Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer and session-musician, Jack Pearson shared some unique perspective about his musical journey with a room full of Berklee alumni and others from the Nashville music community last Tuesday. The Nashville Berklee Jam, held monthly at the Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, saw some new faces and old friends on this special night, and Jack’s decades of experience as a world-class musician provided a rare peek behind the curtain for all those in attendance.
Jack’s musical career began in the mid 1970’s, when he played in multiple bands and logged his first recording session at age 16. In 1993 the Nashville native began his relationship with The Allman Brothers Band as a sub for Dickey Betts, eventually becoming a member of the ABB from 1997-1999 and also touring with Gregg Allman & Friends. Over the years he’s also worked with Vince Gill, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Buffett, Earl Scruggs, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Gov’t Mule, Buddy DeFranco, and countless others.
Jack began his part of this night by playing some beautiful sketches of “I Can’t Get Started”, and for those who have never heard him play, his ability to transport an audience through time and space with nothing other than an unaccompanied electric guitar became quickly apparent. Following the spontaneous applause, Jack cut straight to some Q & A. One of the first questions asked was about his guitar, and I found it interesting that the deep, rich tone coming out of our backline Fender Deluxe originated from a Fender “Squire” Stratocaster, which he had recently bought for $100 at a pawn shop. Plugged into nothing other than a lone tube screamer, this drove home the point that great tone comes from within.
Learning from his oldest brother, Jack was exposed to rockabilly and blues as a teenager and explored the music of Chuck Berry, The Ventures, and Carl Perkins at a young age before eventually discovering jazz greats like, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian. Learning from friends, other musicians, and records, he slowly pieced together his musical vocabulary. He shared some thoughts on how to approach a II-V turnaround, demonstrating some different voicings and melodic approaches, underscoring the importance of putting song and melody above the technical understanding of modes and scales.
“It takes a lot of experimenting… a lot of guys come to me that get out of school and they say, “when I hear this chord I’m supposed to play this mode and scale”, and it locks them up. They can’t make any melodies because they’re told to play a mode or a scale.”
This simple, but prophetic thought resonated, and I had flashes to a time in my life when I over analyzed the music I played. Jack drove this point home with “…it comes down to the chord and the melody and where it’s going to…”
He went on to talk about the blending of styles and how he went through different periods of his life where he would be deeply immersed in a singular style for a few years – Delta blues, jazz, etc., and that after a while, all these different styles started coming together. Not afraid to take some chances musically, he demonstrated how he might go from a Howlin’ Wolf lick to a Charlie Parker lick within the same phrase, and that while some players will say this is wrong, he believes that “the main thing is to get the music out, and play with feeling.”
In response to a question about some of his best and worst gigs, Jack said that some of the worst gigs are when people don’t listen, and the music that you play with somebody is more important than the venue, or how famous somebody is.
He explained how learning all of the Allman Brothers songs as a kid helped put him in the position to sub for Dickey Betts on an early 90s Allman Brothers tour, which led to some recording with Gregg Allman and eventually to a phone call from Greg in which he was asked if he wanted to join the Allman Brothers band.
He candidly shared how this landmark gig damaged his hearing, causing an already existing case of Tinnitus to worsen, ultimately forcing him to leave the gig, perhaps sooner than he otherwise would have.
“There’s really no way to describe how loud it was on stage…Dickey Betts wasn’t in the PA…he was 135 dB side stage…”
As a fellow tinnitus sufferer I completely related to this portion of his talk and gained some new perspective as he explained that, despite wearing earplugs, extreme SPL’s (sound pressure levels) can still do damage, as the sound can affect your inner ear by entering your nose, mouth, and through your bones.
In response to a question about life lessons learned through music he answered, “Try not to take music for granted, it’s so special, and you can reach so many people…lyrics can encourage you, relate to your pain, but you can also do it with notes.” He demonstrated this by showing how the same group of notes can sound happy, or sad depending on where the emphasis is placed. He talked about the endless possibilities of how you can play even a single note, demonstrating this concept by playing a huge range of variances on a high “G” note.
After Jack’s talk concluded he played a short set with our Alumni House Band, the air becoming filled with the sounds of spontaneous applause after each inspired performance. Jack left shortly after his set, and the other alums in attendance continued jamming into the night. I, and everyone else in attendance would like to extend our appreciation and gratitude to Jack for sharing his music and journey on this special night!
Come out tonight for the official book release party for “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide” at The Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, TN (7 – 11). Many of the contributors to the project will be in attendance and the first three people to ask will receive a free copy of the book. My band will be playing featuring former “G-man,” Mike Chapman on bass; Nick “Shaggy Bag” Forchione on drums; and me on vocals and guitar. There might even be a few special guests.
After 2+ long years of research and writing, I’m excited to get this book out into the world. This project has been all about paying it forward, and I believe this book will prove to be a useful tool for many musicians trying to find their way in this crazy business. This will be a very special night, and one to remember for a long time to come. So come on out for the festivities!
The Fillin’ Station
385 North Main St.
Kingston Springs, TN 37082
Directions from downtown Nashville:
Take I-40 West to exit 188 (Kingston Springs)
Go right at end of exit onto SR-249 (Luyben Hills Rd.)
Go 300 yards turn left onto Kingston Springs Road
After 1.3 miles you’ll come to a stop sign – turn right onto North Main St.
The Fillin’ Station is about 400 feet on the left (the last business in a small strip mall)
Last Saturday saw another outing of my new trio when we played to another standing room only, sold-out show at the Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, TN and boy was it fun! Okay, maybe it wasn’t standing room only, but I always wanted to say that, and besides, we played like it was a full house. It was another cold, wintry Saturday night in middle Tennessee and we had just received our seventh snow storm of the season a few days prior (it’s already snowed more times this winter than it had in the previous seven since I’ve been here). So we were feeling a little housebound and it was good to get out and play.
“It’s like eating ice cream.” That’s how Mike Chapman, my good friend and bassist in this project, described our band and the gig after the show – it’s as fun as fun can ever be, and it comes without any real purpose or pretense other than to simply be fun. At this point of my career, and life for that matter, outings with this trio are perhaps the most enjoyable experiences I ever have when it comes to playing music. Not that my other musical activities and work aren’t fun, I have found a way to enjoy just about every musical situation at this point, but many of them are on somebody else’s dime, and that almost always creates a whole other mindset and set of expectations.
Take my job with Rhett Akins for example. It’s a great job, we go on the road couple of times a month, I get to hang out with my friends, play some great shows, and get driven around the country on fancy tour buses. Of course I also have to advance shows, deal with event coordinators, production companies, etc. – there’s a lot of responsibility with my job and that can often be accompanied by stress.
The same applies to working on songwriter demos, another one of the hats I wear. Building songs in my home studio, recording drums, guitar tracks, vocals – while these are still dynamic and challenging musical activities, they are on someone else’s dime, therefore, I must work quickly and efficiently and put aside my creative differences in the name of pleasing my clients – the customer is always right. But it’s still all music related work, and that’s great, it’s what I set out to do a long time ago. Not to mention, I’m making my living doing something I love.
There is one thing that I have noticed after what is now more than two decades of working in the music business full-time, it’s called desensitization. After a lifetime of musical activity I have logged many thousands of hours on my instrument, played over 3000 live shows, and worked on countless studio recordings. I’ve also listened to thousands of recordings, as so many of us have. This oversaturation (for lack of a better word) of musical activity can take away some of that special spark that we had in our younger years. I can never again hear the music of Jimi Hendrix or the Allman Brothers for the first time again. Not to mention the power of youth, as a friend of mine once said “There’s nothing like a teenager playing music, they always play with reckless abandon.”
So now I’m all grown up and playing for a living and, while I am thrilled about how it all worked out, I still long for that kind of fix that I used to get daily from music in my younger years. That’s where my trio comes into play. My good friend Mike Chapman is a legend in Nashville, one of the finest bass players you’ll ever meet, and my experiences in the music business to date are only a small fraction of what he has experienced. The same is true of my other compadre in this project, friend and drummer extraordinaire Fran Breen. At one point Fran was so busy in the music world that he turned down an opportunity to tour with Van Morrison.
After nine years of playing and working in Nashville I have come to know these fine players as friends, in addition to working with them on different gigs over the years, and this is perhaps one of the biggest perks of living in Nashville. I wasn’t going to meet Mike and Fran in my native New England. And it turns out we share some common ground. Sometimes they need a musical “fix” too, and perhaps that is why they are enjoying this trio project as much as I am. Literally every time we finish playing one of these gigs I find myself excitedly awaiting the arrival of the next one.
Touring the country, playing on big stages, working on recording projects, that’s all good and well. I’ve worked hard to accomplish everything I have and am thankful that it has all worked out. But for me and the guys, sometimes we just want a little ice cream.
Saturday night was the first outing for my new band ‘Endless Boogie’, and fun was had by all who ventured out to party with us at the Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, TN. The club, owned by Patrick Weickenand, was the perfect setting for my long awaited rock n’ blues experiment. Small, intimate, and loaded with character, the club is housed in an old garage right out of yesteryear, hence the name, and a favorite watering hole for the locals on the west side of town.
Our trio started out with a couple of instrumentals to get things going before switching to some vocal-based tunes. The place wasn’t too busy during our first set, so Patrick, who was working the bar, had time to sit in on harp for a few tunes in between slinging beers. Patrick is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and undoubtedly contributes greatly to the warmth and charm of this unique place. Anyone who has ever played the Fillin’ Station knows that Patrick is a great harp player, and he’s frequently requested to ‘sit-in’ from behind the bar with many a band. So several times throughout this night he joined in for some fun jams (check out the video below).
Fran Breen (drums) and Mike Chapman (bass), aside from being good friends of mine, are seasoned pros and I was thrilled to have them on the gig. Talk about groove, boy these guys can lay it down! I had an absolute blast playing with them, and we plan to do this on a regular basis, schedules permitting. As of right now our next outing will be Friday, December 3rd back at the Fillin’ Station.
By the third set, the place had erupted into a full-blown dance party which held through to the end. People were even dancing on Whipping Post (if you’ve ever tried to dance to this song you know why this is significant). All in all it was a triumphant beginning to this new project, a project born out of my need for “a little music for the soul”.
As a professional freelance musician working and living in Nashville, much of the work I perform is for other people’s entities, as is true for many hired guns. I’m not complaining mind you, this is how the bills get paid. My regular gig as tour manager/guitarist for Rhett Akins occupies many weekends throughout the year, and sporadic nightclub gigs and songwriter recording projects help to fill in the gaps. As rewarding as some of this work can be, it all comes under the heading of ‘gun for hire’ which means I must meet somebody else’s expectations, as they are footing the bill, often adjusting my musical tastes and desires to fit the gig.
So whenever it’s feasible, I take on gigs purely for my own musical expression, a little ‘music for the soul’ as I call it. Now that fall is here and the annual touring/festival season is drawing to a close, I’ll have a little more time for these kinds of endeavors. With that, I’m excited to tell you about my new project – Eric Normand and Endless Boogie. The concept of this band is simple. I will play only music that I enjoy playing, with people whom I enjoy playing, in venues that are enjoyable to play.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s I always looked back a few years to find my musical heroes; Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, John Lee Hooker, and to this day this is still some of the most expressive music I ever play. So in my new Nashville based ‘fun band’ that’s just what were going to do. The song list will contain Hendrix classics like Little Wing, Voodoo Child, and All along the Watchtower, Allman Brothers classics like You Don’t Love Me, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Melissa, and Whipping Post, classic blues songs like Freddie King’s Going Down, John Lee Hooker’s Hug You, Kiss You, Squeeze You, and even a few of my favorite instrumentals by Miles Davis and The Meters. Needless to say, we will put our own spin on these.
As I live in Nashville, and this kind of song list will not command top pay, getting great players to commit to a gig like this isn’t easy. All the best players are usually pretty busy taking the most lucrative gigs offered, and even if you get them to commit, something always seems to come up. So you either have to have two or three players deep on each instrument that know your material, or you have to wait till the last minute to book the players. I got real lucky for this first outing of Endless Boogie as a couple of my good friends, Fran Breen and Mike Chapman, just happened to be available.
Fran Breen is a world-class drummer from Ireland that has worked on and off in the Nashville music industry for over 20 years. He’s played with a few major artists like Lucinda Williams, Nancy Griffith, Shelby Lynn, and is also an accomplished session drummer having played on countless projects over the years including the soundtrack for the movie “The Commitments” . He’s a top notch groove machine, especially when it comes to blues and funk, and I’m thrilled to have him on the gig. (Plus he is really funny and has the coolest Irish accent.)
Mike Chapman is one of the best bassists Nashville has to offer, and another ace in the hole who happens to be a good friend of mine. Mike’s first big gig was with Hank Williams Jr. in the early 80s, since which time he has played on innumerable A-list recording sessions ranging from literally all of Garth Brooks recordings to Leanne Rimes, Brooks & Dunn, Huey Lewis and countless others. Mike has played bass on over 30 number 1 singles and the albums that he has played on have sold over 150 million copies. If it sounds like I’m bragging a little bit about these guys, it’s because I am. I mean how often does one get to say “My drummer played on the Commitments soundtrack” or “My bass player has been heard on 150 million albums”?
The last ingredient for my first outing with ‘Endless Boogie’ is a fun venue in which to play. The Fillin’ Station, located on Main Street in Kingston Springs, is the perfect venue for an intimate night of exploratory rockin’ blues and funk jams. While playing on big tours in front of thousands of people can be exciting, sometimes the finer points of the music get lost in the ‘bigness’ of those events. To this day, my favorite musical settings are small to midsize nightclubs, for it is in these small-town bars and juke joints of the world where the magic really happens. The Fillin’ Station is owned by Patrick Weickenand, former member of Eric Burdon’s band ‘War’ and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet who also blows a mean harp from behind the bar from time to time. The club is small but comfortable, and has an adjoining outdoor patio which fills up with locals on many a night. The club is just 25 minutes from downtown Nashville (exit 188 off of I40 west) and features live music four to five nights a week year-round, never with a cover.
I’ve been wanting to put together a group like this for a few years now, toying with the idea periodically, but never quite getting organized enough to make it happen. But I’ve realized that this is just what you have to do in Nashville, you have to find a way to not lose sight of your own vision even while you spend most of your time working for other people. My musical dreams at this point of my life are quite simple, I want to play the music that I love to play, the way I want to play it, hopefully taking a few others along for the ride.
So that’s it, all the essential ingredients are in line for an expressive night of music – songs I enjoy playing, people I enjoy playing with, and a place I enjoy playing at. Our show will be this coming Saturday, October 16 from 7:00 to 11:00. I’m really pumped for this show, so if you live in the Nashville area come on down for a night of Endless Boogie!
While we awoke Sunday morning in high spirits, we were sad to see this trip drawing to a close. What was originally planned as a simple three-day getaway wound up being a prolific, life-changing experience. We thanked Marc for her hospitality and informed her that the Shack up Inn had just become at least an annual destination for us. As we made our exodus, heading north on Highway 61, we again took in to view a seemingly endless sea of cotton. We basked in the memories of the trip for most of the five hour drive home, recounting several high points still fresh in our minds.
While our explorations may not have revealed every facet of this community, this it did reveal; Clarksdale, while being one of the poorest places we have ever visited (economically speaking), is rich in its heritage, rich in spirit, its wealth defined by the warm and open nature of many of its citizens, and by this community’s enduring and ongoing contributions to the vital music our world so badly needs. In the circles we traveled during our stay, all of the locals we encountered were friendly and courteous, seeming to understand and appreciate the musical history that was born unto this place and the interest it still procures. It is an atrocity that most Americans are unaware of the cultural and musical heartbeat that dwells here.
Through a continuing appreciation for the music and culture of the Delta by some unlikely world citizens, citizens from every race, sex, and ethnic background, Clarksdale is a true melting pot, even if the pot is somewhat temporary. People from all walks of life and from every corner of the U.S., Europe, Asia, and beyond gathering in these sacred music halls for some song and dance – this isn’t history, this is today, and tomorrow, and I believe that many who visit Clarksdale will forever carry a piece of this culture and music with them, perhaps even a renewed sense of hope and purpose from their experiences here. I know we will. We came for a vacation, and while it was all of that, the experience was transformational, a musical and cultural revelation we are thankful to have had.
If you are a fan of blues or blues-influenced music, the Clarksdale experience is a must, there is a deep rooted blues subculture alive and well here. If you are a history buff, you can learn more about the American struggle by visiting this place for just one day then you can from most history books. If you just want to have a great vacation, you can do that too.
Feeling compelled to document this journey as thoroughly as possible, Kelly and I took around 500 photos over this three-day adventure. While ‘vacation pictures’ are never as interesting to anyone else as they are to the vacationers, we have decided to post most of them in a photo Journal for all to see. I have broken them down into several albums, each listing the day and the subject matter. If you are considering a trip to Clarksdale, or just curious about the place, this photo album should provide some perspective. Eric and Kelly’s Clarksdale Photo Journal
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!
Friday Morning at the Shack Up Inn
Friday morning came a little too early when we were awoken by some sort of tweety bird chirping right outside our bedroom window around 7 AM. With the help of some earplugs, we were able to fall back asleep for a couple more hours with hardly a sound from the outside world audible from inside our little shack. After eating some breakfast while listening to a little Robert Johnson, I decided to go on a photo taking expedition around the grounds. It might not be right for everyone, but I found the decor around the Shack Up Inn immensely interesting. Rusted old farm equipment decorated the lawn, old Coca-Cola signs were placed at random, a tree was covered with blue and green bottles – these folks had figured out how to turn what might otherwise be considered junk into art, and this helped make the Inn feel like some sort of living museum of the old American South.
We set out a little while later to begin exploring downtown, and our first stop was to take a few photos of the ‘crossroads’ sign at Highway 49. The picture in my mind of this place where Robert Johnson allegedly made his deal with the devil is of course nothing like this modern touristy version, as this intersection is now surrounded with businesses including the adjacent Churches Chicken. It was still worth a few pictures, and later in the day I accidentally found another intersection in town that looked eerily like the crossroads I envisioned.
As we continued driving towards downtown we began to notice how poor this community is, seeing many run down buildings, once occupied by businesses and services, now empty, their exteriors slowly deteriorating. Upon arriving downtown we easily found a free parking spot near the Delta Blues Museum and began our first walk around amidst some light foot traffic. Our first stop would be Blues Town Music, a local music store filled with cool old gear, worthy of the store’s namesake. An Asian man was sitting on a stool and playing some traditional blues on an open tuned guitar – “I saw you play at Ground Zero last night. Great playing!” he commented. “Thanks. I’m Eric, pleased to meet you.” “My name is Gypsy, and I’m here on vacation from Japan.” he informed me, and after some conversation I learned this was his 10th trip to Clarksdale. We continued our stroll, taking in the sights of this obviously once booming town, now struggling for its very survival. The downtown area had pockets of activity, and other areas that seemed void of all life. Many of the buildings looked like they hadn’t been painted in decades, some with boards on the windows, others with bars on them. As we continued our walk on some of these near empty streets, this kind of sporadic hot and cold ghost town feeling was almost a bit unnerving, however, not once did we feel in danger.
We walked over to the Ground Zero Blues Club to snap a couple of quick pictures in the daylight, and continued onward in search of the legendary ‘Red’s Blues Club’, the infamous juke joint everyone seemed to hold in such high regard and our destination for later that night. Coming out the back side of the Ground Zero parking lot we came to a large abandoned blue brick building touting the sign ‘Delta Wholesale Hardware Co.’ before crossing the train tracks. A little further down the road we spotted another old brick building with a couple of smokers sitting on the curb in front. Somehow we just knew this was Red’s and ventured closer to take a peek. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you would never think to stop at this Sanford and Sonesque place, it’s curb littered with a beat up old couch, a broken toilet, and several large pieces of homemade barbecue apparatus. Above a tattered old canopy the faded words ‘LaVENE MUSIC CENTER’ were stenciled onto the brick, perhaps remnants of another failed business out of yesteryear. Only once right upon the sidewalk did the sign ‘Red’s Blues Club’ become visible. It was a curious moment of realization knowing that a few hours later we would likely be experiencing something very unique and special.
We began walking back to our car to return to the shack for some lunch when a friendly local volunteered to take our picture. For a split second we both had the vision of the scene in National Lampoon’s ‘European Vacation’ when a local runs off with the tourists camera, but that didn’t happen, this local was quite genuine.
Upon returning downtown a couple of hours later our first stop would be at 252 Delta Ave, home of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art. The place was kind of a cross between a gift shop and an art gallery for blues aficionados containing CDs, DVDs, books, T-shirts, and some amazing local folk Art. They had a large collection of documentaries and books about blues history and culture available and I could have easily spent a small fortune. Not having grown up in the South, I asked the man behind the counter about the origins of the term ‘Cat Head’. He explained to me that “In the early 1900’s ‘Cat Head’ was a company that made giant biscuits, biscuits so large they were the size of a cat head.” In addition to being a store selling everything related to the blues, Cat Heads website is kind of a central gathering point for information pertaining to not just Clarksdale’s live music scene and points of interest, but to blues related events throughout the Delta. After browsing the store for a little while longer while listening to some obscure blues recordings over the speakers, we went on down the road.
Located on East Second Street, (a little bit off the beaten path) we found our way into the museum and were greeted by ‘Theo’. Theo is originally from Europe and the owner of the museum and, above all else, Theo loves American blues music, history, and culture. After paying the minimal entry fee of five dollars a head, well worth every penny mind you (not to mention helping this great nonprofit organization), we began exploring this massive collection of American roots music culture. “Roots to Fruits”, Theo explained, is the theme of this museum, and if you walk through the museum on the recommended path, it shows the evolution of the earliest blues artists and recordings, and how that music transcended across generations and continents giving birth to early blues influenced rock and roll artists like Elvis, the Beatles, and the Stones before morphing into the roots of modern rock with artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and beyond. Amidst this collection of rarities, which I learned was moved here from Europe about five years ago, were some of the earliest and rarest blues records, concert posters, early record players and jukeboxes, even an old barber chair that came from a local barber shop in which John Lee Hooker and many other legends got haircuts back in the day. We saw the Muddy Waters record which gave birth to the Rolling Stones namesake, its title bearing ‘Rolling Stone’. The original contract offer form for the Who’s performance at Woodstock, where they received $6250.00 for their historic performance. Pencil drawings by John Lennon, the controversial Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Lady Land’ album sleeve bearing several nude ladies, and Muddy Water’s ‘contract rider’. We could’ve stayed in there all day, and this would have been especially easy to do as Theo loves to talk, but we said goodbye as we still needed to check out the Delta Blues Museum.
This nonprofit museum is also a must see for anyone who wants to learn more about American blues culture. We arrived a bit late in the day, only about 45 minutes before closing, so we had to breeze through a little faster than we might have preferred. However, the place is magnificent. Early blues recordings can be heard playing over the loudspeakers upon entering the lobby. After we paid our entrance fee of seven dollars each, we walked into a giant room that seemed to radiate from another era. The walls were covered with records, plaques, and drawings of blues legends that came from this part of the Delta. Guitars, clothing, and other memorabilia from artists like Charlie Patten, Son House, Ike Turner, and countless others who had grown up within a few miles of this place were beautifully displayed within plexiglass cases. Perhaps the deepest moment of experience we had within this giant roomful of blues was the Muddy Waters exhibit. The original sharecropper shack in which Muddy Waters grew up had been placed inside this room, complete with one of his old Fender Twin amplifiers, and a legendary guitar commissioned for the museum by Billy Gibbons that had been built from one of the pieces of wood from this shack. Inside the shack, videos showed archival footage of Muddy as well as interviews with his peers, all to a soundtrack of his rootsy music. The moment was revealing knowing the hard life this man must have endured, growing up with his family in such a small coarse space in pre-civil-rights America. It was difficult to pull ourselves away, and we gradually made our exodus as the museum was about to close.
Having thoroughly explored the streets and sites of this unique downtown during the daylight hours, we returned to our shack for dinner and a shower, anxious for our second nighttime adventure into this land of the blues. I had noticed earlier in the day that the intersection of the road leading into the Shack Up Inn, especially from one particular angle, looked a bit like the crossroads of the Robert Johnson era that I had many times pictured in my mind. So right before dinner, with the sun low in the western sky, I snapped a few photos to see if I could capture the unique feeling of standing at such a foreboding spot out of American folklore. A little while later I couldn’t help but to experiment with my picture in Photoshop, and with a few quick adjustments, I had a photo that, at least to me, looked like ‘the crossroads’ where Robert might have made his deal.
Red’s Blues Club
We arrived at Red’s just after 9:00 PM and ‘Big Anthony’ was getting ready to play. The place was still near empty and, after paying a five dollar cover charge, we found a seat and began to take in the sultry scene. Red was working behind the bar and sporting a pair of dark sunglasses in an already dimly lit room. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the lighting in Red’s is just that – red. Red colored neon signs scattered throughout and a couple of red colored lights aimed at the stage create a kind of reddish hue that was inescapable. The place was fairly small, about 20 x 40, and sheets of plastic haphazardly covered the ceiling. Every square inch of the walls was covered with something, be it photos, posters, beer signs, or the lone flat screen TV which never went off. The place had 2 air conditioners which occupied the only windows in the place and a series of fans placed strategically (or randomly) at different locations throughout. The furnishings were comprised of several varieties of barstools, tables, chairs, and couches, all mis-matched and old looking, yet amazingly comfortable. The performance area faced the bar, and its central location seemed to optimize the room. On either side of the ‘stage’ stood a giant column of four or five speakers, circa 1980’s, although it only seemed like a couple of them were being used.
Anthony spotted me from across the room and made his way over asking “Did you bring a guitar?” “Yeah, but I came to hear you play. I’ll get it in a little while.” A few minutes later a friendly older gentleman, who seemed to know everybody, walked on over to our table and said “I’m going to sit with you folks tonight, if that’s okay.” “Of course, have a seat.” I said, later learning his name to be Dingo. We ordered a couple of beers and set our bottle of tequila on the table next to Dhingo’s bottle of Evan Williams whiskey. Beer is the only alcohol sold at Reds, therefore allowing a BYOB for liquor only.
Anthony’s show began as perhaps the most subtle start to a performance I have ever seen. Also wearing sunglasses, “A” was sitting on a stool with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth when he began playing some blues guitar licks, backed only by a drummer. There were maybe only six or eight of us in the room at this point, and the feeling was relaxed and comfortable as Anthony played his brand of Delta blues. He must have played seven or eight blues instrumentals, for nearly an hour, before the vocal portion of his night would begin. The music was earthy and hypnotic and it felt as if time had stood still. As his deep voice resonated some mournful passages, I felt transported to another era. Gradually the night picked up and people started coming in. Another local sat in on backup vocals for a couple of songs, and then Dingo was up to sing a little too. The dance floor (or carpeted area in front of the band) had a few eruptions of activity throughout the night whenever locals and tourists felt the mood. At one point Anthony asked different folks around the room where they were from. The answers were as diverse as imaginable – Italy, Canada, Switzerland, New Orleans, Japan, San Francisco, Tennessee, Australia – people from all over somehow knew about this hidden blues universe.
Now pretty far into this evening and feeling fine, I asked Anthony between songs if I could play a couple with him. He nodded yes, so I went out and grabbed my guitar and amp. I joined him and his band of drummer ‘the Clarksdale All-Stars’ for two or three up-tempo blues, a high point coming on the last song with a little ‘head cutting’. Already having played two and a half hours straight, Anthony suggested I sing a couple while he took a break. His drummer stayed on and I played a couple of blues classics before launching into a funky version of Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ which received a roaring applause. I returned to the stage to Anthony, and a little while later when we were getting ready to leave, Red made his introduction. “You should come back tomorrow night, ‘T-Model Ford’ will be here and it’s gonna’ be a good time. Bring your guitar too. The old guys don’t mind other musicians playing with them.” “Were supposed to go to Memphis tomorrow, but if we can rent our room for one more night we just might do that. Are you sure it would be okay for me to play with him?” I asked. “This is my place, just come on down and bring your guitar.” I then grabbed the unopened bottle of Evan Williams, Red’s whiskey of choice, from the back of my amp and presented it to Red. “We read on the Internet that this is your favorite whiskey, so we brought you a bottle as our way of saying thanks.”
It was noon on Thursday, September 23 when we left our Pegram, TN home bound for Clarksdale, Mississippi. Our route took us west on Interstate 40 for about 200 miles to Memphis, and while this stretch of I-40 is typically a rather boring drive, on this hot summer day, whatever was lacking in visual stimulation was replaced with anticipation. Although we had done a fair amount of research, we still didn’t know exactly what to expect in Clarksdale, so our excited conversations ultimately kept us from noticing that the scenery out the car window hadn’t changed much for the first three hours of the trip.
At Memphis we turned south onto Interstate 55 and entered Mississippi, and while the first hour of I-55 wasn’t anything visually extraordinary, as soon as we turned west on to Highway 278 it felt like we entered a new world. The dense forest that had occupied both sides of the road only minutes before vanished to reveal a wide open view of the Delta plane. Cotton fields stretching to the horizon, cut in two by the road on which we traveled, a seemingly endless road, straight, flat, and disappearing as far into the distance as the eye could see. Aside from other vehicles on the highway, the occasional farmhouse, and farm equipment sparsely scattered throughout the fields, the vastness of this geography was otherworldly. Although this last 40 or so miles was the shortest leg of the drive, our virgin viewing of this fertile Delta plane was empowering and made us feel a bit the wiser, almost as if we were the first explorers to set foot upon a newly discovered continent.
The Shack Up Inn and The Robert Clay Shack
Upon entering Clarksdale, located in Coahoma County, Mississippi, we turned south onto Highway 49 for a couple of miles and found our way to the Hopson Plantation and the location of the place we would be staying, The Shack Up Inn. As we crossed over some railroad tracks, several old ‘barn-like’ buildings covered with rusty corrugated tin came into view, and we passed a row of shacks as we began searching for the lobby. At first glance the main entrance appeared to be a cross between an antique store and a junkyard, and if it were not for a small red sign bearing the hand-painted word ‘lobby’, we might have driven right by. We were greeted warmly by Marc, the woman working at the front desk, and she checked us in while giving us a quick overview of the Inn and some other local attractions. The main lobby is housed within an enormous ‘cotton gin’, and on the other side of the lobby walls the large open space has been transformed into a music hall. After checking in we took a few moments to explore this magnificent room which featured a stage at one end, and church pews and other miscellaneous seating at the other. After a few minutes of soaking in some very unique rustic folk art, which seemed to cover every square inch of this huge room, we headed over to our shack to get settled.
We fell in love with ‘the Robert Clay shack’ almost as soon as we set foot within. Blues music, courtesy a small TV tuned to Sirus radio’s Bluesville (the only channel available) was playing softly as we took a look around and, like the lobby, this interior was a folk art spectacle as well. As I would later learn from Bill, one of the owners, this is their ‘flagship shack’, and it showed. A bedroom at one end, a small bathroom, and an open concept kitchen that expanded into a living room all felt warm and inviting. An old church pew made for a bench, a slightly out of tune piano in the corner, and a screened in back porch only added to the charm. Much of the furnishings and decor looked like 1950’s era or earlier, and this is obviously part of the intended experience. Bill would later tell me a little history about this shack.
In another town in Mississippi, a sharecropper named Robert Clay lived his entire life in this humble abode, raising several sons by himself. When he was an old man, his sons, having moved out many years prior, tried to get him to leave this place and come live with them but he refused. He died an old man in the home in which he lived most of his life, and sometime after his death the shack was moved to it’s current location. After renovating the main body of the shack, the workers, upon exploring the attic to install duct work, discovered a whiskey still, making at least one reason apparent as to why Robert refused to leave. This kind of history just can’t be had at a Holiday Inn or Best Western and only added to the mystique.
One Amazing Sunset
After getting settled in and eating dinner we decided to walk around the grounds for a bit to take in some sites. While exploring the courtyard, the sun began to set on the distant horizon. We stood in wonderment as the sky transformed through a myriad of colors while the sun grew bigger and bigger before disappearing beneath the edge of the earth. In the last few moments before it became invisible beneath the horizon, the sky was on fire and time seemed to stand still. We took a few pictures to preserve the moment, and even though the photos are quite striking, it seems that some magical moments are intended for a single moment in time, coming and going like a breath of wind.
Blues Jam at Ground Zero
A little while later we headed out to the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Coahoma county resident Morgan Freeman, in downtown Clarksdale to attend the weekly Thursday night blues jam. This week it was being hosted by a local favorite, Big Anthony, and he was already on stage playing some fiery blues with his band when we walked in. Walking into a dark and unfamiliar night club with my guitar slung over my shoulder is something I’ve done many times before, but on this warm summer night in the deep South I must admit I was a little nervous, at least initially. The doorman was friendly enough, as was our waitress, and we gradually began to feel more comfortable after ordering a couple of beers and enjoying some of the show. Big Anthony, backed by a strong rhythm section of bass and drums, was playing some authentic Delta blues, his deep voice full of character, his guitar playing driving and relentless.
They took a break and then got up the first jammer, an older gentleman on vacation with his wife from Canada. After loaning this fellow his guitar for a couple of songs Anthony returned to the stage and called me up. Backed by the house drummer and bassist, I ripped through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’, ‘Goin’ Down’, and ‘Rock Me Baby’, and was quite pleased to receive a response that was somewhat over-the-top. Before leaving the stage, I announced that it was Kelly’s birthday and that we had come to Clarksdale to celebrate it, and several people applauded. As I exited the stage I got several compliments from other musicians who were waiting their turns in the wings. A few minutes later I walked over to the bar to get another beer and an older woman said to me “You were really good, but you don’t look like a blues musician.” “Blues musicians come in all shapes and sizes.” was the clarifying response I gave her before returning to my seat.
By this point we were starting to get kind of tired so we headed back to the shack. Our first day of this three-day trip drawing to a close, we sipped a beer on the back porch reminiscing our experiences. So far, this little town of Clarksdale had been a wonderful host, and we turned in for the night, excited for what Friday might bring.
Last weekend my wife and I embarked on what turned out to be the most exciting vacation we’ve ever taken. Our three days and nights in historic Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace of many of America’s greatest blues artists, was as much an education on American history and culture as it was a vacation. In this small, struggling, yet proud town born in one of the darkest periods in American history, we met some of the friendliest and most soulful people you could ever meet. All the locals made us feel welcome and at home, and we also met and became friends with visitors from several other countries, as well as many other parts of the states. The experience was so massive and life enriching that I will not be able to share it in just one article, so I will spread out my writings about this adventure over several.
Several years ago my wife, Kelly, and I watched a fascinating documentary about an old Mississippi juke joint that was still continuing the traditions of ‘old-school’ Delta blues music. At the time, we talked about how great it would be to go to Mississippi and experience this tradition born out of a time and place that gave birth to so much of our favorite music. By the time we got around to exploring that possibility a couple of years later, sadly, we learned that the place had closed down. So, this year, as her birthday approached, I did a little research to see if there were any other juke joint experiences on which we could embark.
I remembered hearing something about Morgan Freeman owning a nightclub in Mississippi and, also aware of his ongoing work to preserve American roots music, this was where my research would begin. A quick Internet search revealed that he is the co-owner of “The Ground Zero Blues Club”, the namesake of this club derived from its location in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town in which many of America’s greatest blues artists were born. Artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and many more. At about 300 miles from Nashville, or a 5 hour drive, the trip was easily feasible, so this idea for a birthday vacation/blues exploration became an instant hit.
When we began looking on the Internet for hotels in the Clarksdale area, we stumbled across what sounded like the perfect place to stay. “The Shack-up Inn“, located on the historic Hopson Plantation, is a series of renovated “sharecropper houses and/or tenant houses” and, after reading what must’ve been 50 or 60 glowing reviews on trip advisor, we booked a couple of nights at the shack that seemed to get the most comments, the Robert Clay shack. Among the amenities toted on the Shack Up Inn website are; AC and heat, running water – both hot and cold, indoor bathrooms, and wireless Internet “which tends to work better if you are near the lobby”. While there is a television in each of these units, the sets receive and play only one channel – Sirus radio’s Bluesville. Our particular shack would also be outfitted with a full kitchen, and old piano, and a screened in porch. The Inn also touts themselves not as a bed and breakfast, but as a “B and B” which they will tell you stands for bed and beer, as they don’t serve breakfast. Another uniqueness offered is the option of using a loner acoustic guitar, available by request in the main lobby.
In the midst of all this research we also began learning about the current live music scene of Clarksdale. While the Ground Zero blues club had some decent reviews, further digging revealed that “Reds Blues Club”, right around the corner, offers a real juke joint experience and is “the real deal”, regularly featuring some of the finest local talent. Of course this town built on such a rich history of musical heritage has plenty to see in the daytime as well. The Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, and the Rock and Blues Museum all came up in numerous reviews as must sees in Clarksdale.
So our plan was to check in to our shack on a Thursday afternoon, attend the weekly blues jam at Ground Zero that night, explore the town on Friday, party at Reds Friday night, and leave Saturday morning for Memphis where we planned to see Graceland in the afternoon, Beale Street at night, and then spend the night at a local hotel before driving back to Nashville on Sunday. Sounds like fun, right? Well as it would turn out, fun would be the understatement of the year, and we wound up changing some of our plans at the last-minute. As you will read later, the only thing we would see in Memphis would be a view of it from our van window as we passed it on our way home.