Upon entering the bathroom to wash and get ready for the day I discover there is no hot water. A call to reception confirms this – their boiler has broken and they’ve no idea when it might get fixed. Profuse apologies but there is nothing they can do. The ‘hot’ water’s not freezing cold thankfully, just cold to tepid, so I have a quick wipe down with a flannel, but don’t bother with a shave today. 🙂
Breakfast is good again. They have fresh strawberries and blackberries along with banana for my bowl of yoghurt. Yum! On checkout I ask about compensation for the lack of hot water and the lady hands me the manager’s business card. She’s not there this morning but tells me to email her. It’s strange the manager’s not on site given the problem though.
[Sidenote: I did contact the manager and after a bit of negotiation – she initially says she can’t compensate me because I paid Booking.com for the room, which wasn’t true, as I pointed out – she agrees to fully refund one night of my stay, so kudos to her and Hampton Inns for doing the right thing.]
On the road again and it’s overcast as I drive off, but warm. My Maps route ‘off-grid’ takes me on a strange back road called Gunwaleford Road after turning off AL-20 W but it has no designated route number. I soon recognise something however in the fields to either side. Cotton fields in bloom! I stop and have a bit of a wander and take some pictures. Memories of Highway 61!
Cotton fields on Gunwaleford Road
A Great Drive on the Natchez Trace Parkway
A few miles on and Maps then saves the day as it tells me to turn right down what is unmarked road. There’s no sign to turn and you should never blindly follow a sat nav, right? But I end up on the Natchez Trace Parkway. I remember choosing this route over standard highways because the name sounded prettier. 🙂
And what a slice of luck that was. What a road to drive on! It’s similar but different from other Parkways in that there are no traffic signals and very few other junctions on and off the road. Where it differs is that it’s almost all just one lane each way and it goes through thick forests, with some open sections, plus long and languorous sweeping curves. There are no hairpins here and there are gentle inclines over hills – no 20% gradients either. It’s just an amazing road and drive. And fast. There’s very little traffic for most of the journey, and what there was is generally moving quickly.
Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge
But I am moving more quickly… I can’t remember the advertised speed limit but it was around 70 mph I think. With excellent visibility ahead on the road and little traffic, a good speed – obviously without being daft about it – could, and was, maintained. It’s a great drive, highly recommended. I did the middle section of the Parkway. The road actually starts near Nashville and carries on further south after I turned off it. Which I do because I’m heading towards Tupelo, the city of Elvis’ birth, my destination this morning. Earlier, soon after crossing the Tennessee River, I entered Mississippi.
Natchez Trace Parkway
I arrive on Elvis Presley Drive in Tupelo and exit the car at the Elvis Presley Birthplace into blue skies and sunshine. The forecast predicted this and it’s warming up nicely as well, already into the high 70s. I purchase the ‘everywhere’ ticket that gets me into everything: his house, the museum and his church. I’m not an Elvis fanatic but this visit completes my previous Memphis odyssey to Sun Studio and Graceland.
The house where Elvis was born in (and his still-born twin brother Vernon) was saved – not sure by who – many years ago and the whole area around it, which was fully residential, has been cleared and transformed into the attraction it is today. The house itself is original but nothing inside is: it’s been recreated with original period items to look as it might have done when Elvis and his family lived in it. It’s a two room ‘shotgun shack’ and there’s a little old lady sitting in a chair in the first room – the sleeping room with a bed – when you open the door. She’s a guide and she must be bored out of her mind because she repeats the same spiel to everyone who enters, word for word. I heard her say it 3 times in the 10 minutes or so I was in there. The second room was living space: kitchen, table and chairs. There’s no Elvis memorabilia inside, it’s just a 1930s house but of course it had a slice of history happen within its walls.
There was an outhouse out back – a shithouse – but that did not survive and has not been re-created. Which might be a blessing. Anyway, the house is a historical monument, having the actual room into which Elvis was born. So I’ve been in that room. As have 1000s of others, of course.
They Moved Elvis’ Church
The church experience is a bit weird if I’m honest. The building is the actual church that Elvis attended as a child whilst living in Tupelo before the family left for Memphis when he was 13. A few years ago, having fallen into disrepair, the church was moved from its original location just down the street – they’ve got film of it being transported on the back of a (very large) truck. It was placed on the birthplace site, then renovated. The walls are the original timbers but a lot of the rest of the building had to be replaced.
So you sit in the pews facing front and the altar, the doors and windows are then shut, and the lights dimmed. The ‘experience’ is a film that attempts to show you the sort of influences that came to shape Elvis’ life, the church being a very important one. His goal in life as a teenager was to join a gospel quartet and make a living that way. That, thankfully, didn’t happen. The film is a re-creation of a typical church service on a Sunday. It is projected onto a front screen that comes down from the ceiling and also onto the walls, attempting to make you feel as if you’re in the congregation and part of the service. The people on screen are actors dressed in period clothes and the film portrays how music was an integral part of a service, with folks playing guitars and singing.
Inevitably there’s also a religious element to the content – it is a 20 minute segment of a church service after all – but on reflection I think the balance was just about right in terms of not turning the thing into a preachy religious sermon.
Outside into the sunshine again and into the museum. This has many artefacts that Elvis gave one of his staff over the years. There’s also some good background details on what his early life in Tupelo would have been like. It’s very well done. The focus is just on his early years, highlighting what might or could have influenced him. So there’s nothing about Sun, Graceland or Las Vegas. Which is the right decision I think. It’s well balanced, offering ideas as to what might have made him the man he became. No photos allowed inside though, which was a shame.
There’s a modern chapel on the site as well, dedicated to Elvis, plus various other items around the grounds like trail markers and statues. I then walked up to the ‘Becoming’ area as they call it, up the hill at the back, where there are two statues. After that, it’s back down the hill. There’s nothing worth buying in the gift shop, so it’s time to depart, everything seen. It’s a very good exhibit and I’m glad I made the effort to go. You should too.
There’s a status of Elvis in the centre of Tupelo which I’d read about so I set out to find that, which I do, taking a photo or two, then go in search of lunch. A Phillips 66 gas station on the main Tupelo strip has a mart attached. The chicken salad sandwich I buy is pretty horrible though because the bread is sweet cornbread, the salad is creamy coleslaw that is also sweet. It’s like eating sugar. In need of some sustenance I manage to eat most of the filling and a little of the bread before dumping the rest.
Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale
Highway 278 on the way to Clarksdale
Back to Clarksdale now, last visited on my Highway 61 trip. It’s an average drive there, nothing spectacular but pleasant enough. I’m smack in the middle of the Delta again now and the landscape is flat and the roads are generally straight. A couple of towns slow down progress where the traffic gets heavier but I eventually arrive at the Ground Zero Blues Club around 5 pm.
Before checking in though I drive up the road to find the Riverside Hotel. This place is legendary in the history of the blues and I tried to stay there as it’s supposedly still open. But trying to communicate with the current proprietor, Zee, was a nightmare. She initially never replied to emails or website contact forms, which I sent about 3 or 4 times. Then she finally replied a month later by email saying she had been ill and had temporarily closed the hotel. But it’s now open again and do I want to stay?
By this time I’d already booked a room at the Delta Cotton Company Apartments, which are above Ground Zero, because I needed something sorted out in advance. But I knew I could cancel this room up to 2 days ahead. So I responded to Zee again saying yes, this is my date (which she got wrong when she’d eventually replied to me), please confirm. But I never heard from her again. I even phoned twice (from the UK!), leaving messages asking her to reply, but nothing. I concluded that she must have become ill again or something. Plus, I realised by this time that even if she did reply, she was clearly very unreliable. Could I be certain I’d have a room waiting on the night? No. So I gave up chasing her and kept the Delta Cotton apartment.
When I pull up outside the hotel, it’s almost a wreck. Very run down, locked up and no signs of life. I knew it was externally in a bad condition from online reviews but it looks really, really bad. I’m actually glad I didn’t stay there. But I hope it recovers, given its place in blues history. I pass Red’s Blues Club on my way back to Ground Zero, the Delta Cotton Company Apartments being converted loft apartments above the Club. There are 7 rooms in total, and mine is very well appointed: spacious, full kitchen and a good bathroom. This was definitely a better option than any hotel in Clarksdale, all of which have got terrible reviews on TripAdvisor.
I go back down to the Club around 7 pm, an hour before the music is due to start in order to grab a bar seat near the stage. As it turns out it wasn’t that busy that evening. But later on when I got up to take a photo in front of the stage some dickhead nicked my bar stool and sat on it! Despite my beer, glasses and dinner plate being on the bar where my stool was! He quickly gave it back when I growled at him…
The Writing’s On The Wall – Literally
I had the Jukin’ Blues burger on Beth the bartender’s recommendation. On arrival it was cooked but not hot, just barely warm. I considered sending it back but given it was thoroughly cooked through, I ate it. It was actually very tasty, and certainly recommended. Beth told me it was one of the favourite items on the menu. The walls – and almost everything else – inside the Club are covered with writing from guests. The only place that wasn’t was inside the apartment – I was warned it was not allowed in there.
This all started on opening night. The Club opened in 2001 and Morgan Freeman, joint owner of the Club – yes, that Morgan Freeman – named it Ground Zero as “the starting point for the blues.” The place was absolutely rammed that night with hardly any room to move. When someone complained, Freeman grabbed a marker pen and drew a pair of feet on a wall and proclaimed, “There will always be somewhere to dance at Ground Zero.” Whereupon everyone started to write and draw on the walls with their own bon-mots and witty remarks. Or just “I woz ‘ere.” So from opening night onwards the walls, bar top and tables gradually became completely covered with writing. Today they even provide the pens to encourage you!
Lucious Spiller and His Band – And Guests
The band tonight is Lucious Spiller and his Band but it’s also open mic night. When just Lucious and his band play they are excellent, top and tailing the show with tunes such as Hey Joe with a Star Spangled Banner coda, Purple Rain (again – everyone’s playing this now that Prince is dead), House Of The Rising Sun, Let’s Stay Together and (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.
Watch a short clip of Lucious and his band play that night here on YouTube.
For open mic night a drummer took over from Lucious’ man after a few songs and did a long stint, seeming to acquit himself well. Then a rather portly young lady – no names of any guest musicians tonight I’m afraid – sang three songs but she was a bit of a shrieker, with not much finesse. Not awful by any means, just average. A guy probably in his late 20s is next up. He sings and plays guitar. He’s quite a talented guitarist, showing off some good licks and solos, and is not a bad singer either. He gets a slot of about 20 minutes, longer than anyone else, and overall he is very good. Lucious left the stage when he started playing but then returns to add some vocals later. Last up is some old dude with a guitar – mid-60s I guess – who also did three songs but he again was decidedly average. Not terrible by any stretch and it probably made his year by being on stage at Ground Zero. Lucious and his band then close out the night on their own, after which I head upstairs to bed. Another excellent day on the road.
I took a short video of “talented guitarist” playing that night and it’s here on YouTube.
All in all overall it was a good, if not brilliant, night of music. I guess that’s an open mic night for you but it was great to be inside Ground Zero and hear some blues. I needed to go to the apartment briefly when the band was playing. They do warn you about this on the apartment booking website but there is no way anyone, even wearing earplugs, could sleep when a band’s onstage. It’s very loud upstairs. On Thursdays, my night, the music stops at 11 pm but on the weekends it goes on until 2 am. You have been warned if you ever decide to stay there!