Return to the Musical Mother Land Part II
By John Lee
My better half, Nancy Rapp, and I recently traveled to Memphis Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (the King Biscuit Blues Festival) in Helena , Arkansas. Here’s what we did from my perspective:
Day 7, October 9th
Nancy and I had a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and orange juice then we left the Blues Traveler Inn and Indianola, Mississippi about 9 AM. We hopped on Highway 49 just a stone's throw from our digs and pointed our ride to the cool little town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. home town of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke. Along the way, we went past many catfish farms and cotton fields. We also went by the infamous penitentiary, Parchman Farm. It did not look at all pleasant. We didn’t stop. I’ve heard that if you take photos of the prison, the authorities will track you down and confiscate your camera! We kept on truckin'.
We arrived in Clarksdale about 10:30 AM and went right to the Delta Blues Museum. Established in 1979, the museum is a cool and funky space located in an old train depot with an address of 1 Blues Alley Lane . The history of Delta blues is highlighted with an extensive exhibit of Muddy Waters that is literally housed in the old frame of the cabin Muddy lived in when he was a sharecropper at nearby Stovall’s Plantation . Son House, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker are also featured. Seattle artist Phil Chestnut has a very cool portrait of John Lee Hooker at the museum. Dozens of other bues artists are also featured here, like harp master, Charlie Musselwhite and local legend guitarist Super Chikin. The Delta Blues Museum is a soulful space that all blues fans should check out!
As we were searching the gift shop we ran into Mae Smith, who I met two years ago. Mae has worked at the museum for 13 years and she told us all about the B.B. King Museum grand opening and the dynamite party afterward at The Club Ebony that featured B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Robert Cray a few weeks earlier. Mae said it was a blast.
We said our goodbyes and hit the streets. We stopped in to the very cool , Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art shop owned by Roger Stolle, a featured writer at Blues Revue magazine. Cat Head has cool blues CD’s books, post cards, and top notch Delta art. The place is a trip. I always dig a cruise thru Cat Head! We were getting hungry. Nancy and I decided to eat at Hick’s Tamales and BBQ on State Street , five or six blocks from the blues museum. We ate at Hicks two years ago. I really dug their rib tips and tamales. As we were entering, we noticed our designated digs for our four night stay in Clarksdale , The EconoLodge was right across the street. Getting home for the stay would be easy. They wouldn’t have rib tips until tomorrow. We both had the ribs and we shared a six pack of tamales. Tamales also come in a dozen. Our rib dinners came with BBQ beans and coleslaw too. This is some very tasty eats for sure. Two thumbs up. Way up! Then we checked into our room and opted for a couple hours rest before we took in day one of the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (AKA) The King Biscuit Blues Fest. The long time fest goers just call it the Biscuit!!
We were relaxing and I got up to look to see who was getting out of a car that pulled up in the parking area of the motel. It was a man that we saw in Memphis and also at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola , Mississippi . We had seen him on the trolley in Memphis and I asked him were he was from, and he said Paris , France . After seeing him at the B.B. King Museum and now in Clarksdale , I figured he was in the area to check out the blues fest. He went to the office to check in and Nancy and I prepared to head to Helena , Arkansas and check out day one of the third biggest blues festival in the United States . It was only a 30 mile drive and right across the Mississippi River from The Isle of Caprice Casino where Nancy and I had stayed when we did the Biscuit 2 years ago.
We arrived at the festival site at 5 PM. The fest began at noon, but Reba Russell, appearing at 5:30 PM was the first act of the day we really wanted to catch. Reba Russell is a blues shouter from Memphis , Tennessee. Ms. Russell belted out song after song, with power and energy, and a big dose of humor for a soulful 75 minute set. Up next were the country/ roots rock sound of Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks. They weren’t bad, but they just made me wish The Blasters were playing instead!
While the Beatnecks were still playing we went to check out the vendors of food and tee shirts and the like. That’s when we ran into my old friend Gary Sloan and his wife Sandy. I had just played three gigs in the Seattle area with Gary . Gary is a harp player that I played music with when I was in high school and off and on to the present day. With the Sloans' were Mike Elrod and his wife, Sara. Mike is Gary’s guitar man from Kansas City . Mike and his lovely wife were very nice and funny folks. We hung out for a bit and told them that they would be seeing us the rest of the weekend. Gary has been the MC at the Biscuit’s Houston Stackhouse/Robert Lockwood Jr. Stage for 14 years now. Mike Elrod was the number one stage hand. We would be spending a lot of time over the next two days at Gary’s spot. The fest's main stage is the only one operating on the first day.
John Lee and Gary "Alaska Slim" Sloan
Mike Elrod and Gary SloanWe said our goodbyes and headed back to the main stage. Then came the rock blues guitar of Tinsley Ellis. Tinsley Ellis has been around for awhile and put on an energetic set of guitar heavy boogie. I hadn’t eaten since early afternoon and realized I had a hunger going on. Two years ago at the Fest I noticed many people eating very large turkey legs and I tried one during this 2008 music gathering. It was smoked and tasty. The only thing that would have added a little boost would be a nice sweet and spicy BBQ sauce. We settled in for the last act of the day and I ran into Jeff Hayes, homeboy and drummer for the cool Seattle area group, Becki Sue and Her Big Rockin Daddies! We said our hellos and I found that he was there for the duration of the Fest and the gathering Sunday at the Hopson Plantation. We both agreed to talk again soon. We were bound to meet in a day or two for sure!
John Lee and Jeff Hayes
Day 8, October 10th
The Econo Lodge bed was comfy, and we both got a good night's rest. I went to the lobby to check out the complimentary breakfast, and found that there was less to offer than the Best Western in Indianola. I had an orange juice and I brought my tea from our room. (I bring a hot pot, cup, stevia, and a large selection of black tea, whenever I travel). I looked up, and lo and behold, John McElligott (aka Johnny Mack), who we ran into two years ago from Florida was staying at the motel and going to the blues fest. He told me he was here with Jim Mills, the music photographer again. Jim and John are both great guys and it’s good to know they're both on the festival prowl again. As John and I were talking, we meet a woman named Helen Thomas who was also visiting the blues fest. Helen lives on the East Coast and paints portraits of blues musicians. Helen had to go and she said she hoped to see us again. Nancy came to the lobby and John and she gave each other a big hello. Nancy wasn’t too thrilled with the breakfast fare either, so we decided we would stop and partake in the Isle of Capri Casino buffet on the way to the festival. We said goodbye to John after a short visit and went back to our room and packed up our supplies for a full day of music and fun.
We got to the Isle of Capri to late for breakfast and it was a half hour before the lunch buffet began, so we went in search of coffee and the like. We found a deli in the casino that served Starbucks coffee and the sign said they had chai tea. Yes on the coffee, but no chai! We were told they discontinued chai, because no one ever ordered it. I had a hot chocolate, Nancy had a drip coffee. When we did get to eat, it was good! They had pizza and tacos, but we stuck with the Delta cookin'. Pork chops, sausage, baked yams, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, and lima beans were some of the selections. Also a nice salad and fresh fruit bar. And don’t forget the ice cream sundae bar and a large number of pies to choose from. We wouldn’t need to eat at the festival until late.
As we left the Isle of Capri Casino and the Delta Cookin' buffet we tuned to KFFA 1360 AM on our radio dial and caught the last bit of the King Biscuit Time radio show hosted by Sunshine Sonny Payne. The show has been running since 1941, and for a long spell in the 1940s, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) played live on the show, for many years backed up by the venerable pianist Pinetop Perkins. Pinetop plays the Biscuit every year, and this year he is 95 years of age. The legendary Sonny Payne has hosted the show since 1951. He broadcasts the show live Monday thru Friday from the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena, Arkansas on Cherry Street right behind the main stage of the blues festival. This was the 15,570th broadcast of the show. When Nancy and I arrived at the festival, we took in the Delta Cultural Center . The Center is an inspiring and beautiful museum mostly honoring the music and musicians of Arkansas and Helena . Musicians like Johnny Cash, Louis Jordon, Conway Twitty, Levon Helm, Johnny Taylor, and Junior Parker are from Arkansas . The Delta Cultural Center was the seventh museum we visited on this trip.
After an hour or so at the Delta Cultural Center , we went to the Main stage to catch drummer Sam Carr and The Delta Jukes with Dave Riley. Sam Carr is the son of the legendary Robert Nighthawk and was the engine behind the famed Delta group, The Jelly Roll Kings with the late keyboardist-harmonica player Frank Frost and guitarist Big Jack Johnson. Sam Carr only played about a half hour because of age and ill health. Another drummer filled in for Sam and guitarist Dave Riley fronted the group to complete the set. Nancy and I saw Dave Riley two years ago at this same festival. Dave Riley is a truly fine guitar player and a solid singer who approaches all he does with tons of soul. Next up was the Chicago guitarist, Carl Weathersby. Mr. Weathersby is a very good player, steeped in the West Side style like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush.
The Carl Weathersby Band
There was a twenty minute break before Pinetop Perkins played on the main stage, so we went to the Houston Stackhouse/Robert Lockwood Jr. stage to check on the Sloan’s and the Elrod’s and told them we were going to catch Pinetop and then come and hang out the rest of the evening at the smaller stage (there is a third stage down the way, the Emerging Artists stage, but we never did make it there.) Pinetop Perkins is a great piano player who played with Sonny Boy Williamson 2 ( Rice Miller) on the King Biscuit Flower radio show in the late 1940s and with the legendary Muddy Waters in the 1970s and early '80s. Pinetop was very lucid for 95 years of age and played a very nice set back by Bob Margolin on guitar, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and the great Chicago bass man Bob Stroger. Half way thru the set Calvin “Fuzz” Jones sat in on bass. Bob Margolin, Willie Smith, Calvin Jones, and Pinetop were all in Muddy Waters last great band, and after Muddy’s death performed as the Legendary Blues Band for many years.
Pinetop Perkins - Photo by Kim Welsh
On our way to the Robert Lockwood stage, we ran into Jeff Hayes again. We talked for a minute and then hustled over to catch harp master Arthur Williams. Gary Sloan introduced me to Arthur Williams, a harmonica player originally from Tunica, Mississippi . Mister Williams now lives in St. Louis, Missouri . He was recently featured as a musician in the John Sayles film, Honeydripper. Arthur Williams is a fine harp man and a very expressive singer. His one hour and ten minute set was a joy to behold!
Arthur Williams - Photo by Kim Welsh
The Sloans' brought their motor home to the festival and parked it about 200 feet from the stage and set up a table and chairs under an awning. Gary’s wife Sandy is a sweetheart and earlier in the day had a crock pot of BBQ meatballs going. She offered me a meal of meatballs and a baked potato that she had cooked in their home on wheels microwave. Just what the doctor ordered. Mmm good! Then Nancy and I caught a high energy set by Willie King and The Liberators from Alabama . Willie King brings a soulful and party attitude to his singing and guitar playing. His excellent band followed suit! We could have caught some more music, but we decided to catch some shut-eye. The heat was taking its toll on us Northwesterners! We said goodnight to Gary, Sandy, Sara, and Mike, then pointed our ride back to our digs in Clarksdale , Mississippi .
Day 9, October 11th
We went to downtown Clarksdale early to see what happens on a Saturday. We visited the Saturday Market, with people selling pickles, jam and the like. We ran into Jeff Hayes one more time. Jeff, Nancy and I chatted a bit, then Nancy and I went in search of some tasty grub. We ended up at Sarah’s Kitchen, a block over from where the Saturday Market took place. Sarah serves plate lunches and soul food Thursday thru Saturday during lunch hours and dinner on some weekend nights. Two years ago, my homeys Becki Sue and her Big Rockin Daddies! and the Paul deLay Band rocked Sarah’s for one night at blues festival time. It is a small and intimate juke that would be a soulful spot to hear some good blues.
We ran into the artist I had met at The EconoLodge, Helen Thomas. She and her husband were in the same space Nancy and I were - they wanted breakfast! I talked to Sarah and she said if we wanted a breakfast, she would make us one. It was a very good meal. It consisted of scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, a sausage patty, and toast. Just what the doctor ordered. Helen and her husband are nice folks and we had good food and good conversation to fuel the start of our day. The Thomas’ were leaving town and heading home. We said our goodbyes, and Nancy and I cruised the streets of old Clarksdale one more time. We ended up at the Hambone Gallery, an art gallery run by, Stan Street , a Florida transplant who is a very nice painter of Delta art and a blues harp man to boot. We chatted with Stan for a bit about what it’s like to live in Clarksdale and he told us he is friends with Jeff Hayes and that he would be at Hopson tomorrow for the Pinetop homecoming. Stan is a nice guy and I can’t wait to hear him blow the harp.
We said our goodbyes and climbed back in our ride. As we were going back to our room, we stopped at a grocery store called Save-A-Lot . It brings back memories of the retail store on The Simpson’s, Try and Save. We picked up some yogurts, bananas and a six pack of Hershey candy bars. We went back to our room and put the food in the refrigerator. Yeah, all the food went in the refrigerator. Mississippi has many bugs. We freshened up and got back in our car. We got on highway 61 and tuned into radio station WROX AM 1450. They play a mix of '60s and '70s soul and pop. On Saturday nights they play blues. Early “The Soul Man” Wright, the first African-American disc jockey in the South and Mississippi worked at the station starting in 1947. The likes of Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, and Sonny Boy Williamson 2 performed live on WROX. The station today also simulcasts on 92.1FM.
We got to the festival site about 3 PM and I headed over to the Delta Cultural Center to use the restroom, where I saw Bobby Rush. Bobby Rush, if you are not aware, is the legendary singer, harmonica player, and possibly the genre's most dynamic entertainer, who has had a career that has spanned fifty years. Nancy and I had just seen Mr. Rush at the Highway 99 Blues Club in Seattle , in late July. When I told him that I saw his show that summer, he gave me a big ole bear hug. I told him he picked me out of the crowd, saying I looked like a panty sniffer (Bobby always uses somebody with this premise as an addition to his show.) After revealing this information, Bobby Rush gave me another intense bear hug. Damn he’s strong! He had to run, so we said our goodbyes and I told him I would see one of his shows later in the day. Bobby Rush was slated to perform with his full review on the main stage, as the final act of 2008 Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival, but he was also to appear at The Robert Lockwood Jr. stage with his pared down setting (a guitar player and Bobby singing, playing harp and guitar) Bobby Rush received the 2008 Blues Award for best CD with this line-up, the album titled “Raw.”
Bobby Rush - Photo by Kim WelshAs I stepped into the Delta Cultural Center , I spotted a smiling couple near the door and I mentioned that I just ran into Bobby Rush. I introduced myself. They introduced themselves in return. Kim Welch and Brian Epstein seemed like great folks. They were from New Orleans . We talked about the fest, New Orleans music, and the like for a moment. I told them I was heading to the Houston Stackhouse stage to check out Satan and Adam. They said they were heading that way and would see me later. Satan and Adam became legendary playing the streets of Harlem in New York for well over a decade. Adam Gussow is a world class harmonica player I met when he was in Seattle to speak at the EMP (Experience Music Project) in April of 2007. He sat in with The Crossroads Band at the Highway 99 Blues Club. He dug the band and someone laid our CD “I Want It Right Now” on him and Mr. Gussow eventually used it as a good example of material to learn from for his online harp lessons. Adam and I chatted for a bit, but Satan and his driver were running late, coming from Nashville , Tennesse, so Gary Sloan and Mike Elrod filled in for 20 to 30 minutes. Their short set was very good and more than filled the void. When Satan and Adam, along with a drummer got going, it was cool. Intense and impassioned country blues.
Satan and AdamGary Sloan introduced me to bass man Bob Stroger who has been one of my favorite bass players for many years. Bob played what seemed like forever with Jimmie Rogers, the guitar player with Muddy Water's early bands and writer of the classic Chicago Blues tune, “Walking By Myself”. Bob Stroger is one of a handful of go-to guys on the Chicago Blues scene!
Bob Stroger - Photo by Kim WelshI ran into Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf’s legendary guitar player, who The Crossroads Band backed up at the Mt. Baker Blues Festival in 2004. Hubert is one hell of a guy and a total pleasure to be around. We reminisced and hung out a bit while Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and his band with Bob Stroger played a fine set. Big Eyes is very well known as the great drummer who for many years backed up Muddy Waters, but Mr. Smith is an incredible harp player and a soulful vocalist too. Catching his band is pure pleasure! I got to meet Mister Satan, whose real name is Sterling Magee for a minute also.
John Lee and Hubert Sumlin
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith - Photo by Kim Welsh
Next up was, for me the much anticipated juke joint duo Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm. Nancy and I had seen Lightnin’ Malcolm when we were in the Delta two years ago. He is a fine guitar player and expressive singer. Cedric Burnside is a crackerjack drummer and grandson of the late, great guitar man R.L. Burnside. They laid down a hard and loud boogie for the full one hr and ten minutes. Dancers joined them on stage and everyone had a hell of a time. If you get a chance to catch these guys, don’t pass it up. The title of their latest CD I think sums them up - “Two Man Wreaking Crew.”
Nancy and I were both done for the day. We said goodbye to Gary, Sandy, Mike and Sara. We thanked the Sloans' for their hospitality, and I told Gary I would see him next summer when we would play a number of gigs in the Seattle area. This will be the third year in a row. It seems to be becoming an annual event. We walked the four blocks to our car and pointed our Camry toward our digs in Clarksdale . We tuned our radio to WROX which was in the midst of their Saturday night blues programming. A fitting end to our Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival weekend, and what a weekend it was! For a minute we had trouble finding our motel. It was no longer an EconoLodge. The sign had been changed, and now our motel was an America’s Best Value Inn & Suites. With any luck they would upgrade the breakfast buffet, but probably the sign would be the only thing that really changed!
Day 10, October 12
The last night while we were at the blues festival, The Delta Cinema in Clarksdale hosted a free screening of the documentary, "M for Mississippi- A Road Trip Through the Birth Place of the Blues" film highlighting many of the delta blues musicians still plying their craft in Mississippi. Big City Blues Magazine said this about "M for Mississippi" : “For fans of that real deal, rough and ragged Mississippi Delta blues, it doesn’t get much better than this.” Jeff Konkel of Broke and Hungry Records and Roger Stolle, writer for Blues Revue magazine, owner Cat Head and producer of the annual Juke Joint Festival produced this cool film.
We woke early and had some yogurts and bananas that we bought at Save-A-Lot and we went to the lobby and ran into Johnny Mack. Many of the musicians who were featured in the film "M for Mississippi" had played at the premier or at events around Clarksdale the previous night. This day, a number of them where going to be performing in front of Cat Head at 9 AM. Johnny asked if he could ride with us to downtown and the early morning music. No problem, so John went to get ready. Jim Mills showed up and showed us some great photos he took recently of Hubert Sumlin and guitarist Michael Burks. Jim had a bite to eat and said he was going to catch some more sleep, so Nancy and I grabbed John and went to Cathead.
By the time we got there, a crowd of 50 to 75 people had gathered to catch Robert “Wolfman” Belfour and a drummer. Robert Belfour reminds me a lot of early John Lee Hooker. RL Boyce was lowdown blues at it best. A cat named Red was cooking BBQ with all the trimmings, but I wasn’t up for BBQ for breakfast. I met and chatted with Guitar Mac from Sacramento , California who played the fest, but we missed him. I met a harp player who goes by the title of Harmonica Bean. What a character. An even bigger character was Teddy, the proprietor of Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, Louisiana . Teddy’s brochure says: "We play the best Louisiana blues along with good food and drink." We left Cathead with the blues and BBQ smoke still filling the air and walked down Delta Avenue.
We stopped into a very cool CD store called Blues Source.com, looked around, and then we came to the conclusion we could use something a little more substantial than yogurt and a banana, so we went right next door to the Delta Amusement Café. The Delta Amusement Café serves lunch and a legitimate breakfast. There was a 45 minute wait, so we hit the streets and went to The Ground Zero Blues Club. Their Sunday brunch was in full swing, but we decided to get some fried chicken for lunch. We went to Popeye’s which was not far from our room. I love that chicken. We went back to our digs and freshened up, then went just down Highway 49 to Hopson Plantation and the Shack Up Inn for the Pinetop Perkins homecoming.
The Shack Up Inn
In the Commissary one group who’s name I didn’t catch was just finishing up. Next was the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith band. These guys are tough. Soon they were joined by the Delta legend, guitarist Super Chiken. Mr. Chikin is a solid player and expressive singer who really seems to enjoy playing music. Guitar man Bob Margolin joined the festivities and the music went into high gear. Good stuff! They were followed by the Hiser Brothers, Jacob and Kane. Their band was a cool mix of roots, blues and jazz. One of the brothers plays a killer violin. They were joined mid set by the Memphis singer and harmonic player Billy Gibson. Billy Gibson helped set the energy level a notch or two higher. They were cookin'.
The Willie "Big Eyes" Smith Band
Then we saw Kim Welch and Brian Epstein from New Orleans . They joined us in the balcony that ran along most of the wall to the right of the stage. As the Hiser Brothers were finishing up, the four of us went outside. Kim showed us all around grounds. As we were checkin out one of the shacks from the outside, a young lady came out of one of the units and told us to look around, and not to mind her boy friend who was passed out on a bed in the living room. Very cool digs. Each of the shacks and the rooms at the Gin Mill have televisions but when you turn it on you only get a satellite radio blues station. We walked thru a cotton field and then went back near the Commissary and hung out near where Pinetop Perkins was selling his CD’s and DVD’s. We ran into Jeff Hayes, got to say hello to Pinetop, saw Stan Street and his wife, ran into the writer Mickeal Timm again, and met people from all over the world. What a party. We hated to go but we had a very early flight we had to catch out of Memphis the next morning. We said our goodbyes to Kim, Brian and the whole scene at Hopson. What a cool thing. I’m so glad we were able to attend.
We needed something light for dinner, so we stopped at Wendy’s. It has been ages since either Nancy or I had eaten at Wendy’s. We both remember that besides burgers that they had a salad bar. The salad bar was no more, but they had a large selection of specialty salads. To our surprise it was fresh and quite good. We were only about two minutes from our room and when we got back we packed and got a good nights rest.
Day 11, October 13
We had a 4 AM wake up call. We showered and I made us both tea. We packed the car and caught Highway 61, and drove 75 miles to Memphis and the Memphis airport. We turned in our rental car and caught the shuttle provided by Hertz to the terminal. We made good time and we finished the yogurts and bananas we brought from Clarksdale . We went through security and they busted me with a can of Barq root beer in my bag. Damn! 20 cents worth of product confiscated. When we got to our gate we met a very nice couple from Canada that had come to Memphis to do the Elvis thing. They did Graceland and the like.
Our flight to Minneapolis was good and when we changed planes, we stopped at Chili’s right near our gate to head back to Seattle and picked up a large Southwestern chicken salad. On our flight home we shared the salad and I gave Nancy a card I picked up from Cathead. October 13th is my sweeties' birthday and I got her a B.B. King postcard with a birthday greeting and explained that I would buy her a dinner of her liking soon after we get back home. We got to Sea-Tac and caught the shuttle to downtown, then the 358 bus to our house in the north end. We had one hell of a time and it was good to be home, but I miss the land of the Delta blues a little bit every day. I always feel like I’m home when I’m there.
Quote of the Month
"When Robert Johnson got through playing, all our mouths was open. He sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that!" - Son House, Delta blues legend.