The walls of the old warehouse are covered in scrawls, inexpertly tattooed by the thousands who’ve been here before us. Faded photos and album sleeves hang beside posters promoting tobacco, booze and concerts featuring long-dead musicians. But far from being deserted, this old cotton-sorting facility is currently packed to the rafters.
Co-owned by A-lister Morgan Freeman, who grew up nearby, Ground Zero is a Clarksdale institution, and it seems everyone in town is here tonight, the room buzzing with the sound of neighbours and locals greeting each other. And, on hearing our English twang, half a dozen new friends encircle us, eager to know why we’ve come to their corner of Mississippi.
My friend and I have heard whispers of secret bars in the woods serving up illicit corn liquor, but as out-of-towners, this is the closest we’ll come to an authentic ‘juke joint’. Usually located in shacks on the outskirts of towns, these bars sprang up during segregation, catering to African-American workers who came to drink, dance and listen to the blues.
In Ground Zero there’s a hush as the lights are dimmed, and a cheer as the band steps to the stage. Gary Clark Jr nervously greets the crowd. The young Texan has been hailed the saviour of blues — not long after his album reaches number six in the US charts — but he shyly hides behind his black fedora, looks down and starts to strum.
“Playing in Clarksdale was kind of like a spiritual, religious experience for me,” he tells me later. “Being in the Delta, well, I wouldn’t be playing the music I’m playing if it hadn’t been for those guys — they laid the foundation.”
By ‘those guys’, he means the likes of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson — pioneers of the Delta blues, a genre which originated in the field songs of slaves and, following abolition, was spread by travelling ‘bluesmen’ who roamed the region with their guitars and harmonicas, singing of sex, heartbreak and life on the road. Clark is certainly cut from the same cloth, strumming his way through songs like Don’t Owe You a Thang and Please Come Home.
Quite how Clarksdale came to be a place of pilgrimage for blues fans is slightly baffling on first glance. On arrival, we’d seen nothing but a few boarded-up shops and run-down houses as we walked to Ground Zero. But the following day the shabbiness just adds to this small town’s charm, and its musical credentials are clear — independent record shops plastered with gig posters, street signs commemorating historic blues sites, and two museums dedicated to blues.
The most intriguing sight, though, is ‘The Crossroads’ — a spot on the edge of town where, according to legend, crooner Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastering the guitar. He died mysteriously aged 27, and while the exact location of his grave is unknown, the place where he ‘made’ his Faustian pact is now commemorated with three crossed guitars towering over the prosaic junction of Route 49 and Route 61.
We’d followed Route 61 — the ‘Blues Highway’ — down from Memphis, Tennessee, but our musical road trip began in Nashville. It’s been the centre of the country music scene since the 1950s, when record labels and studios here took the genre mainstream, and is home to the Grand Ole Opry — a legendary weekly country radio show which has been running for almost a century. Today Nashville counts more musicians per capita than anywhere else in the US — little wonder it’s earned the nickname Music City.
Simply walking through, it’s clear this town eats, sleeps and breathes country. Shops selling stetsons and cowboy boots stand shoulder-to-shoulder with bars boasting ‘Live music!’ and ‘No cover!’ (free entry), with bands starting as early as 10am. By night, Broadway — the city’s main artery — becomes a wall of sound, each bar jostling for prominence over its noisy, boozy neighbours.
We walk the few blocks from our hotel to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but with each block being the size of a small suburb and the searing summer sun beating down on us, we soon realise why everyone else is in air-conditioned cars. Narrowly avoiding heatstroke, we finally make it, stepping across the stars of the Music City Walk of Fame — a country cousin of the Hollywood Walk of Fame — and make our entrance.
We spend over two hours looking at sepia photos of self-styled ‘hillbillies’ with banjos and fiddles, next to the glass-encased clothes of country royalty like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. But it’s the sound booths that captivate me, with their scratchy recordings of voices from almost a century ago — the ghosts of country past, echoing tales of hard lives and lost love.
At the end of the exhibit is the Hall of Fame itself. The large rotunda is almost church-like, with its vaulted glass ceiling, and I find myself unable to raise my voice above a whisper. But instead of crucifixes and images of saints, the walls are decorated with the names of country’s gods, from Johnny Cash to Hank Williams. Around the top of the room run the words ‘Will the circle be unbroken’ — the name of a Carter Family song, taking the place of a prayer.
Later we head back to Broadway, and find ourselves in a crowded bar, sipping local beer and singing along with the rest of the crowd as a cover band plays John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. Music has never meant as much to me as it does to these people, but their enthusiasm is infectious. Surrounded by believers, I’m a convert.
We leave Nashville at sunset, flitting between country radio stations as we navigate out of the city in a tiny rental car. Our route takes us along a quiet highway lined with trees, small houses and the odd roadside cafe, later giving way to a bigger road slicing through vast stretches of darkness, punctuated by occasional towns and truck stops.
Come morning we head to the home of Memphis’ most famous adopted son. The vast Graceland estate lies towards the edge of the city, on Elvis Presley Boulevard — a charmless triple-carriageway lined with souvenir shops and billboards. The theme park-like entrance is all crowds, queues and turnstiles, and we have to take a shuttle bus to the mansion itself, which The King bought in 1957 and lived in until his death 20 years later.
As we approach the house, its ostentatious Grecian pillars and stone lions hint at the tastes of its one-time owner. Inside, flamboyant stained glass peacocks decorate a partition in the living room, their plumage reflecting onto a mirrored coffee table in an otherwise entirely white room.
Each part of the house seems to be a careful exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste — from the indoor waterfall in the green carpeted, wood-heavy ‘Jungle Room’ to the mirrored walls and multiple TVs in the entertainment area (apparently Elvis liked to watch three channels at once). The decor of the billiards room is enough to test anyone’s sanity — with no windows, it’s entirely covered in dark, pleated fabric, gathering at the centre of the ceiling in a maddening wheel of folds.
As I walk through the house, I’m almost surprised by the lack of hysterical Elvis devotees. I’d expected to see visitors trying to sneak up to the off-limits first floor, or crying hysterically at The King’s grave in the Meditation Garden, but the closest I’ve come is spotting a few Elvis impersonators wandering round the gift shop.
His crazy fans do exist though. Back in town, Rae, a tour guide at Sun Studio, tells me a woman once licked a microphone after hearing Elvis had once sung into it. “She thought there might still be some of his DNA on it,” she laughs as she shows us round the place where an 18-year-old Presley enjoyed his first break.
Legend has it the young Elvis strolled into Sun Studio planning to record a song for his mother and, when asked what his voice was like, replied, “I don’t sound like nobody.” He was later called back by studio owner Sam Phillips and recorded a blues cover, That’s All Right, which proved a hit with local radio stations. Over the years the studio also helped launch the careers of Johnny Cash, BB King and Roy Orbison.
We head to Beale Street as evening falls — the heart of Memphis’ blues scene. It’s awash with neon, and signs advertising Beale Big Ass Beer, which comes in huge, easily transported plastic cups. The sweltering heat hasn’t laid off much this evening; several men stand around shirtless, smoking and chatting, beads of sweat forming on their backs.
Desperate for the relief of air conditioning, we dart into the nearest bar — Mr Handy’s Blues Hall. It looks more like a cafe than a music venue from the outside, with its unimposing sign and serving-hatch window (which I later notice is for ‘drinks to go’), but Handy’s is one of Beale Street’s oldest bars, and it still keeps up the juke joint vibe, with low lighting and exposed brick walls plastered with old photos.
As I stand at the bar a husky voice cuts through the low buzz of conversation. I look up, expecting to find a wizened old bluesman, but the singer on stage, Brandon Santini, is not far off my own age — perhaps in his late twenties — with a chin-strap beard and an impressive pair of sideburns. He’s clutching a harmonica, which he brings up to his lips, expertly evoking the sound of his Delta forefathers, hypnotising the crowd — or me, at least — with his melancholy tune.
The preservation of jazz
After stopping in Clarksdale we head south towards Louisiana. On the advice of locals we take a detour onto the Natchez Trace Parkway — a 444-mile route from Nashville to the town of Natchez and one of the South’s most beautiful drives. But Americans don’t seem to care much about scenery — with its low speed limits, single carriageway and lack of service stations, the verdant Parkway is no match for the busy highways, with their drive-through restaurants, motels and village-sized supermarkets. The few cars we do see simply whizz past, disappearing out of sight within a matter of seconds.
We make a few overnight stops as we meander through Mississippi, visiting well-to-do colonial towns, eating peaches by the roadside, and line dancing in local bars. After a quick peek at the Gulf Coast, we arrive in New Orleans.
I’m half expecting to see damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, but there’s nothing. It’s only later as we drive through the Tremé neighbourhood that we spot evidence of the disaster in the many vacant lots, boarded up houses, and spray-painted numbers and letters used as codes by the rescuers.
By contrast, the historic French Quarter was almost untouched by Katrina, its beautifully-preserved, lace-balconied buildings still in pristine condition. This was once the premier address for well-to-do Francophone Creoles but by the end of the 19th century the Quarter, or Vieux Carré, had lost its charm, becoming New Orleans’ centre of vice. And as we wander down the Quarter’s best-known road, Bourbon Street, it seems little has changed. Brash bars and strip clubs dominate, and though there’s live music we can’t hear any jazz, a genre born in the city.
Eventually we spot Maison Bourbon, whose sign boasts it’s ‘Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz’, and take a seat at one of the empty tables inside. Perhaps there’s not much demand for jazz on Bourbon anymore, but Dwayne Burns and his band are giving it their all. They work their way through all the jazz standards, with Burns channelling the spirit of Louis Armstrong in his gravelly tones and trumpet solos. They’re a throwback to another era, with their smart suits and gentle flirting with the audience, and we flirt back, dropping a few dollars in the tip bucket like alms in a collection plate.
The following day we head out into the Quarter again, but keep away from Bourbon, winding our way around the grid of roads lined with beautiful houses built not by the French, but by the Spanish, during their brief rule of Louisiana in the late 18th century. It’s easier to imagine how these smaller streets, now dotted with tiny art galleries, gift shops and Creole restaurants, were once the city’s most enviable places to live.
As night sets in we stray from the Quarter and catch a gorgeous old streetcar (tram) to Magazine Street, New Orleans’ bohemian heart. I’ve been told it’s home to one of the best bars to catch the city’s other musical legacy — brass bands, which sprung up in the late 19th century and still pepper the pavements of the city today, busking on the street corners.
The bar we’ve been directed to, Le Bon Temps Roulé, is a little bit rough around the edges. It’s clad in shabby-looking weatherboard, with a dive-like interior. Two people are playing pool on a well-worn table; someone else has brought a dog. But there’s a friendly, local vibe which is a long way from the tourist buzz of the French Quarter.
The band strikes up in the back room and everyone slowly filters through. The Brass-A-Holics are so numerous it’s hard to tell how many of them there are, and who’s in the band — some members seem to be among the crowd.
They break into upbeat brass numbers with added funk riffs, raps and cheeky nods to pop songs — a few bars here or there sneaked in without warning. It’s impossible not to dance. As more and more people pour in, the room heats up and there’s barely space to breathe, but I can’t stop dancing. I don’t care there’s sweat dripping down my back, and nor does anyone else. We’re all just here, taking in the music together.
There are no direct flights to Nashville or New Orleans from the UK. Indirect services include US Airways from Gatwick and Manchester; American Airlines and British Airways from Heathrow and Manchester; Delta Air Lines from Heathrow; and United Airlines from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh. www.usairways.com www.aa.com www.ba.com www.delta.com www.united.com
Average flight time: Around 14h.
Hiring a car is the easiest way of travelling around the region, and most international rental companies have outlets at major airports. Greyhound buses connect cities and larger towns. www.greyhound.com
When to go
In spring and autumn the Deep South has warm days and cool nights. In winter the temperature might drop as low as 4C, while summers are swelteringly hot, sometimes reaching as high as 38C. Hurricane season normally runs from June to November, so it’s best to check forecasts before travelling.
Need to know
Visas: British passport-holders can visit the US for up to 90 days without a visa, but must complete a $14 (£8.70) Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) before departure. https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
Currency: US dollar. £1 = $1.53.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time difference: Louisiana, Mississippi and Western Tennessee: GMT -6. Eastern Tennessee: GMT -5.
Ground Zero Blues Club. www.groundzerobluesclub.com
The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. www.countrymusichalloffame.org
Sun Studio. www.sunstudio.com
Where to stay
Nashville: Union Station Hotel. www.unionstationhotelnashville.com
Memphis: DoubleTree by Hilton Memphis Downtown. www.doubletree.hilton.com
Clarksdale: Shack Up Inn. www.shackupinn.com
New Orleans: Hyatt French Quarter. www.frenchquarter.hyatt.com
Deep South. (USA Road Guides). RRP: £4.99.
How to do it
Travelbag has seven nights’ fly-drive from £739 per person, including car hire and US Airways flights from Gatwick into Nashville and out of New Orleans. www.travelbag.co.uk
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)