Downtown in Clarksdale
There are no food or drink options with the Ground Zero apartments – hence the kitchen – it’s just a room. I’d decided against buying something in because I thought I’d eat breakfast in a local café for a change. So I eat at Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes just up the street, having read decent reviews on TripAdvisor of its “down to earth southern cooking and hospitality.”
I knew it wasn’t going to be 5* and it was the Delta equivalent of a greasy spoon café. What I didn’t expect was sunny-side up eggs not cooked through properly; hash browns cooked ‘brown’ on one side and still raw on the other; and toast that didn’t turn up until I asked where it was and when it did, had hardly seen the grill and was only buttered on a third of its surface. Poor would not describe it. Bad would. The service was also very slow. And it was not cheap either. Total including tip was $15. This was supposed to be cheap, cheerful and filling. Instead it was expensive, dreary and barely adequate. It was quite busy with tourists so its TripAdvisor reputation, which is definitely not deserved, still has an effect (I mean, I went because of it). But don’t go there. I wish I hadn’t.
Rock & Blues Museum
I return to the apartment and pack up, leaving when ready as there’s no-one around to check me out. A short drive up the street and I arrive outside the Rock & Blues Museum. It will forever be a source of mystery to me why I didn’t visit this place when I was last in Clarksdale. I clearly recall driving past it and thinking it looked a bit of a dump. It had also not come up on that trip’s research. The Museum had no web presence, no reviews – good or bad – and no information of any significance that I could find that indicated the place was worth visiting.
The other bizarre thing is that when my plans for Clarksdale changed on the day in 2013, and I decided to go to Red’s and see Wolfman Belfour, I ended up having to kill some 3 hours or so. Part of which I spent sitting in the car on Yazoo Ave reading my novel! Why I didn’t think to go back and have a closer look at the Museum I’ll never know… I guess in my mind I’d dismissed it as ‘not worthy’ because it hadn’t come across my radar. Maybe I should have just stopped outside and poked my head in the door. For this trip however I had found it, hence I’m here now.
And it turns out to be a treasure trove inside. The stuff they’ve got must be worth $$$. Acetates of early blues and rock’n’roll recordings; musician’s contracts from the 1930s; original LPs from way back in time; really old promotional materials… I could go on and on, there really is loads and loads of very interesting ‘stuff’.
Most of the explanatory info provided is for the Blues in the period 1920 to 1950, and that’s fine. The 60s and 70s exhibits are not as detailed. Those decades are mostly just memorabilia with little exposition. You can’t take photos either after the first exhibit room, which is disappointing. That said, the early blues stuff was very interesting and I learnt quite a bit I didn’t already know.
In many respects this place is better than the Delta Blues Museum I visited when last here. But I’m not visiting that place this time around and it might have improved in the past few years. But I remember being disappointed with it at the time. Anyhow, the Rock & Blues Museum is good and worth a visit. Pity I didn’t visit it 4 years ago, I’d have saved myself 90 minutes this time, which is what I spent in there!
Back On Old Highway 61
Which is time that I could have spent getting onto the Old Highway 61 North, towards Memphis. This was the section I had to miss last time because of staying on at Red’s until 10 pm, and then having to blast up the new Hwy 61 in the dark to get to my hotel before midnight. Today, by the time I get out of Clarksdale, the warm and sunny weather at breakfast has turned hot and sunny at 86º F. Hot. Damn hot.
Old Hwy 61 tracks the new road almost all the way to the outskirts of Memphis. The road is almost empty of traffic and it is dead-flat cotton fields country. I stopped by the roadside for a while to watch the cotton harvest being done by modern tractor-like machines. This section of Hwy 61 is just like the bits of the road I remember from south of Clarksdale. One lane either way, straight roads, the flat landscape of the Delta, with small towns every now and again. Just as it was “back in the day”.
I pull over at a few Mississippi Blues Trail markers that are on or near Old Hwy 61. The most significant for me was Abbay & Leatherman, Robert Johnson’s childhood home. The Gateway to the Blues Museum and Visitor Center at Tunica is quite a surprise. It’s very well presented with some exceptional items on display. It also tells the story of the blues well, filling in more stuff I again hadn’t heard of before. But then we never know everything, do we?
The Center is located on the new Hwy 61 and it was frankly a bit of a struggle to get to it from the old road, but I found it eventually. Once done I head back west ‘inland’ to find the old road again to finish off my missing section. As ever, it’s so much nicer travelling through the farmlands and communities than just cruising by on the freeway or interstate. In Tunica I was held up for a few minutes by a funeral cortege of 50-plus police cars, obviously for a passed or fallen colleague. I also regularly had to move over or make way on the road for large farming vehicles going about their daily lives. They were so big they took up more than one side of the road. Again I saw people doing what they do in their daily lives, which is so different to my usual daily life.
I really liked and enjoyed this part of the day on Old Hwy 61, it was a re-affirmation of why I go off-track whenever possible. I stopped at a gas station in Walls for a sandwich. The old road comes to an end soon after and merges into the new one. The “new” road is though looking a bit tired in places these days on the way up to Memphis. Once in the Memphis suburbs I start looking for a left turn to take me across the Mississippi River and into Arkansas, which eventually I find.
Over The Mississippi Into Arkansas
I’d worked out a non-Interstate route to get me to Little Rock for tonight’s stop-over, but soon realise after a few miles on US-70 W, just west of West Memphis, that it’s literally parallel to I-40 W. The two roads are only a few hundred yards apart. So I’m not seeing anything different by being on US-70 W but am suffering the downside of traffic signals and slow moving trucks. I’m also behind schedule as well, having taken longer than I planned at the Museum and Visitor Center earlier, plus on Old Hwy 61.
So I decide to get onto I-40 W. As I travel on this I keep seeing US-70 W to my left so I know I’m not missing out on anything, and I’m going faster. Anyway, to be blunt, a few towns in the middle of Arkansas are not really why I’m here. This is the regular conundrum with America. Some towns are indistinguishable from the next one, whilst others give you a surprise. You just have to roll the dice. This time Arkansas lost out to the Interstate and I may have missed something in the places I bypassed, but that’s life. I was late and needed to make up some time. But as I get near to Little Rock I figure I’m back on track time-wise and decide to drive the last 30 miles or so on US-70 W. And I’m glad I did.
South on Hwy 31 and I enter Lonoke and stop for gas. After turning right onto US-70 W the scenery shifts as I pass catfish farms, drive through forests, the road bending and twisting – all the things the Interstate doesn’t do. But sometimes only the Interstate will do. It’s a really good end to the day’s drive though.
River Market in Little Rock
As Little Rock approaches I end up back on an Interstate to get me to my hotel, which as it happens, sits right beside it downtown. My room actually looks out onto it. When I pull up into the car park at nearly 6 pm it’s still hot at 86º F, having got up to 90º F in the middle of the afternoon. The skies are clear and blue. Checked in and rested up, I use the hotel’s minibus shuttle to take me to River Market, the entertainment district.
I must say that these free shuttles to transport guests around are a welcome development from downtown hotels. I ask to be dropped off at Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack, which was advertising live music tonight. Which I then find out is not on until 10 pm. As it’s only 8 pm I decide to go elsewhere and come back later. The doorman though has no idea of the band’s musical style but they are doing a sound check and it seems OK.
So I move on and walk down President Clinton Avenue to Willy D’s Rock’n’Roll Piano Bar. Having seen good reviews online earlier I go in and am swiftly challenged by the two ladies on the door for ID. Yet another “Are you serious?” remark from me is met with a polite but firm “Yes”. Whereupon my UK Driving Licence freaks them out as they spend a few minutes trying to work where my date of birth is on it…
“I’ve never seen one of these before,” one of them says. Well I never, I think, you have now. They eventually work it out and let me in. Luckily I get a table reasonably near the pianos. A waitress appears to take my order of beer and BBQ pulled pork nachos – no ribs or burgers tonight! The waitress says it’s big and when it turns up, that’s an understatement. It could feed an army. I only manage to eat about half of it. It’s very good, but what a waste of food. They called it an ‘appetizer’ – no way!
Duelling Pianos Get The Crowd Dancing
The pianos get a change of players and then one of the others plays drums or guitar at times, which is good because it adds variety to the music. They take a while to warm up the crowd – the place is very busy – but once it gets going, it’s good fun. The atmosphere gradually builds such that by 10 pm it’s really great, everyone’s buzzing, singing along, some are dancing – and I’m torn about whether to stay or head back to Stickyz.
But I decide that in my quest for new musical experiences, depart I must. After all, whilst it’s good, it’s just a piano bar with Billy Joel’s Piano Man being played to a bunch of increasingly drunk people. Which as I say, is good, but it’s not going to change the world. 🙂
Sadly, neither will the Ben Miller Band. Back at Stickyz, there’s a $10 cover to get into the lounge where that band is now on stage. Which is steep enough but when I peer in and see there are about 6 people watching them – yes, the room is practically empty – I opt out of parting with my cash. I go and sit in the bar in the restaurant and order a beer.
The music is that loud however that I can hear it perfectly well in the bar – so there’s no need to pay the cover charge. Even more so as the music continues. Stickyz’s website described the band as a “one of a kind quartet.” Indeed. I have a better description. Absolute crap.
It’s just noise. There are no tunes to speak of, nothing of musical merit whatsoever that makes me want to stop watching the frankly more interesting baseball on the TV and go in and watch Mr Miller’s outfit live. I wish him well but I suspect we’ll never hear anything of him or his band again, which will be a good thing for mankind.
Enough, I think, after a while, and I summon the hotel shuttle to pick me up. Gosh, this hotel’s shuttle actually works and 5 minutes later I am being transported ‘back home’ for the night. A short 5 minute drive and we’re there, and soon after that I’m in bed and falling asleep.
What a wild and varied day. A museum. Old Highway 61. The Visitor Centre. A diverse drive through Arkansas. And some different, and again varied, music. Bizarre in places, but wonderful. More please.