Saturday Morning at the Shack Up Inn
We woke up kind of late on Saturday morning, a light rain falling on this grey but warm September day. Although we had initially planned to check out and head to Memphis around noon, we felt like our journey here wasn’t complete and that we would be doing ourselves an injustice by not staying for one more day. Memphis would just have to wait for another time. So after a little breakfast on the screened in back porch, I walked over to the lobby to see if we could stay for one more night. I explained to Marc, the woman working at the front desk, that we were having such a great time in Clarksdale and wanted to stay for one more night. “All our shacks are booked for tonight, but give me a moment.” With that, she disappeared into a back room, returning a moment later with some good news. “Guy said that we can rent you a room at ‘Bill’s house’ if that can work for you.” “Sure, that sounds good.” A minute later, I was introduced to Guy who walked me over to the house to show me the set up.
As it turned out, ‘Bill’s House’ is a magnificent 3000 square foot, three bedroom ‘cabin style’ home housed in an old tin covered barnlike structure just beyond the shacks. The decor in this giant space was as rustic as our cabin, and our bedroom even had its own separate bathroom wing. I told Guy that this would work just fine, and on our walk back over to the lobby asked him if they ever have any performances in the music hall. “Yeah, we have live music sometimes. It’s actually a great sounding room. I’m working towards being able to make live recordings in there.” He went on to tell me how when they were first building the music room, he had a friend from a university come in and conduct ‘sound tests’ to acoustically maximize the space. If all goes as planned the Shack Up Inn will have the ability to make live multitrack recordings sometime in the spring of 2011. I said goodbye to Guy and headed back to our shack to begin moving our belongings over to ‘Bill’s House’.
A Drive around Town
After lunch we decided to take another drive around to further explore the town. As we had already seen much of downtown, we set out without a plan to get a feel for some parts of the town we had not yet seen. The city of Clarksdale is an interesting community. Our casual drive encountered sporadic light traffic, and took us in and out of many different neighborhoods. There were ‘nice’ sections, and not so nice sections, but even driving through the not so nice sections, we never once felt uncomfortable. We noticed some areas had relatively well maintained homes right next to rundown ‘shack like’ buildings, while other areas looked completely destitute. Economically speaking, Mississippi is the poorest state in America, and this struggle was evident. How could a place so rich in culture and history, it’s musical heritage literally the foundation of all modern music, become so neglected and forgotten?
A little while later we were driving by Red’s on the way back to the Inn when I noticed a car parked out front. The front door was open, so I stopped in for a quick hello. During our brief chat Red asked me where I was from. “We’re from Nashville and came here to celebrate Kelly’s birthday.” “Nashville, now that’s a dangerous place!” he proclaimed, and I nodded my head in agreement. He went on to tell about some of the town’s biggest talents growing up within just a few miles of this spot. “John Lee Hooker grew up just a couple miles from here. Muddy Waters grew up about 5 miles from here. Ike Turner used to live right across that bridge.” He went on to tell about how in the old days, when a lot of these guys started becoming successful, that’s when their problems really began. “Once they started making money, they bought new houses and cars, only to lose it all once they split up with their old ladies. Sometimes, after they’d become successful, they couldn’t afford to have careers, so they’d just quit for a while.” So goes the life of a bluesman.
Saturday Dusk at the Inn
We returned to our ‘new shack’ and ate dinner, after which I decided to take one more walk around for some photos. The music room in the ‘Cotton Gin’ contains some beautiful spectacles, and I just stood there for a moment upon entering, soaking in its woody vibe. Memorabilia and signs from a forgotten era in the South’s not so distant past were constantly evident, and at times I couldn’t tell whether I was standing in a music hall or some sort of cultural exposé. The fact that blues recordings can be heard literally all over this plantation only add to the mystique. A sign bearing the words ‘Dentons Ice Cream – it’s real food’, a portrait of Elvis, a pre-1950s looking Schlitz beer sign, an old Coke machine – not a hint of anything modern except for the two PA speakers on the stage. I was beginning to feel like this entire Clarksdale experience was the junior high school field trip that I never had, but should have had. This kind of culture and history just can’t be learned in a textbook.
Red’s blues party with T-Model Ford and friends
It was about 7:30 when we pulled up to Red’s and, unlike the night before, the place already had a bit of a crowd. We walked in toting my guitar and amp, as Red requested, set them down near the music area and found a seat. T-Model was already there, sitting on a chair next to the drums and lightly playing some bluesy guitar riffs. His 12-year-old grandson ‘Stud’ is T-models regular drummer, and was already seated behind the drums. I went to the bar to say hi to Red, bought a couple of beers and returned to the table. A few minutes later T-Models light strumming morphed into the beginning of his set, almost unnoticed. The crowd grew quiet as soon as he began singing in his deep resonant voice, his chilling cries slicing through the night air like a razor. We sat mesmerized, and the crowd showed appreciation after each song. About a half hour into his set he asked “Where’s that other gee-tar man?” I raised my hand, and he waved me to the stage with an inviting gesture.
As soon as I set up my amp and plugged in my guitar we were off and running. He never announced any song in advance, he would just start playing a rhythm, a couple of bars later Stud would follow suit, and I would jump in as soon as I could figure out what they were doing. Before I knew it, the place was a rockin’ and I was holding on for dear life. Every once in a while, in between songs, T-Model would grab a glass of whiskey from the top of his amp, hold it up, and proclaim with a passionate howl “Jack Daniels time!” evoking an excited response from the crowd every time. Beginning to feel a little left out, I signaled Kelly to bring me a glass of whiskey, which, after taking a healthy swig from, I set on a stool beside me. Gradually, the place filled up and we just kept on playing. I recognized some of the faces from the night before, but many newcomers were there as well. When T-Model asked the crowd were they were all from, some of the answers were different than the night before, but still just as diverse – Wisconsin, Spain, Louisiana, Germany, among other distant places.
Following T-Model in his unique brand of Delta blues was as much an education as anything else. Unique to his style is a peculiar notion of changing chords on random beats, something that Stud is exceptional at following, and I was learning. This required intense concentration on my part, and I rarely took my eyes off of T. Apparently, it was all working quite well, as the audience constantly showed their approval. Several times throughout the night the dance floor again erupted with the kind of sexy and provocative moves that could only happen in a juke joint in the deep South. At some point in the middle of all this, Dingo asked if ‘Gypsy’, the blues guitarist from Japan, could use my amp for a couple of songs. He played a couple, and then T-Model motioned to me back to the stage. A local harp player then sat in for a few, the crowd still grooving hard. Around 11:30 things began to wind down, T-Model had been playing for nearly 3 1/2 hours straight and it seemed like he had said everything that needed to be said.
As I put my gear away, I couldn’t help but thinking how lucky I was to be invited to play a whole night with a living blues legend in a real juke joint. We had a few photos taken with Red and the gang, and thanked everybody for making our first trip to Clarksdale such a wonderful experience. I commented to Dingo about how great it was that they let other players sit in. “We let everybody play. If they’re good, then they can keep on playing. If they’re not too good, then we just kinda eeeeease em’ on out after a couple of songs. But everybody gets to play at Red’s.” I thanked T-Model for letting me play, and he shook my hand and said “Thank You!” Red and his friends had welcomed us into their world, and their openness warmed our souls. It was a truly magical night!
Nightcap at the Shack
Back at the Shack Up Inn a few minutes later, we grabbed a couple of beers and went out to sit on the giant porch swing behind the lobby to unwind. We chatted with several other visitors, and it seemed everybody we talked to had been at Red’s at some point over the weekend. College kids from LSU, a couple vacationing from San Francisco, even Marc, the front desk clerk had gathered with us to enjoy some late-night cheer. It wasn’t long before some acoustic guitars came out, and we all sat around for a little while longer strumming and singing into the night. I couldn’t believe that we were actually going to have to leave this place!
During the summer of 2008 when the Rhett Akins band was between bass players, our sound engineer Penn Robertson threw out the idea of calling his friend Oteil Burbridge to sub a few gigs, as he was currently on hiatus from his regular gig with the Allman Brothers. Apparently the brothers were on an extended break that summer and Oteil happened to be available and interested in coming out with us. The next thing I knew we were doing a handful of gigs with him and riding around on a bus listening to first-hand stories about my childhood idols. While the gigs and stories were great fun, it was the sound checks that were most memorable.
As Rhett and band are well-versed in the Allman Brothers classic material, our sound checks during this time period contained several songs from their repertoire; Blue Sky, Statesboro Blues, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and Aint Wastin’ Time No More. These moments contained some great improvised jams propelled by Oteil’s masterful groove and melodic sensibility. It was almost as if a little piece of one of America’s greatest bands fell from the sky and landed on our doorstep, to be shared only in the moment with a few appreciative friends. Eventually our stint with Oteil came to an end but it was an inspired road to travel on while it lasted. One I will always remember with fondness and never forget. Thanks Oteil
Last night I went to a blues jam at a local bar near my home. In my younger days, I used to frequent blues jams regularly, sometimes driving an hour and a half just to sit in for three songs. I haven’t been to a blues jam in quite some time, and last night was a reminder of a darker element inherent to some of these events.
This particular jam is held at a local watering hole, and in general, a fun place to go. The bar owner is a man of high spirits, and his good nature is a catalyst for the overall feeling of community which exists in this quaint setting. Kelly and I were meeting some friends, and when we arrived they were already there, hanging out and listening to the house band play their first set. These friends were also locals and had invited some of their friends, a three-piece blues band of passionate youngsters that drove down from Kentucky.
Shortly after greeting them and settling in, the fellow that runs the jam came over and asked our band friends if they were here to play. When they said yes, he barked “Do you guys play blues? You look like a bunch of rock and rollers to me, with the long hair and everything. This is a blues jam and we’ve got to pretty much stick to the blues.” Certainly not the friendliest foot to put forward. He accepted the fact that they were going to play, but told them they had to play with an additional guitar player, some local SRV type.
As they were the first players to arrive at this first come first serve jam, the jam master told them they were up, but to set up as quickly as possible as the clock was ticking. As they were setting up their guitars and getting situated, the “blues Nazi” walked over to the drummer and told him that he was too loud, even though he hadn’t played anything yet.
A few minutes later they started playing their first song, which was going well until halfway through it when the uninvited “guest” guitar player accidentally unplugged the bass players amp, essentially train wrecking the song. Halfway through the second song our less than friendly jam night commando was in their face again telling them they were too loud. They finished their short set to a decent response, and I might add that I thought they were quite good, full of that kind of youthful energy and passion that so many older players often lack.
When I chatted with a couple of these players shortly afterwards, they told me they frequent a lot of blues jams near their hometown, and at least half the time they get this kind of attitude. It made me remember the days when I used to frequent blues jams and how I had often experienced the same thing. The funny thing is, this particular blues Nazi, is not even a very good musician (as is the case with most blues Nazi’s). His condescending destructive nature wards off many a player. These three excitable youngsters drove 100 miles to come play music, as I had done many times in my younger years. So what if they were loud, isn’t live music too loud half the time anyway? If we wanted to hear quiet music, we would have stayed home and played the stereo.
The moral of the story is: Life is short, so don’t be a blues Nazi