A Blues and Barbecue Trek: Memphis and the Delta

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Tuesday 12th October 2010
In this article
  • Where to hear the region’s authentic music live.
  • Where to get the region’s best barbecue.
  • Must-see historic blues and rock sites.
A Blues and Barbecue Trek: Memphis and the Delta

The guitarist puts his bottleneck-clad pinky to the neck of his Stratocaster and lets loose with a blistering lick. The rest of the band kicks in on a rollicking shuffle. Your waitress arrives with a rack of sizzling, glistening ribs. They’ve been coated with a dry rub, but they ooze that pungent slow-roast juice. You look at your SharpWoman, smile, and say, "Well, baby, we’re in the heart of it all now."

Welcome to Memphis and the north Mississippi delta, the cradle of blues and its love child, rock and roll, and the world capital of barbecue. Robert Johnson, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley and countless other musical giants came from these parts. Consider a trek to Memphis and the Mississppi delta to hear and taste what fired their souls:

Hearing the Real Deal

The vibe. The blues and roots-rock in this area are as authentic as you’ll find anywhere. The bands that perform haven’t picked up a lot of the fancy adornments that the rest of the world has added to the mix. They’re generally small and use straightforward instrumentation.

In Memphis. You’ll find most of this music on a three-block strip of Beale Street, just south of downtown. The current clubs opened in the last 20 years or so, but they’re housed in the same buildings in which the blues developed many years before.

At the King’s Palace Café (162 Beale Street; 901-521-1851), jazz and blues emanate from a side room adjacent to the main dining room. On a recent visit, this SharpMan writer heard a trio consisting of a vocalist behind a big, throaty Hammond B-3 organ, a trumpeter and a drummer.

At B. B. King’s Blues Club (143 Beale Street; 901-524-5464) you can hear live music in a spacious setting. Sometimes the talent is a big-name act, such as hometown soul instrumentalists Booker T. and the MGs. Don’t forget to order a mountainous plate of deep-fried pickle slices, served with a side of tartar sauce.

The Blues City Café (138 Beale Street; 901-526-3637) is a bustling place right across the street from B.B. King’s. The set-up is similar to that of the King’s Palace in that live blues is played in the eatery’s Band Box room.

In the delta. The live music in the Mississippi delta happens in juke joints, which are a little different from nightclubs. They’re generally smaller and more sparsely furnished. Sometimes one finds card tables and folding chairs and bare light bulbs. The towns in the delta are small, as well, and often there’s not much to distinguish the local juke joint from the surrounding buildings. You should also note that the jukes open and close and change names rather frequently.

SharpMan Tip: Be respectful of the culture you find here. It’s retained a uniqueness that goes back to the days when the area was the Cotton Belt and inhabitants didn’t often stray far from home. You’ll find a warm welcome if you make some attempt to blend in and keep an open mind.

In Clarksdale, avail yourself of some deep boogie at Sarah’s Kitchen (208 Sunflower Avenue; 662-627-3239). Sarah’s features local performers; it was open at the time of this posting, but you should probably call before heading out.

Front Street in Ruleville, also known as "Greasy Street," has traditionally been home to many juke venues. Lenora’s Lounge, the Top Ten, the Black Castle and Club 21 are venues all open at the time of posting. Call ahead, ask around or just show up and you’re bound to find some great music on Greasy Street.

Where to Get Your Fingers Greasy

In Memphis. In town, the undisputed barbecue Shangri-la is The Rendezvous (52 South Second Street; 901-523-2746). It’s located across from the Peabody Hotel (which is famed for the live ducks in its lobby), in an alley behind the Days Inn, down some stairs. The Rendezvous serves the basics: ribs, beans, slaw and beer, but with a panache that’s the envy of the mid-South. The Rendezvous is closed on Mondays.

Corky’s Bar-B-Q (5259 Poplar Avenue; 901-685-9744) is also worth checking out. It wins frequent raves for authenticity.

In Clarksdale. If you can only stay long enough for one barbecue meal, you should have it at Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 North State Street /Highway 61; 662-624-9947). It looks like your basic diner, but Abe’s is home to some of the best mop-style ribs in the delta. The clippings on the walls are fun to read, too. Abe’s has drawn praise from a variety of food and travel writers, as well as musicians, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

If you can squeeze in a second repast in this historic town, you may want to try Boss Hogg’s BBQ, also on Highway 61 (1410 North State Street; 662-627-5264).

Back to the Roots

In Memphis. Of course, most visitors in Memphis flock to Graceland, but to gain a true understanding of The King, you must also tour Sun Studio (706 Union Avenue; 800-441-6249). This unassuming two-story brick building housed several other businesses between the studio’s heyday and its revival as a museum (and fully operational, busy, state-of-the-art recording facility). Not only was the rockabilly sound pioneered here, but in the very early 1950s, such bluesmen as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Ike Turner cut early sides here. You can hear Elvis’s very first demo and even touch the microphone into which he sang (oh, yeah).

In Clarksdale. Your starting point among northern Mississippi’s treasures of musical heritage should be the Delta Blues Museum (114 Delta Avenue; 662-627-6820). Basically a remodeled train station that once took many a bluesman to points north, the museum is filled with artifacts and photographs, but its main attraction may be the map of nearby historic sites you can buy in the gift shop. This map will direct you to landmarks, including the graves of Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, and the Dockery Plantation (a former cotton operation beside State Road 8 , complete with ghosts of long-gone shouters and pickers). You can even visit the site used in the movie Crossroads to recreate the spot where Robert Johnson allegedly made his deal with the devil.

How to Get There

Interstates 40 and 55 will get you to Memphis from just about any direction. If you fly in, land at Memphis International Airport; it’s just outside I-240, the beltway around the city, on the south side. If you take Airways Road north to I-240 and take I-240 west, you’ll head into downtown, where the main action is.

To get to Clarksdale, take I-55 south into Mississippi, to the Batesville exit, which is State Road 6. Take Route 6 west into Clarksdale.

Where to Stay

In Memphis. Certainly the most famous place for travelers to lodge in Memphis is The Peabody Hotel (149 Union Avenue; 800-732-2639), the elegant downtown fixture mentioned above. Those ducks that march through the lobby are a tradition dating back to the 1930s. They were the brainchild of a general manager who loved hunting and a bellman who was a former circus animal trainer. The Peabody has four great restaurants and an athletic club. Room rates range from $190 for a single traditional to $730 for a Romeo and Juliet suite, which your SharpWoman should find comfortable.

The Talbot Heirs Guesthouse (99 South Second Street; 901-527-9772) is just about as fancy. Room rates vary from $150 per night for a straightforward suite to $600 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite.

Of course, many chains are represented in Memphis. Information about them is available at www.memphisguide.com.

In Clarksdale. The full impact of what makes the area special can be experienced at The Riverside Hotel (615 Sunflower Avenue; 662-624-9163). Until 1944, the hotel building was the site of the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital. Bessie Smith died there in September 1937. After its conversion, it was, throughout the years, the living quarters of Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner and the Staple Singers. Rooms (without bathrooms or televisions) are available for $40 per night.

Again, as in most midsized-to-metro American cities, Clarksdale has outlets of several chain motels. Check them out at www.clarksdale.com.

You Won’t Be the Same

You’ll find that this trip is quite a different experience from seeing a documentary or reading some CD liner notes. At a minimum, you’ll groove to some great music and food. You may also find yourself deeply moved by some of the places you visit.

This article last updated on Tuesday 12th October 2010
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