Zero Tolerance Blues

Saturday, April 04, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 11:  Clarksdale, MS, to Memphis, TN

Before leaving Clarksdale this morning, we had one more mission—leaving our mark at Ground Zero.  After the Delta Blues Museum moved into its expanded depot location in 1999, it brought more visitors to Clarksdale.  With their appetites whetted at the museum, they wanted to see live blues performances, but few were available.  In a vacant cotton warehouse across the railroad tracks from the museum, actor Morgan Freeman, a Delta native, and Bill Luckett, a Clarksdale attorney, seized the opportunity and opened Ground Zero Blues Club in 2001.

Hosting live Mississippi blues bands four nights a week, Ground Zero has played a major role in breathing new life into downtown Clarksdale.  With a full kitchen menu, a well-developed web site, and a published schedule of events, Ground Zero is too refined to be a true juke joint.  However, its owners have employed a decor that attempts to emulate the real thing.

While the year-round Christmas lights, the mismatched folding chairs and beat-up sofas on the front stoop give hint of a juke joint aura, Ground Zero's hallmark is its monumental collection of graffiti.  Every surface, inside and out, is covered with the names and stories and emotions of the thousands of people who have visited the club in the last 14 years for a taste of real Delta blues.

Ground Zero Blues Club graffiti
No surface is sacred.  Even the felt lining the top of the pool tables and the slats on the window blinds tell their tales.  This is major league graffiti.  It even has its own devoted following.  Ground Zero Blues Club graffiti has been featured in museums and art gallery exhibits.  If you love this people's art so much you'd like to take it home, a variety of products adorned with GZBC scribblings can be purchased online, inlcluding shower curtains, duvet covers and throw pillows, and tote bags. It would have seemed miserly to neglect making a contribution to this ever-changing work of art, so we stopped on our way out of Clarksdale and did our part.

Leaving our mark on GZ
Since we've had so much fun in Clarksdale the last couple of days, we decided it was only fitting to plant a “Love Those Delta Blues” letterbox before leaving town.  As with most urban spots, finding a place to hide the box around Ground Zero proved to be unfeasible.  Almost as good, we found a place for the box in a tree inside a cemetery located on the corner opposite Red’s juke joint.  

Box can see Red's across the intersection.
With a definite interest in returning, we left Clarksdale on the Blues Highway as it wound its way toward Memphis and beyond.  In search of a restroom on our way to a letterbox, we stopped at the Tunica Arena, where a Circle G quarter horse show was in progress.  After making use of their facilities, we watched the competition for a while, marveling at the length and fullness of the horses’ well-styled tails—until we learned that tail extensions were in use.  Tail extensions??  Wonder how the horses feel about that.

Circle G show in Tunica arena
After splitting a crispy cheese and garlic thin crust at the nearby Southbound Pizza, we continued north to Robinsonville, where we turned in at the Tunica Riverpark to look for a letterbox.  Recent flooding had left the trail and boardwalk littered with debris.  The poor letterbox, which had been laid on the ground and covered with bark in 2013, had gone downriver on the Mississippi current.

Obstacle ahead
Back on track, we pushed on into Memphis on US-61, arriving around 4 p.m. at a downtown Residence Inn a few blocks from Beale Street—close enough to walk but not within party noise range when we wanted to sleep.  After settling our car in the parking garage, we walked down a nearby alley to the famous Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous Barbecue restaurant.  We had eaten there in 2010 with my sister and brother-in-law and had fond memories of this most traditional of Southern restaurants which took the trouble to accommodate vegetarians with a taste for the ‘cue.  Like before, I had the meatless red beans and rice, while Ken went for a barbecue chicken sandwich with a side of the unique Rendezvous mustard and vinegar dressed coleslaw.  Mr. Vergos’ kitchen did not disappoint.

Sun going down on Beale Street
On Beale Street, police presence was considerably less in evidence than our last visit when they were checking IDs at the end of the street.  Today we saw only an occasional officer on the street, though there is an MPD station on the east end of the pedestrian blocks.  As we wandered up and down the street listening for some genuine blues music (not the rock or country versions some clubs were selling), we noticed that the drum line for the Memphis Grizzlies professional basketball team was assembling in the street in front of the Blues Hall Juke Joint.  People gathered round as the drummers set up their equipment, and by the time they broke into a high energy performance, the Grizzline was surrounded by audience.


After watching the percussionists for a while, we continued our search for some good blues music.  Hard rocking tunes were blasting from most doors we passed until we were near the end of the block.  From the Blues City Café, some soulful heartfelt blues wafted out and drew us in.  Earl “The Pearl” Banks and the People of the Blues were playing their regular Saturday night gig in the café’s Band Box.  At 79, Earl is one of the last of the Memphis old school bluesmen who eschew the modern emphasis on volume and coax the feeling of each song out of their guitars.  A fixture on Beale Street for more than 50 years, Earl “The Pearl” has been honored with numerous awards, including a Beale Street Brass Note.

Earl and the People of the Blues
We recognized guitarist Brad Webb in Earl’s band as the musician we had chatted with at Red’s in Clarksdale last night when he was filling in with Joyce Jones' group.  During the band’s break, we buttonholed Brad again to garner some inside information on the Memphis blues scene.  As it turned out, we could not have found a better guide.  In addition to guitar gigs, Brad is a music producer and an active member of the Memphis Blues Society, hosting their Sunday blues jams at Rum Boogie Café.  When we told him we were chasing the blues on up to St. Louis and Chicago, he recommended checking out the local blues society and public radio station web sites wherever we traveled to tap into the local calendar of performances.

We stayed for the rest of Earl’s set, leaving before the rockabilly Stunning Cunning band had time to set up.  As we were departing, a handful of kids and young men we had seen earlier called the Beale Street Flippers were still entertaining tourists with their gravity-defying flips up and down the street.  On our stroll back to the Residence Inn, we made plans for tomorrow:  letterboxing in the morning and the Sunday blues jam in the afternoon and evening.  Earl "The Pearl" will be among the bands playing.