfast with a friend I hadn’t seen in over 15 years, pulling over for photo opportunities when we passed Mississippi marshland, and purposely taking the long way, avoiding anything that even remotely appeared like a shortcut. Along the way, we prepared ourselves by listening to the sounds of Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Memphis Minne, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. When we finally arrived in downtown Clarksdale, we parked our car and took nothing but our camera and our passion for music, life, and each other and began to simply feel the town.
I believe there are three things you can do in a new town. You can “do” the town – see the attractions and visit the places seen on highway billboards. You can “experience” the town – this is when you discover what the locals really do. And you can “feel” the town – an altogether different encounter, difficult to put into mere words, when you find yourself immersed in a place’s history and its soul. Clarksdale was a town begging to be felt.
Our first impressions were almost cliche at first glance yet remarkably authentic upon observation. An elderly black man setting up for a one man blues jam outside a downtown cafe, a vintage guitar shop, a general store, an abandoned train depot. As we migrated from one end of the street to the other, we knew we had come upon something big that wouldn’t leave us anytime soon.
One of our first stops was to the trendy Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Clarksdale’s own celebrity, Morgan Freeman. We had a nice conversation with Nate, one of the assistant managers at Ground Zero, who invited us to check out the evening’s festivities with Stan Street and his Hambone Band. He also showed us around the club and shared with us personal stories of life in Clarksdale. He encouraged The Twosome to add our mark to a newly installed window… if you make it to Clarksdale, ask Nate why the window had to be replaced. I think you’ll enjoy the story. With black permanent markers, Char and I tattooed the window and continued our trek through town.
We met many interesting locals such as an artist who was hand carving a canoe made from a tree trunk and we met many tourists such as the drunk Australian wearing nothing but a pair of red Coca-Cola boxer shorts (he saw Char in her Indiana Jones hat, approached us, and asked her if she was from Australia… “No, New York,” she replied. “Is that nearby?” he asked. Considering his lack of sobriety, we didn’t feel it necessary to explore the concept of relative nearness. “It’s North of here.” We settled on the most basic of answers. “Rock on,” he said, raising beer and walking off.
In a recent article from A Luxury Travel Blog, the travel advisers reviewed the 10 most utterly unforgettable inns in the world. Only one of the 10 on the list was located in the USA… and it happened to be in Clarksdale, MS. It was The Shack Up Inn – and Char and I took the drive out to see it for ourselves. I’ll write a little about this place… but you’ll be happy to hear that we’ll be staying there for three days later this year and will feature this place prominently on our TV Show, A Day in the Life. Stay tuned for that!
OK… where do I begin? The Shack Up Inn is indeed unforgettable. But I suppose that largely depends on how much you remember at all once your stay has ended. The Shack Up Inn is perhaps best described by owners Guy Malvezzi and Bill Talbot: “The Ritz, we ain’t.”
The shacks that decorate the grounds of the compound (that’s what they call it) are true shotgun shacks. If you’re looking to stay in a posh room filled with amenities and a mint on the pillowcase, Guy and Bill might send you up the highway to nearby Tunica to stay in one of the chain hotels or casinos. The shacks on this compound, however, are equipped with bars and old rustic pianos, Victorolas and wash basins… and maybe, if you’re lucky, a cold one left over in the fridge from the guest who stayed there the night before.
Guests can kick back with live Delta blues, share a drink, and enjoy fellowship at the lobby… or just shoot the breeze with other visitors who come from all over the world to stay in this, um, resort. No. Compound. There, that’s better. There’s a courtyard in the middle of the shacks just outside the lobby where guest grill out together, party into the evening, and enjoy the great southern pastime of catching lightning bugs and swatting mosquitoes. Is there running water? Yes, both hot and cold. Do the roofs leak? Maybe if it rains hard enough. Get the picture?
When we approached Guy about filming a TV show there, we were met with a warm, friendly welcome. But that’s not the case for just anyone. National magazines, major media outlets, and prominent production firms have been declined and turned away. Sometimes they just don’t get The Shack Up Inn… or maybe they appeal to guests that shouldn’t stay there (to quote Guy, “if you haven’t at least felt good about a couple misdemeanors in your past, you might not want to stay here”). So why did The Traveling Twosome get the invitation? They think we’re twisted.
Yep, we handed Guy our card (the one many of our fans have received with our logo picture and website address on the full color front and the screen capture of Char and I wrestling in the ring in Little Rock for our TV show episode, “A Day in the Life of a Pro Wrestler” on the back). He took a look at the card, flipped it over, looked up at us. “Who won the match?” Char smiled, her now famous “girl power” starting to shine. “Who do you think?” she said, “I did. You think he could really stand a chance against me?”
Guy chuckled a nearly silent and very disturbing chuckle. “You’re twisted.” He walked over to his reservation system. “How many nights will you be here?”
We can’t wait to showcase this place for our TV show… which will be all about the Delta Blues and Clarksdale. We won’t tell you the dates when our trip is planned… but if you book a stay at the Shack Up Inn sometime this year, don’t be surprised if you run into Char and I. We’ll be the ones arm wrestling on the front porch of the shack, strumming guitar, and kissing long into the night under the moonlight. Stop by and say hello.
After setting the dates for the TV show, Char and I headed back downtown to get ready for Clarksdale nightlife. We decided to track down Stan Street who would be performing at Ground Zero Blues Club in a few hours. We found him at his art gallery and chatted for a while. From his birthplace to his art, from his music to his passions, we found that we had much in common and we enjoyed talking about our TV show, his artwork, and the blues. Stan Street agreed to be a part of our TV show to be filmed in Clarksdale and we exchanged contact information with him.
His gallery was a beautiful and eclectic array of art, curiosities, and music. There were instruments and amplification in one corner of the gallery and a bar at the back. In the evenings, Stan and his friends perform music right there in the gallery. The place has a warm, artsy feel that makes you want to sit down on one of the couches and share stories of the Delta while listening to Robert Johnson tunes.
Before we left his gallery, I learned that he and I had something else in common as well. I handed him one of our postcards (one of the same ones I mentioned before), and he took a quick glance. He looked up at Char. “Is that him you’re wrestling?” Yep. “You won, didn’t you?” Yep. He turned his glance over toward me then pointed to the back of his gallery where a boxing robe hung from a hook. “I used to box. I had a match once against a champion. SHE tore me up. I know how you feel, man.” Much in common, indeed.
We spent the next hour or two checking out record shops (yes, records… vinyl, that is), clubs, and stores that lined the streets of Clarksdale. We eventually settled into Ground Zero Blues Club for dinner. We expected to catch bands play at two places: Ground Zero to see our new friend, Stan Street, and Red’s, an authentic juke joint where you can catch the real deal performing the delta blues. Red’s came highly recommended by everyone. Everyone.
While eating dinner at Ground Zero and checking out the Southern Pecan dark beer from local brewery Lazy Magnolia, we found ourselves engrossed in conversations with a few locals who had approached us to find out who these two out-of-towners were who went by the name “The Traveling Twosome.” We talked – and laughed – for hours. Stan and his band went on and we continued to enjoy the evening… so much so that we never made it to Red’s. But it came with such a high recommendation that we plan on going back and hitting Red’s first on our next trip.
Clarksdale was just what we needed. We can’t wait to return… to get to know the locals more… to introduce them to The Traveling Twosome… to film our TV show… to attend the Juke Joint Festival and the Sunflower Festival… and to continue to feel the town and the music that has made it famous.