Dispatches from the Mississippi Delta

They say the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg…

Inspired by Martha Foose’s determination to bring British freelance writer Richard Grant to the Delta, I decided to take my Midwest-based colleagues on a similar journey to one of my favorite places in America.

If you haven’t read Dispatches from Pluto, do yourself a favor and purchase it at a bookstore or rent it from your local library. Then buy a one-way ticket and go see the Delta for yourself!

Unlike Richard, we didn’t begin our journey in Pluto nor did we convince our significant others to purchase an old plantation home and move from New York City to the Delta. But we did find ourselves lost and found in this magnificent place as we began our journey on U.S. Route 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale.

WEDNESDAY

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and drove south for 76 miles as we watched the sun set over miles and miles of harvested farm land boasting the remains of cotton and soybeans. For me, the journey is familiar and one I drove many times while I worked for the Delta Regional Authority — a small federal agency supporting economic and community development across the eight-state region of the Mississippi River Delta and Alabama Black Belt.

Located only three miles from the legendary Crossroads of Highway 49 and 61 (you know… where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil), we arrived at our home for the next few days: a collection of an old cotton gin and restored sharecropper shacks collectively known as the Shack Up Inn.

As soon as we arrived, we didn’t waste a single second of our time in Clarksdale. So after we were assigned our shacks for the week and dropped off our bags, we hopped in the Suburban and drove a few miles into town only to be met by buildings like this:

Remnants of the past, many of these buildings remain vacant or underutilized, but collectively, they tell a story of more prosperous times.

Each building with its own unique history and character, we studied each one of them and envisioned what they could become — a cultural center, a brewery, a live music venue, a co-working space, a business incubator, a musician-in-residence program, and the list goes on and on.

If you’ve never been to Clarksdale, the small southern town is a cultural haven for the Delta Blues. Colorful murals on downtown buildings pay homage to the incredible people who have contributed to this place.

And since we were in Mississippi for only three days, I knew we had to maximize our time by eating delicious food and soaking up all of the cultural experiences that make the Delta an internationally-renowned place to visit.

For our first team dinner, we chose Levon’s Bar and Grill:

Owned and operated by an Australian living in the Delta, this restaurant boasts New Orleans-inspired cuisine so we had to try just about everything from boudin (pronounced BOO-DAN) balls to andouille sausage catfish to shrimp and grits:

Washed down with flavorful cocktails and Mississippi beers, we were happy and full and ready to take on our next adventure — Red’s Blues Club.

People who are not from the Delta or are unfamiliar with the Mississippi Blues Trail, might pass by this building assuming it is closed or no longer operational for public use. But beyond the old wood-paneled door is a vibrant live music venue featuring some of the greatest Delta Blues artists in the country.

If you plan on visiting Red’s and only carry plastic, you won’t be getting into this classic juke joint. A $10 cash cover will get you in the door and you won’t regret it. There we listened to Lucious Spiller play for 3 hours of non-stop jams — everything from the blues to classic rock to contemporary pop music. It was just two guys with an electric guitar and a drum set playing to a room full of people from across the country.

Our very own Emily Hurt (Creative Services Placemaker at McClure) even made a new friend and danced the night away:

At almost midnight, we finally made our way back to the Shack Up Inn energized and ready for the next two days.

THURSDAY

Our home base for the retreat was the Rich House, a large cabin where I shared a space with two of my colleagues, and where the rest of the crew joined us for wide-ranging discussions on placemaking and community development for most of the morning until we decided to venture out for lunch.

Clarksdale, MS: 49 BLUES LEGENDS, 107 CHURCHES, 0 STARBUCKS, + 1 HOOKER GROCER.

Hooker Grocer + Eatery is relatively new to the Clarksdale food scene and is destined to make its mark.

Owned and operated by another Australian who fell in love with Clarksdale, executive chef Johnny Cass designed Hooker Grocer + Eatery to be a restaurant, market, and butcher shop serving southern classics with a unique Clarksdale twist.

Hooker Grocer provides some of the best resources in town for high quality meats and produce, gourmet items, and other delights sourced both locally and from artisan producers across the country.

Our team indulged in everything from their fried green tomatoes to fish and chips to their “Filet Smash” burger:

There was no time to nap but after a lunch like that, we were happy to enjoy some time on the front porch in the mild Mississippi weather — a pleasant welcome compared to the polar vortex that had taken shape in the Midwest before most of the crew departed from Iowa the day before.

After another productive working session in the afternoon, our team was excited to visit the home of Bill and Francine Luckett for cocktails and camaraderie.

An attorney, businessman, and former mayor of Clarksdale, Bill Luckett is a beloved resident in the local community and caught the attention of Richard Grant as he was writing Dispatches from Pluto. Most people recognize his name because he also happens to be Morgan Freeman’s best friend, attorney, and business partner. Together, they have started several ventures, but their most successful is Ground Zero Blues Club which they opened in 2005.

Ground Zero hosts visitors from all over the world every single day it is open. Named #1 blues club in the country, Ground Zero serves southern food, cold beer and cocktails, and features local blues musicians and traveling bands every Wednesday-Saturday. You can even rent rooms located on the 2nd floor of the building if you want to experience something really unique — but if you plan on booking for Juke Joint Festival, you better book months in advance!

We joined Bill for dinner and blues on open mic night and watched local, regional, and nationwide stars take the stage to play their favorite songs. And when the stars align, you might even see a familiar face and the voice of God too.

Full disclosure: This picture was taken during a different trip to Ground Zero, but this is a great memory when Zack and I joined Morgan and Bill for dinner last year.

After we left, some of us weren’t ready to turn in for the night just yet. It was our last night in the Delta and there was still so much to experience. So we headed back to the Shack Up Inn, walked into the lobby and grabbed a beer, then watched as people danced and sang the night away.

At 1:00am, three of us were left standing and closed the place down.

FRIDAY

With only so much time left on our retreat, I encouraged our team to visit Water Valley, MS (population 3,362) — a rural town located 19 miles south of Oxford — to visit my friend Kagan Coughlin.

Kagan is originally from a small town in Vermont and moved to Water Valley after job stints in Washington, DC and nearby Oxford. He stumbled upon the town and fell in love with it so he moved there with his family to settle on a farm. He, along with other local champions in the area, have created a southern utopia boasting beautiful main street buildings and unique amenities.

The town features two art galleries, 2nd-floor residential units, great restaurants, a local brewery, and a nationally-recognized coding academy.

Yeah, you read that correctly… a nationally-recognized coding academy.

Base Camp Coding Academy is a hands-on, challenging and fun program, designed to train students to become software developers in 12 months. For the past three years, Base Camp has trained 12 high school graduates from the regional area — all of whom have graduated from the program and been placed into jobs at companies like FedEx in Memphis and CSpire in Jackson with average starting salaries of $52,000/year. The companies who hire these kids also contribute to the operating costs of the program to provide each student with a full scholarship, transportation stipend, and daily meals.

But Kagan is ready to grow this non-profit and maximize its impact across north Mississippi. Serving on city council, he has worked with other local leaders to obtain the old manufacturing plant which has remained vacant since the 1990s.

When Kagan is done redeveloping the building, it will have a larger space for Base Camp Coding Academy, a business incubator, a satellite campus for the regional community college, and office space for the companies who seek to hire Base Camp graduates.

Although we didn’t have time to eat there on this trip, don’t forget to visit Kagan’s wife, Alexe, at BTC Grocery (located on the first floor of Base Camp’s existing facility).

And buy her cookbook:

Alas, our time was cut short and I frequently feel this way when I visit Mississippi.

Our last stop closed out the retreat with an incredible meal at City Grocery in Oxford, MS (population 23,639 and home of Ole Miss). Chef John Currence, born and raised in New Orleans, opened City Grocery in an old stable on the square in 1992. Since then, the upscale but casual restaurant has received national recognition as one of the finest dining establishments in Mississippi. Chef Currence has opened multiple restaurants in the community and won James Beard Foundation’s Award — Best Chef of the South, not to mentioned his publication of two cookbooks.

Did I mention we also ate King Cake (freshly made and imported directly from New Orleans)?

Our team’s philosophy is simple — rural America presents the opportunity for entrepreneurs and artists of all disciplines to create, innovate, and pioneer.

The stories of Bill, Kagan, and Chef Currence only scratch the surface…

Through our place-based approach to economic development, our team will continue to lift up these champions who make rural America a better place to live, work, and play.

There are many more people like this doing amazing things. We hope to work alongside these individuals to help revitalize the heartland of our country.

In the meantime, you can catch us lost and found again and again in the Mississippi Delta and other rural areas across the country. Until next time…