The Mississippi Delta: Blues Trail road trip
Louisiana may be the birthplace of Jazz, but Mississippi Delta, is where the Blues were born! Music, comfort food and southern hospitality run deep in the Delta. This was my first trip to Mississippi and marked the 48th state I’d visited. My Blues Trail road trip started in Memphis, which is where the Delta starts, but I soon crossed the border into Mississippi, where I began to explore DeSoto County…a cluster of small towns, each filled with its own unique charm.
My journey followed Highway 61, which is also known as the “Blues Trail.” One could argue that Highway 61 rivals Route 66, certainly for its musical significance. One of my first stops was to visit the gravesite of one of the most famous female Country Blues artists, Lizzie Douglas, aka Memphis Minnie. Even in death Lizzie still draws a crowd.
Travel has been a popular theme in Blues lyrics, and highways have symbolized the potential to quickly “pack up and go,” to leave troubles behind, or seek out new opportunities elsewhere. Some of the most famous Mississippi artists who lived near Highway 61 included: B. B. King, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Sam Cooke, James Cotton and Jimmy Reed, just to name a few.
The Mississippi Blues Trail markers tell stories about the Blues artists through words and images…about the places they lived and the times in which they existed—and how that influenced their music. The marker sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots, cemeteries, clubs to churches. Watch the video below for a complete overview of the Blues Trail.
While visiting the DeSoto County Museum, I learned that world famous author, John Grisham, based his first novel, “A Time to Kill,” at the DeSoto county courthouse, which is located in in the historic town square of Hernando. Inside the courthouse are some elaborate murals that depict the discovery of the Mississippi River by Hernando DeSoto, a Spanish explorer who was in the area around 1541, and where the area’s name is derived. While in Hernando, I had a wonderful lunch at a restaurant called Underground Café.
After lunch I strolled the streets of Hernando and came across this cool old structure where I snapped a few photos.
My next stop was a tour of Brussels’s Bonsai, the nations largest supplier of Bonsai trees. I learned that nearly any tree can be made into a Bonsai. I also couldn’t believe the price range, from $20, to $20,000. Bonsai is a really intriguing art form and I would never have guessed that Mississippi would be home to such a large grower of something that is so distinctly Japanese (or Asian as I know the Chinese also enjoy Bonsai).
Heading deeper into the Delta, my next stop was Tunica, where I visited the newly opened Gateway Blues Museum, which doubles as a visitor’s center. This museum is extremely well done and was really worth the stop. The front of the venue is made from a rustic train depot, circa 1895. Inside are beautiful Blues exhibits and artwork.
Gaming is quite popular in Tunica and the casinos offer some of the best lodging in the area, so that evening I checked into the Gold Strike Casino Hotel. The hotel features a contemporary feel and has a smoke-free gaming area, which I think is pretty unique, but very welcome to this non-smoker. After getting settled, I headed to the Horseshoe Casino Hotel, which was just a short walk away, where I met some fellow travel journalists for a fantastic meal at Jack Binion’s.
Jack Binion’s is one of those classically sophisticated restaurants that epitomizes fine dining. The atmosphere sort of reminded me of being in Chicago (even though I was in Tunica, Mississippi), with its rich and elegant décor. From the interaction with the hostess, throughout the dining experience, the service was impeccable. Click the following link to read my Jack Binion’s review.
The next morning it was a visit to the Tunica Riverpark and Museum, an interpretive center filled with authentic artifacts and exhibits showcasing the history of the Mighty Mississippi. It was a gorgeous day, I only wish I would have had more time to explore. Click the following link to read my Tunica Riverpark write-up and see the short video.
Hunger was setting in, so the next stop was a Tunica institution for southern comfort fare…the Blue & White Restaurant. Established way back in 1924, the Blue & White is situated right on Highway 61 and has served all the great Blues musicians over the decades.
It was getting late, so after a quick stop at the Tunica Museum, I was off to Clarksdale for the annual Juke Joint Festival. Just forty minutes south of Tunica is the Crossroads, a famous landmark in Clarksdale that is said to be the site where Jack Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
While in Clarksdale I really enjoyed strolling the downtown streets…it’s a community steeped in history with rugged character to boot. The photographic opportunities were endless, and so too were the listening pleasure of Blues music on nearly every corner (and inside the clubs) due to the festival. I was exposed to many types of Blues music and I was diggin’ it! Music is something that moves me. I find music to be very profound, almost as if it were an occasional requirement to nourish my soul. I will admit however, the Blues was never a genre I’d spent much time listening to or admiring—after the Juke Joint Festival and exploring the various Blues museums around the Mississippi Delta, I can say without question, I’m now a fan!
If you visit Clarksdale, don’t miss a chance to see live music at the Ground Zero Blues Club, it’s a fun venue, and the food is pretty good too! (Interesting Note: Ground Zero is co-owned by Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman. Unfortunately he was not in attendance during my visit.)
The next day, after soaking in some soulful Blues music in Clarksdale, I headed to Indianola to visit the B.B. King Museum. B.B. King has been the foremost ambassador to the Blues, so it made sense to build a facility to pay homage to the legend, which, interestingly, is on the site of an old cotton mill where Mr. King once worked. It’s really an amazing venue; it’s not just a tribute to B.B. King, but also a wonderful historical representative of the Blues music in general.
While in Indianola, I had lunch at such charming restaurant called The Crown, which serves some of the best catfish I’ve ever had. The Crown is much more than just a restaurant; it’s an art gallery, gift shop and bookstore all rolled into one. The Crown is also the home of Taste of Gourmet, where you can buy mixes and sauces they’ve created to take home and enjoy. The best part about dining at The Crown has to be the way they serve dessert…unlike any place I’ve ever been before. After your meal, you can head to the back of the restaurant where a large table has an array of desserts on display. From there, you simply help yourself. You can grab a large slice of pie, or take a sliver of everything they have to offer. What a brilliant concept!
The final stop on my road trip through Mississippi Delta was to Greenwood, which is home to Viking Appliances and was probably the largest town I visited in the Delta. It was a perfect evening in Greenwood when I arrived and I noticed this cool looking building with large arched wooden doors that were swung open, inviting passersby to come in. The venue was home to Williams Landing Winery, where they have a line of Delta Blues inspired vino. One vintage I had never tried before was made from figs (which are in abundance in Mississippi Delta). The light but not too sweet fruity wine would probably pair well with salads, Gulf shrimp, or other seafood.
After the wine tasting I once again met up with my travel journalist friends for dinner, this time it was at the Delta Bistro right in downtown Greenwood. This hip and upscale restaurant was not what I was expecting in the heart of the Delta. The vibe and décor were amazing; unfortunately I did not think the food matched the quality of the venue. The crab cakes for example had more filling than crab, and the perch, while neatly plated was way overcooked. Perhaps it was an off night.
When I travel I often don’t make many plans, I like to see where the road less traveled will take me. This organic approach has revealed many wonderful experiences that I might not otherwise have had. I have learned over my many years of traveling that everyplace has something unique and special about it, otherwise it would be a ghost town. If you’re willing to be patient, peel back a few layers, and live in the moment, you will discover amazing things along the journey. This philosophy holds true for life, as well as a road trip.
I found the Mississippi Delta to exude charm and hospitality, while its music permeated my soul and found a place in my heart. If you’ve ever visited the Mississippi Delta, please leave a comment below and share your experience. Click the following link if you’d like to see more of my photos from Mississippi Delta.