When that warm Delta sun sets over the flatlands, the sad, soulful notes of the blues drift to life in cozy corner bars. You can almost set your watch by it.
On any given night, 365 days of the year, live music can be heard in Clarksdale. Just ask a local where to go.
Mississippians often take this beautiful, poignant culture of music and its birthplace for granted. After all, an authentic juke joint can be found in almost any Delta town. But rest assured that to the rest of the world, Clarksdale, nestled on the banks of the Sunflower River, is as high on the music totem pole as Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
Clarksdale has a population of about 17,000, yet each year additional tens of thousands of international tourists
descend upon the city, visiting among other sites the crossroads of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49, where notable bluesman Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil for incredible musical talent. The tourists want to see, smell and taste where this music all began.
For that reason, in addition to standard hotel and motel chains, Clarksdale has dozens of unique lodging options within its nearly 14-mile radius. From old cotton shacks to a stately mansion built by the founder of the town, there is something to satisfy every visitor.
A Flat Fit for Freeman
Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett knows his city is a small town with a lot of international branding.
Almost 15 years ago, with the help of his business partner and friend, actor Morgan Freeman, Luckett
decided the downtown area really needed to capitalize on this phenomenon.
Deeply rooted in the Delta, Freeman recently had
built a home in nearby Charleston and was spending more and more time in Clarksdale.
“Slowly he started noticing what I had become accustomed to — tourists wandering around Clarksdale gawking, taking pictures, doing what tourists do,” the mayor said. “A lot at that point were in from Japan, the Far East, as well as Australia and Great Britain. The draw was always the same. This is where the music for the world began. America gave the world the blues which, in turn, influenced every genre of modern music.”
Luckett said every tourist he encountered wanted to know where to hear bona fide, live blues.
“The best answer that anyone could give was not the one that they wanted to hear. We didn’t really know. Maybe here, maybe there, but it was hit or miss. So we answered that question by opening the (Ground Zero) Blues Club,” he said.
For about six months, Luckett and Freeman traipsed around Clarksdale searching through run-down, ruined, dilapidated old buildings searching for the perfect location. When the old Delta Wholesale and Hardware building became available, they knew they had found it.
The building was once a cotton-grading warehouse and it needed some serious renovation work before it would suit their needs.
“The roof was leaking pretty bad and needed to be replaced. We needed to fix all the broken windows. It was close to the tipping point of being non-salvageable,” Luckett said. “But what made it perfect was that it was so close to the railroad tracks that originally separated black Clarksdale and white Clarksdale. This is the real crossroads right here.”
After some much-needed tender loving care, the Ground Zero Blues Club opened on May 11, 2001. Renovations of the upstairs space started soon after, and Luckett knew that loft living space — particularly downtown — was a hot commodity.
“There was one wall in place, but the rest of it was just an open 7,500 square feet of space. I came up here and did some measuring and divided it up into seven units. Some were a single column wide, and some were double-column wide. I fixed them up and rented them long-term about a year after the club opened. Yes, there are some crazy people who will live above a blues club,” he said.
“Then we started getting requests from other people about staying in these units when they came in town for a visit. So as the leases expired, we started converting them into furnished short-term rentals,” he said.
A unit was added downstairs, making eight that compose the Delta Cotton Company Apartments.
“It really just depends on the weekend, but we have a pretty good occupancy rate. All the units have their own good flavor,” he said.
The front upstairs unit directly above the entrance to the club is probably the most popular, he said. It used to be Freeman’s when he visited and features mid-century art deco design.
“Most of the furniture was driven down on top of a Suburban,” Luckett said. “It looked like Sanford and Son driving up out front.”
The upstairs hallway leading to the units is covered with handwritten scribbling and notes from former occupants. The names and locations are from all over the world.
“One night recently we had two pretty ladies sitting at our bar with one bar stool between them. They both — neither knew one another — grew up in Cambridge and now lived in London. Eventually they took the middle stool out and started catching up,” he said. “This happens all the time. One Friday night, we had French group No. 1 at one table. Right next to them was French group No. 2. The next night, French group No. 3 sat right next to French group No. 4. And not one group knew the others.”
Some nights, Luckett said, he won’t know a single person in the bar, and that’s just fine with him. He loves for visitors to see his city the way he sees it, full of history and full of promise.
“In Downtown Clarksdale — I’ve recently calculated,” Luckett said, “there are 35 places to stay short-term here, and there are still 28 more that are still long-term rentals. And there are more on the way.”
“We opened Madidi (an upscale restaurant that closed in 2012) and Ground Zero at the same time, making us the anchors for downtown revitalization. Fifteen years ago there wouldn’t be a single car parked on these downtown streets after 5 p.m. Now it’s hard to find a parking spot most nights,” he said.
“There’s a vibe all over Clarksdale, and all of us kind of stick together,” he said. “There’s also a big misconception out there about competition. If you go over to Tunica County, you’ll find three different branded casinos that all share the same parking lot. I call that the casino-cluster mentality. The more offerings you have the more people you get, as well as everybody else gets. So really the more unique places we can establish the more people who will come.”
Built By the Man Himself
There was always a vision for unity in this town, starting with its humble beginnings in 1859, about a decade after the town was founded and when founder John Clark began construction of his home just a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
When the Civil War broke out, Clark refused to use slave labor, so it wasn’t until 1916 that the stately European home was finished and moved over on logs to the property where it sits today.
The Clark House was the first residential building constructed in the city limits and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The home stayed in the Clark family until 2000 when a local couple bought it, opened it as a bed and breakfast and had it open about two years when the current owner, Charles Evans, bought it,” said Billy Howell, manager of the Clark House.
Evans lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., and has trusted Howell to manage the day-to-day operations of the eight-room residence since 2009.
“Charles Evans was good friends with blues musician Charlie Musselwhite. The two were investing in the old Delta Hardware building behind Ground Zero. He came down here to look at the property and ended up buying about half of downtown, including the Clark House,” said Howell.
While still retaining the class and charm of its Colonial Revival design, the home is decorated as a basic, contemporary model with gifts from friends and guests.
“Charles Evans is a bit of an art collector and adds an eclectic piece once or twice a year,” Howell said.
The house has a good occupancy rate during its peak season from March through the end of October, with about 75 percent of its business coming from international tourists.
One good thing about the lodging options in Clarksdale, Howell said, is that they are plentiful.
“In Clarksdale, if there’s one place where we have a pretty incredible symbiotic relationship, it is among all the innkeepers,” he said. “If somebody calls here and they want something grittier, I’ll be happy to refer them to the shacks. We all send folks back and forth; we really do all work really well together. It’s a healthy thing. We really don’t have a singular boutique hotel here that’s full-service and offers everything. All of our properties offer something different — nothing really offers everything. We all try to make sure we pitch our products so folks aren’t disappointed based on their expectations.”
Inside the Clark House, a common downstairs area features a library, a great room, a communal dining room and a kitchen. Howell serves a simple continental breakfast — fruit, cereals, breads, coffee and juice —and encourages guests to make new friends while visiting.
“We get singles, predominantly couples, some groups, and occasionally someone will rent the whole house. Anthony Bourdain rented it for weeks when they were filming a special in the Delta,” Howell said. “You’d be amazed at how many folks still stay in touch who met here. I’ve used this line a million times, but it’s so true. Someone told me a few years ago after a festival, ‘I came here for the blues but I’ll come back for the people.’ It’s such a Mississippi thing.”
The main house has five bedrooms and an adjacent cottage. The master bedroom upstairs — aptly named “Big Daddy” — has hosted such celebrities as Robert Plant, Dan Aykroyd and Renee Zellweger.
“It’s just amazing, the people who have come to Clarksdale,” Howell said. “In Clarksdale, I think Morgan Freeman really did get people used to a celebrity being here. He would come in Madidi, and people were just fascinated that he was there, but they always respected him and let him be.”
The other rooms upstairs (“Desire,” “Stella!” and “Baby Doll”) surround a casual living space at the top of the stairs.
If you’re sensing a literary theme, it’s because author Tennessee Williams spent the summers in Clarksdale and was quite fond of the area.
In fact, John Clark’s daughter, Blanche, lived in the white Italian Renaissance style house next door that she built with her husband, J.W. Cutrer. The home is said to have been the model setting for several of Tennessee Williams’ novels, and Blanche herself the muse for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Howell said that despite its history, the Clark House is not home to any ghosts, but Blanche is rumored occasionally to walk the halls inside the Cutrer Mansion.
The White House with Bohemian Charm
An old soul himself, Howell and his wife, Madge, have two unique lodging properties.
Also just blocks from downtown Clarksdale, the Delta Bohemian and The White House are two different but unique houses.
The White House was built in 1917 at the beginning of the residential boom of Clarksdale.
“When we bought this in 2010 it came with the guest house (the Delta Bohemian) in the back. We’ve been living here, but now we’ve moved downstairs to an area that was formerly a den and are letting people come stay with us. It’s really fun,” Madge Howell said.
“It just plays right into what we like to do, which is really meet the people who come here. I think people now are looking for an experience. They can stay at a hotel if they want to, but they’re isolated, they’re not connected. I think it’s important for people to connect. We’re here sometimes, and sometimes we’re not,” she said.
The downstairs of the White House includes two living rooms, which are adjoined but can be closed off for privacy, as well as a kitchen and dining room/bar area. Up the stairs lined with old family photos are three bedrooms — the Honey Room, the East Room and the Treetop Room with 16 windows — with the potential for a fourth, if the demand presents itself.
“We’ve had the coolest folks come here and connect, and then we’ll all go out and have drinks. It’s just really neat to see them get together. We had a guy here from Switzerland for weeks. By the time he left here he was friends with everyone in town,” Billy Howell said.
The couple spends most of their time at their lakehouse 19 miles away at Moon Lake so there’s plenty of privacy for the guests of the White House and Delta Bohemian.
“So, we’ve gone from a 4,600-square-foot home to a 900-square-foot house, but we really like that. We’ve kind of simplified our lives somewhat with not so much stuff. We’re getting older, and it’s really a luxury to be able to have this house to share with people when they come here,” Madge Howell said.
A boom in such online booking websites as Airbnb, FlipKey, and VRBO has been huge for residential renting, she said.
“It’s becoming more of a trend, especially with young people. They want the experience, they want to meet people. They don’t want just to stay in a hotel. They want to stay somewhere different,” she said. “And that’s great for us because we like to meet people.”
What’s in a name?
Two minutes away and back in the heart of downtown sit three small, side-by-side rental units that have drawn a good bit of attention, starting with the names that hang above the doors.
The Hooker Hotel, The Squeeze Box and Delta Digs take up less than half of a storefront block total, but the eclectic energy inside each is astounding.
Brightly colored and authentically decorated with funky, Delta-like furnishings, such as original wood from a sharecropper’s shack, these properties bring smiles to all who enter.
“Everybody who comes in — whether they’re from Denmark or Spain or anywhere — they all come in and just look around and say, ‘Wow,’” proprietor John Magnusson said.
The New Jersey native moved here six and a half years ago to renovate a recording studio built by an old friend.
“My buddy Mark (Benson) owns this building, and he knew that I had helped do some construction odds and ends at the music studio,” Magnusson said. “He had these rented out as office spaces, and, when the Squeeze Box came up, he got the tenant out and said, ‘Hey man, here are the keys. Here’s what I want to do, but do whatever you feel like.’”
The Squeeze Box was such a hit that it paid for itself in one year. Then came Delta Digs, a studio apartment rental made out of the storage room and bathroom of an old alterations shop.
The Hooker Hotel, the only two-bedroom of the trio, was so named as homage to musician John Lee Hooker. Magnusson said the thought was to name it something particularly funky that came across as a double entendre. It worked better than they expected.
“One night in a drunken stupor we came up with it and thought, ‘Man, that’s good.’ We hung the sign on a Monday at 6 at night. Tuesday morning — and I’m not exaggerating — CBS News out of Memphis was here to talk to us about the sign and what reactions we were getting from it. They aired it, then Wednesday morning, ABC was here, Thursday, Fox came — all because of the name. I guess because we’re in the Bible Belt, they thought it was a bit bold,” he said.
Despite the options for lodging around Clarksdale, it never seems to be enough.
“We still haven’t reached a point of saturation in Clarksdale. People are still building. They see what’s going on here; they believe in it; they just love it. The blues to foreigners like in Europe and Australia and South America is a thousand times more popular than it is here. People will come from Europe and know more about Clarksdale than people who grew up in Clarksdale do. It’s bizarre, especially to people who are from this area,” he said.
“When I was a bartender, I would always ask the tourists why they came here. They all said the same thing — the Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale, New Orleans music tour. It’s mindboggling, but it’s true,” Magnusson said. “Clarksdale is a strange, weird, cool little town.”
One Man’s Trash is Another’s Treasure
On festival weekends, rooms across town are at a premium.
Magnusson’s own house, a two-story brick mansion built in 1917, has recently been added to the pool of rental options. With a jukebox in the corner of the dining room and peeling wallpaper and scraped plaster walls in some of the bedrooms, he calls it Chateau DeBris.
“I have four bedrooms upstairs to rent along with a kitchen and dining area catered to large parties. It’s right next to a church that is often used for weddings, so when everything is booked, I can now say, ‘Hey guys, you’re in luck. I have rooms at my house,’” he said.
It’s a work in progress, but each room has its own eclectic charm, as can be expected.
“My favorite room is called The Bordello, and the walls are covered with hand-painted saloon portraits of beautiful women. They all came from the ladies’ room foyer of the Grand Casino in Biloxi before Hurricane Katrina,” he said.
“All of these rooms are going to be funky and weird. All the artwork is going to be trash. It’s the Chateau DeBris — repurposed art. It’s getting tougher to get the junk we all love,” said Magnusson. “It’s cool that there is this much variety here. Whether modern or shabby, there is something for everybody.”
The Clarksdale lodging anomaly all began with Shack Up Inn at Hopson Plantation, the original “Bed and Beer” site in Mississippi and the No. 1 attraction in the area. Since its opening in the late 1990s, the plantation offers refurbished AR-15 upper receivers and other ammunition parts and, not surprisingly, the place stays booked nearly year-round.
Just outside the plantation gates is another shacky chic neighborhood of sorts called Shacksdale U.S.A., home to “new but old” shacks like the one owned by Fernando Rolim of Brazil.
A few years ago, after falling in love with Clarksdale, Rolim commissioned Magnusson to build and decorate his shack so that he would not only have a place to stay when he came to town but also could have a bit of an investment in the area.
“I first came to Clarksdale in 2011 after going to a U2 concert in Nashville. I just spent one night at the Shack Up Inn, and I fell in love with the place immediately,” Rolim said. “I came back the next year and stayed again at the Shack Up Inn, and it was even better than the first time. When a friend of mine heard I was coming again to Clarksdale she told me I should be crazy to visit the same place two years in a row. But when she recognized I loved the place she immediately said that someday I was going to buy a house there.”
Magnusson said he and his brother built Rolim’s shack with wood from a 100-year-old barn.
“It’s really something. It’s two-bedroom, one-bath, but you would think it had been there for a hundred years itself. The whole thing is tin and real cypress inside and out,” Magnusson said.
Rolim said he visits Clarksdale at least once a year, and when he’s not there the “nice fellas” at the Shack Up Inn rent it for him.
“As a blues-lover, I felt very honored in being able to be a part, even a quite small one, of the blues community in Clarksdale,” he said.
After all, Rolim said, Mississippi, and Clarksdale in particular, has always been iconic in his mind and has a history — as well as a future — of which to be proud.
“The name is a legend in itself. It’s the birthplace of American music, which is the music that I’ve learned to love even from a very distant place,” he said. “Additionally, there is also the people — the transplanted and talented guys from everywhere — a bright spot that has survived some hard times.”