Neck deep in the delta blues

Neck deep in the delta blues
January 10, 2010
Guy Wilkinson

I've been driving for seven hours straight, pausing only for petrol and a wilted sandwich. In the setting sun, the tops of the cotton fields are glowing amber. Scorching air blows through the car window as I scour the radio for anything besides the voices of preachers or advertisements for farming equipment. I'm headed down Highway 49, a seemingly infinite stretch of flat road cutting deep through the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

This is the cradle of the blues, the place where legends such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and David "Honeyboy" Edwards changed the face of modern music forever. As I'm on something of a musical pilgrimage, I've booked into the Shack Up Inn, a B&B (that's bed and beer) that has become the stuff of folklore.

Established in 1998 by entrepreneurs, the inn is run by Bill Talbot and Guy Malvezzi, who oversee 10 sharecropper-style shotgun shacks and 10 rooms inside a converted cotton gin. Built just a few kilometres from the crossroads of highways 49 and 61, where blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have made a pact with the devil, the inn is a favourite among writers, artists, music buffs and travellers looking for a break from the norm.

A rusted Cadillac is parked outside reception, near an old Coke sign and a battered petrol pump. A live band plays blues from a side room affectionately labelled the Juke Joint Chapel. At the front desk, Malvezzi greets me from beneath his cowboy hat. "Well, shoot, you look like a man who could use a cold beer," he laughs. Drenched in sweat, with my shirt unbuttoned, I no doubt cut a sorry figure.

Each of the shacks here have been brought in from various parts of the delta and given their own names. Among others, there's The Crossroads, The Pinetop Perkins, The Legends, The Robert Clay and, mine, The Cadillac Shack, where three steps lead to a veranda scattered with old chairs. Paraffin lanterns dangle from a sloping roof, while a tattered US flag hangs beside the front door.

Inside, I can't help but laugh at the spectacle before me. The wood-panelled walls are plastered with blues memorabilia. A picture of Robert Johnson hangs above a queen-size bed. A pair of Converse sneakers has been nailed to the wall above old Mississippi number plates. Two bar stools face a small kitchen and an electric piano sits in the corner. A small, retro television is tuned only to the blues channel.

In the ensuite bathroom, the shower has pliers for taps and, in black pen, someone has scrawled the words: "Blues is the healer."

All shacks have air-conditioning, heating, water and a basic kitchen. The rooms inside the nearby Cotton Gin Inn offer similar facilities.

Happily, my shack's previous guests have left a couple of beers in the fridge, so I drink them on the veranda, watching the sun set from my rocking chair. If only I'd learnt how to play the harmonica.

As night descends, I score a ride into nearby Clarksdale in the Shack Up Cadillac. With its low, rumbling engine, peeling roof and rusted bodywork, I'm almost surprised we make it.

Clarksdale's claim to fame is Morgan Freeman's blues club, Ground Zero, and a handful of music festivals taking place throughout the year. Some of the best include the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival in August and the Juke Joint Festival in April.

I duck into a tiny juke joint named Red's, where locals deep-fry catfish out the front. Inside, beneath the dingy red lights, musicians thump out raucous blues. Mismatched chairs and beaten-up sofas face the band in the centre of the room. Some people dance; others prop up the bar and take in the spectacle.

Over the next few days I explore more of the delta. There are several great blues museums, Robert Johnson's gravestones (no one knows with certainty which is the real one) and soul-food kitchens serving authentic southern grub.

Yet travelling the delta is more than just ticking off blues heritage sights; it's about late nights, unforgettable music and talking with people who have seen so much: from the worst days of racial segregation to the election of President Barack Obama. It's a side of the US far removed from fast food and shopping malls.

The Shack Up Inn is not a place for those who enjoy hand-pressed towels and room service. Ask for a wake-up call and the owners will tell you: "Sure, one minute after check-out time, we'll kick open your door." But if you're looking for a place that's as novel as it is unpretentious, grab your harmonica and go.


WHERE Shack Up Inn, 1 Commissary Circle, Clarksdale, Mississippi. See

HOW MUCH Sunday to Thursday $US60 ($65.72) to $US75 a night, depending on the shack. Weekend charges range from $US75 to $US90, two-night minimum stay. You must be 25 years of age or older to rent a room.

TOP MARKS Your own shotgun shack. Enough said.

BLACK MARK No alcohol licence at the Juke Joint Chapel. It's BYO and you'll need a car to get supplies.

DON'T MISS The action at Red's Juke Joint nearby. Try and scam a ride in the resident Cadillac, to

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