“Twenty years ago, there were only five cars on this street — and they belonged to store owners,” said Bubba O’Keefe, on the somewhat busier streets of Clarksdale, MS he helped animate.
Bubba’s grandfather was once mayor of this Delta town of 16,000. For the past 20 years he has been buying old-brick buildings downtown, betting blues lovers from around the world will trek 80 miles south of Graceland.
“My wife wasn’t afraid of another woman,” he says. “She was afraid I’d come home with another building.”
Other investors – Morgan Freeman, Seattle tech CEOs, New Zealand entrepreneurs – are developing restaurants, chocolate stores and juke joints. Freeman grew up close by, and moved from Manhattan back to Mississippi to live in Charleston, a town about an hour away.
The competition makes Bubba even happier now as he recently divested himself of some investments. Plus, in January 2019, he started a new job as executive director of Visit Clarksdale, one which – if you tried keeping up with him walking around Clarksdale – you’d think he was doing his entire life.
“There was no blues here when I was growing up,” he says, leading a group of visitors past one of the only authentic, old-time, continuously operated juke joints downtown: Red’s Blues Club at 398 Sunflower Avenue. If you Google it, you may not find a website, but you will see this: “cash-only, dancing, fast service.” Not to mention good barbecue, cold beer and true blues played live most nights. In reality, Red’s is open whenever owner Red Paden feels like it. He’s often sitting to the right of the stage, watching TV while a local or two mingle with international fans streaming through to sit on a stool and feel the local vibe.
You might catch Lucious Spiller – or he may catch you. One night he asked first-time visitors from Georgia where they’re from and then launched into a state-inspired medley including “Rainy Night in Georgia” before pivoting to a Nirvana cover. Trust me, he pulls it off seamlessly.
Or you may catch Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, a Clarksdale native who was a student in the Delta Blues Museum’s music education program when fate intervened. At the museum’s celebration, Buddy Guy was performing when he invited 17-year-old Big A on stage to play. Watch that magic moment here.
Those two guitarists and others will headline or sit in with larger acts, playing in a roomier venue opened in 2001 by actor Freeman and a group of local investors called the Ground Zero Blues Club – or at any number of clubs around Clarksdale. There are more on the way. Turn any corner downtown and Bubba will point to a building under renovation being financed by out-of-town blues fans, some whose names he whispers as they are well-known celebrities.
Or take a short walk to the New World neighborhood that decades ago was the center of Clarksdale’s African American blues community and is the birthplace of Sam Cooke. You’ll see the telltale plaques from the Mississippi Blues trail outside the New Roxy Theatre, a former neighborhood movie house which is under long term renovation by Robin Colonas, who bought it in 2008 after it sat vacant for 30 years. She lives and works out of state, but comes back to Clarksdale to continue the labor of love or to supervise when it is rented out for special events – events such as the annual Juke Joint Festival, which plays out all over Clarksdale and is attended by blues fans from 40 states and 30 countries.
That’s just one of the festivals Clarksdale hosts each year – the yearly calendar boasts more than 20, including the Birthplace of American Music Fest, the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Fest and the Tennessee Williams Festival, honoring the famous playwright who spent many of his childhood years here with his grandparents and based many of his plays in or influenced by the Mississippi Delta.
But you don’t need to wait for a festival to enjoy live music – you can find it 365 days a year in Clarksdale.
Hotels in Clarksdale, MS
If you stay in Clarksdale, you have have lots of choices for lodging from the traditional roadside motel to the specially themed ones that have opened to take advantage of the blues travelers. The newest addition is the Travelers Hotel, a former 1920s inn for itinerant railroad workers that has been renovated and reopened in 2019 with a more cultured client in mind.
Works by local artists adorn the rooms and the lobby – a casual, open space attracting visitors, locals and creatives who sip local draft beers and wine at the bar or meet around casually furnished spaces. The revitalization was financed by the Coahoma Collective, a group of real estate developers, nonprofit professionals, artists and architects promoting a community-inclusive gathering place.
An even more eclectic and authentic place to stay is a couple of miles up Highway 61: the Shack Up Inn, a collection of old sharecropper shacks moved from around the Delta into a courtyard behind the Hopson Plantation cotton gin that also serves as the lobby and occasional music hall. Modernized to include wifi, bathrooms, heating and air conditioning and small kitchen appliances, the shacks and cotton gin “bins” start at $75 weeknights and $100 weekends. No extra charge for the authentic wind whistling sounds between the old board siding or the roof that leaks “only when it rains.”
Walk next door to the Hopson Plantation Commissary (under different ownership), where you can rent a room in The Loft, occasionally catch live blues acts and grab cold local beers during happy hour.
Hopson is ground zero to a major shift in cotton production in 1935 when it became the first fully mechanized cotton operation in the world. In 1944, Hopson employed International Harvester’s first cotton picker. This mechanization eventually led to the Great Migration, when six million African Americans left the rural South for the urban job markets in Chicago, New York and westward.
Things to Do and Where to Eat in Clarksdale, MS
If you’re looking for a little adventure during the day, book a guided Mississippi River canoe trip at Quapaw Canoe Company, part of a string of adventure outposts stretching from St. Louis to New Orleans. At Quapaw, you can watch locals building and renovating 30-foot cypress canoes similar to the ones fur traders used in the 1830s to haul beaver pelts. Or you can rent or buy more modern canoes – all owned by John Ruskey and all supporting an after-school apprenticeship program teaching skills such as swimming, paddle and canoe construction and river guiding to Clarksdale youth. Guided trips can include one person or a larger group, navigating the nightly Mississippi for one day to three weeks.
Fuel up for your day at Archie Buford’s Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes or Yazoo Pass Espresso Bar, where the French toast rules. Locals will steer you to Abe’s BBQ for lunch and Ramon’s for Italian and fried shrimp for dinner.
But save room for Hooker Grocer + Eatery “Gumbo, Grits & Guitars,” right next to the Delta Blues Museum. Don’t miss Head Chef Johnny Cass’ take on southern hoppin john, smoked catfish dip, fried fish and rib eye Philly cheesesteak. This flavorful restaurant was launched by a Seattle technology investor who was an also investor in that city’s Crocodile Club before he bought a Clarksdale house next door to Hooker’s.
Back on the streets, Bubba asks visitors if they are game to see the 1917 Paramount Theater, a once grand hall that used to feature 1,000 seats for touring vaudeville shows. Bubba bought the theater a few years ago, hoping to restore it and host newer forms of entertainment. One morning, having coffee at the nearby Yazoo Pass, he heard a loud disturbing crash and ran to the theater to find the roof had caved in.
“It’s like Fred and Lamont on the old TV show, ‘Sanford & Son’,” Bubba says, looking over the huge pile of rubble filling the orchestra floor before the still-intact stage. “I tell my kids, ‘This is your empire!’
“My wife tells them something else altogether.”
For more information, see Visit Clarksdale.
– Chris Schroder, The 100 Companies