Thursday, July 25, 2013

The South's just weird all over!

            We drive along the South’s intricate web of Interstates and routinely come across this weird image. No, the truck isn’t driving backwards and heading straight for us, but this truck cab being towed sure makes for a scary sight, especially if you’re heading home after a night in New Orleans.
            This weird moment made us think of a few more.
            Like the no swimming sign at the Louisiana Welcome Center, on the Bayou State side of the Sabine River outside southeast Texas. Even the hardiest of souls who ignore undertow warnings and go outside during hurricanes will probably do exactly what this sign says.
            Or how about this dinosaur someone placed in their back yard in Eureka Springs. To keep cats away? To give the dog a fright when he takes a leak in the middle of the night?
           What’s a weird thing you’ve seen in the South, or is this a gross understatement? (Yes, we realize there are many weird things in the South, which is why we wrote this blog!) But we’d still love to hear about it. Or send us a photo by email with the subject line “Weird South” to

Friday, July 19, 2013

Resting in the Blues: The three graves of Robert Johnson

             Apparently Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson did more than sell his soul at the Crossroads. He split it three ways, kinda like Voldemort’s horcruxes in Harry Potter.
            Johnson has three gravesites in Mississippi.
            Robert Johnson blazed the blues trail, leaving us with some of the genre’s most important recordings, many of which influenced later musicians and helped developed other genres such as rock ‘n’ roll.
            Legend has it that his ambition drove him to meet the devil near Mississippi’s Dockery Plantation, where the devil tuned his guitar and endowed him with great talent in exchange for his soul. Today, visitors can easily find this “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, marked by a giant sign.
            Whether this story is true, you be the judge. Robert Johnson and the “Crossroads” has spurred numerous discussions over its origins and truth.
Robert Johnson's grave at Little Zion in Greenwood.
             The indisputable reality was that Robert Johnston died way too young, at the age of 27 in 1938 outside Greenwood, Miss. Where he’s buried is another mystery.
            The three gravesites of Robert Johnson in Mississippi are:
            Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Morgan City, where an obelisk headstone exists with a photo, discography, biography and the following inscription, “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music struck a chord that continues to resonate. His blues addressed generations he would never know and made poetry of his visions and fears.” It’s believed Johnson was buried here in an unmarked grave and the market was later placed by Columbia Records.
            Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in Quito, with a small headstone that reads, “Robert Johnson, May 8, 1911-August 16, 1938, resting in the blues.” An Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones placed this headstone here upon learning of it being Johnson’s burial site.
            Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, a short walk from Tallahatchie Flats (see last week’s blog) is the most likely place. The story of his death near Greenwood seems to hold the most credence and there’s a copy of his death certificate floating around the Internet. The little cemetery next to a quaint church on the banks of the Tallahatchie River is nestled beneath trees and offers a nice headstone to the bluesman with a stone copy of his handwriting stating, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.”
            Around his grave were items placed in reverence by fans. And a few empty whiskey bottles.
     Want to follow in Robert Johnson’s footsteps and solve the mystery yourself? Greenwood tourism offers a self-guided legacy tour. For a tour of Mississippi blues legends, follow the Mississippi Blues Trail

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Shacking up in Mississippi

             There are plenty of hotels throughout America that offer luxury and intensely comfortable linens. 
Shack Up Inn
             In Mississippi, you can stay at a sharecropper’s shack.
            Just outside of Clarksdale is the Shack Up Inn with its several “shacks” moved to the property from neighboring plantations. “The ritz we ain’t” they proclaim on their web site — and that sums it up well. There’s the Electric Blue shack with two separate bedrooms and a shared kitchenette and private bath to the small eco-friendly “Tinth” shack that sleeps two. Most have porches with old couches and chairs — not to mention old relics and found architectural pieces — conducive to sitting and jamming or enjoying good company. 
Shack Up Inn
             The Cotton Gin on the property operates more like a hotel with large beds, bath, microwave, small fridge, TV and coffeemaker. There’s a massive lobby at one end, perfect for live performances, and a converted silo at the other, now used as a staircase.
            Prices range from $65-$100 in most cases with the most expensive night’s stay being the old farm tractor shed now converted into a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house with a full kitchen ($250) and the “Sky Shack” above the lobby that features a front porch with rockers overlooking the lobby stage.
Tallahatchie Flats
             Outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, is the Tallahatchie Flats, a collection of equally authentic sharecropper shacks located on the river where Billie Jo McAllister threw something overboard — was it a baby, did anyone ever find out for sure? These old-time tenant houses offer wonderful décor, from the license plate covering the hole in the floor to the old record player sporting 45s.
Tallahatchie Flats
            Nighttime is quiet out here in the country, with nothing by cotton fields for company, and a good rainstorm on the tin roof offers loads of ambience. The night we stayed here hunting season was in full swing and we came home from a dinner in Greenwood to lots of dead ducks lying on the porches. 
             If you’re going to travel the Blues Highway through the Delta of Mississippi, might as well as do it right and experience why people got the blues to begin with. Although we doubt the original tenants had maid service, little shampoos and fresh linens.
     Tallahatchie Flats is located less than a mile down the road from Robert Johnson's grave. Or one of his graves. Why does the bluesman who supposedly sold his sold to the devil at the Crossroads have three graves? Read next week's blog.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

We've been told a lie. Humpty Dumpty lives!

             Eureka Springs is a funky little town. It began with a doctor’s discovery of the medicinal springs, drawing people to the area who built the town around the side of a mountain. Throughout town you’ll find old buildings and remnants of buildings along secluded roads and trails, an underground city from when the current town was built on top of the old and lots of caves and springs. 
             And then there’s Humpty Dumpty.
            He sits on a wall — intact — in the middle of downtown Eureka Springs. Apparently he hasn’t fallen yet — or we've been lied to! Visitors looking for the fairy tale need to know where to spot him or they will easily walk by and never see him perched above. Humpty makes his home next to the Basin Spring Park, where Spring and Main streets intersect. Just pass by and look up.
            The town is also home to the world’s largest tuned wind chime, a 36-foot-tall creation hanging from a 100-year-old oak tree that’s listed on the Guinness Book of Records. It’s located in front of Celestial Windz Harmonic Bizaar at 381 Highway 23 South. Listen here to the NPR story, which includes audio of the chimes.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Maybe it’s a radio thing

            Most people who watch live performances prefer to sit as close as possible to the stage so they can see the faces of those doing the performing. At the Grand Ole Opry, the choice seats are on the stage, behind the performers. There are actually seats at the back of the Opry stage where VIPs sit, watching the action from behind.
Opry VIPs seats
             I’ve been in those seats and it’s a thrill, even if you do watch the backsides of Minnie Pearl and Chet Atkins (and yes, I’m showing my age here, was a seat warmer back in the 80s).
            Perhaps this tradition harkens back to the Grand Ole Opry radio days, when people couldn’t see the performers anyway. Radio listeners also can’t see the performers coming and going noisily on and off the stage. Even today, there's one announcer sitting at a podium, and the performers casually come and go during the commercials. Like one big happy family. 
Porter Wagner's Dressing Room with its purple couch.
             That’s what’s so interesting about watching the Opry live even today at its grand and glorious new theater. It’s still a radio show and even though there’s a live audience, it’s still operated like one.
            I visited the Grand Ole Opry recently and this time got a backstage pass as a journalist, which wasn’t as elitist as sitting on the stage, but we did get a tour of the dressing rooms. Porter Wagner’s was pretty funky, had a crazy purple sofa.
            We did get to stand at the back of the stage briefly, watching Mandy Barnett perform in front of us. It was quite the thrill.
What the Grand Ole Opry looks like from the front.