CLARKSDALE, Miss.--When in Rome, as they say.
As part of Road Trip 2008, my journey through the South in search of several weeks' worth of stories, I had accepted an invitation to come to this tiny town in northwest Mississippi for the opportunity to visit one of the most important Blues clubs in the country.
It turns out that the club, the Ground Zero Blues Club, is co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman and the father of a friend of mine. Lured by the opportunity to talk with the two of them about airplanes--since I'd heard that Freeman and his business partner were avid pilots--I'd not really thought too much about the Blues.
The truth is, I'm not much of a Blues aficionado. To be sure, I've seen a few shows in my day: B.B. King in Jerusalem; John Lee Hooker once or twice; and a couple of other concerts. And I'd certainly listened to my share of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But when I planned to come to Clarksdale, Blues was not my highest priority.
In the end, Freeman wasn't in town, as he is in New York performing in a play. But my host, attorney Bill Luckett, treated me to an evening at his club, and I will readily admit that it was an experience to remember.
For one, the club is a flash-point for fans of the Blues. And Clarksdale, home to the Crossroads, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for great musical talent, is why. Right there, at the intersection of US-61 and US-49, now appropriately across the street from a fried chicken chain, there's a can't miss it sign with a bunch of guitars held aloft and the word "Crossroads" for all to see.
But there's no actual Blues being played there. And good thing, too. In keeping with Mississippi's reality as one of the poorest, most neglected states in the nation, the Crossroads site is right next to a several abandoned lots and there's rubble everywhere. As Luckett told me, someone had said to him recently that Clarksdale was reminiscent of Beirut. And I can sort of agree.
Back to the Ground Zero Blues Club, though.
We spent Friday night there, listening to a signer called Razor Blade wail away. And it was just great. He was the real deal: old, weathered skin, a rich deep voice, a great fedora on his head and an unbelievable apprentice helping him out.
The kid, a 15-year-old named--I believe--Anthony, knocked our socks off. He came out on stage, looking tentative and playing a little timidly at first. And then, suddenly, he just started jamming, and everyone in the place was blown away. This is a major talent in the making.
The club itself is only eight years old, but already it is attracting visitors from all over the country and the world. I'm sure Freeman's involvement is a big part of that, but it's mainly because it's home to the real Blues: unpretentious, fantastic music that appeals to a diverse crowd that mixes with little regard to the racial politics that have always been so prevalent in Mississippi.
This was certainly a departure from what most of Road Trip 2008 has been about. But how could I come to the cradle of the Delta Blues and not make a stop to actually listen to some?
I couldn't, that's how.
Afterward, I got back on the road, heading for New Orleans on US-61, the Blues Highway and a lush green respite from the Interstates that I've mostly had to drive on this journey.