Tuesday 23 January 2018

Mississippi Magic: A road trip through the birthplace of the Blues


Ground Zero Blues Club in Mississippi
Ground Zero Blues Club in Mississippi
Regina Charboneau making biscuits at Twin Oaks
Dockery Farms

Nicola Brady

Travelling from Memphis to Natchez takes Nicola brady through the birthplace of the blues.

Music is everywhere in Mississippi, whether it's woven into the historical tapestry of a city or just a guy with a  guitar, playing in the corner of a dimly lit bar. This is the birthplace of the Delta blues, after all - the land of BB King, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton.

But as I drive on the Blues Highway, through a hallowed land of stirring, heart-wrenching melodies, there's only one song stuck in my head. And that, to my shame, is Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars (blame the line "Ride to Harlem, Hollywood, Jackson, Mississippi").

This landscape isn't made for pop. It's made for one thing, and one thing alone - the blues. Stand on the fields of Dockery Farms (dockeryfarms.org), a former cotton plantation near Cleveland, and you'll be standing on the very land of which BB King said: "If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here."

Dockery Farms
Dockery Farms

At its peak, Dockery was effectively its own town, with its own currency, and hundreds of families living on site. Come pay day, men like Charley Patton would play to the pickers, from the wooden outbuildings that you can now wander around freely, the strains of his voice in the air.

Continue on to the BB King Museum ($15; bbkingmuseum.org) and you'll get an excellent insight into the history of the blues and the story of the man himself. Afterwards, head over the road to The Blue Biscuit, for an ice-cold bottle of Bud on one of the battered couches outside.

You'll find more of the same in Clarksdale. Once a thriving town, it now has a shabby but charming feel, the old Art Deco signage now rusting, crumbling and peeling. Clarksdale is the birthplace of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. And just 30 miles up the road, where Highways 61 and 49 intersect, is where Robert Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the devil.

Wander around and you'll find great street art and old-school shopfronts, but it's the Ground Zero Blues Club (above, groundzerobluesclub.com) that draws the most attention. Part-owned by Morgan Freeman, every inch of the joint is covered in graffiti, from the lampshades to the pool table. It's as cool as the man himself, who stops by fairly frequently - I, alas, missed him by just one day.

Regina Charboneau making biscuits at Twin Oaks
Regina Charboneau making biscuits at Twin Oaks

Visiting at lunchtime, I also missed out on any music; this is known as one of the best blues venues in the state. I can, however, vouch for their excellent barbecue (and killer beer selection).

Comfort food, of course, is one of the things the South does oh so well. Head to Natchez, and you'll find a town that's full to the brim with places to fill your belly (and isn't afraid of a morning cocktail).

At Twin Oaks (twinoaksnatchez.com), chef Regina Charboneau has a few guest rooms on the grounds of her gorgeous home. Within minutes of meeting her (and tasting the maple-glazed bacon and biscuits she served up) I was ready to propose to any of her offspring, just to secure a life-long place at her dinner table.

It's not the only hotspot in Natchez. Smoot's Grocery (smootsgrocery.com), a cool music venue on the water, is worth visiting for the bathrooms alone - one cubicle has two toilets, along with an inexplicable cardboard cut-out of Cybill Shepherd.

It's this kind of bonkery that encapsulates the charm of Mississippi. For all its contradictions, its troubled past and uncertain future, it's the real America - far from the polish of Manhattan or the glitz of Vegas.

It's the land where Spanish moss drips down from cypress trees, where old railroad tracks cut through dusty highways, where people sit on porch swings and see out the end of the day.

It's the kind of place that makes you want to have a glass of sweet iced tea and just sit easy for a while.

Get there

American Sky (americansky.ie) has a 13-night Southern Explorer guided trip including flights from €2,049pp. They can also tailor-make a self-drive tour.

For mapping out your own road trip, it's easiest to fly into Memphis and out of New Orleans. For further tips on planning routes and itineraries, see visitmississippi.org, msbluestrail.org and deep-south-usa.com.

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