Blues greats Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House, and B. B. King all grew up within whistling distance of U.S. Highway 61, the storied stretch of blacktop that cuts through the heart of the Mississippi Delta and decades ago delivered the musicians north—onto the national stage and into music history. There are miles of flat, fertile farmland, and stick-to-your-ribs soul food, some of the best music in the country, and an innate hospitality and friendliness, but also poverty and the painful legacy of the Jim Crow South. Above all, though, there’s an authenticity and soulfulness here that must be experienced firsthand. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
Distance: 224 miles
The Route: U.S. Highway 61 from Clarksdale to Vicksburg
If you go: Plug these detour worthy destinations into your GPS.
Clarksdale: Head an hour west of Oxford on Highway 278 or ninety minutes south of Memphis on Highway 61 and you’ll hit Clarksdale, the dusty blues hub where legend holds Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49. A trio of electric guitars hoisted into the air on a metal pole marks the historic spot. Once in Clarksdale, put Cat Head record store on your immediate to-do list. Ask for Roger. The shop’s owner, Roger Stolle ditched corporate America and moved to Clarksdale in 2002, led there by his love for the blues. If you’re after live music, he’ll know where to find it.
Fuel up with lunch at the recently opened Dreamboat BBQ & Tamales on Sunflower Avenue.
Make time for the Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old freight depot downtown, before checking in to the Shack Up Inn for the night. Located just minutes from Johnson’s fabled crossroads on Hopson Plantation, the inn is a collection of sharecropper cabins that have been turned into comfortable, rustic guest rooms.
About that live music… It could be argued that Red’s Lounge is the coolest juke joint still operating in Clarksdale, but the New Roxy Theater and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club are standouts in their own rights.
Can’t get enough of the blues? Visit msbluestrail.org/delta for more historic stops.
In the morning, banish any lingering effects from the previous night’s juke jaunt with breakfast at Chamoun’s Rest Haven in Clarksdale. Or if you sleep right through breakfast, grab a tamale at Larry’s Hot Tamales on your way out of town. Then continue south on Highway 61 toward Cleveland. Some seven miles before you get you get to downtown Cleveland, brake at McCarty’s Pottery in Merigold, where Lee McCarty has been hand-throwing the bowls, plates, vases, and light fixtures that have earned him representation in museums and galleries around the world. Leave time to explore the studio’s stunning gardens. A mile and a half from McCarty’s you’ll find Po’ Monkey’s. The rural juke joint is only open on Thursday nights, but Wille Seaberry, Po’ Monkey to locals, lives out back and is usually nearby and always up for a chat and a tour.
Hungry? Fill up at the Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, the combination butcher shop, specialty grocery store, and restaurant where Cleveland native, Cole Ellis (former chef de cuisine at Capitol Grille in Nashville) dishes out fresh takes on Delta classics. Try the Moon Pie bread pudding.
After lunch, get back on the road and hang a left onto MS-448 toward Indianola to hit the B. B. King Museum to pay tribute to the late blues monarch. Carve out at least two hours to explore this excellent (and educational) institution.
Greenwood: From Indianola continue east onto U.S. 82 and cruise toward Greenwood. Book a room at the sleek, sophisticated Alluvian Hotel & Spa. Owned by the Viking Range Corporation and located on the corner of Howard and Church Streets, it’s within easy walking distance of some of historic Greenwood’s best restaurants, shops, and bars.
Rest and regroup before supper at Lusco’s. Opened in 1933, by Sicilian immigrants Charles and Marie Lusco, the restaurant is still a family-run operation four generations later. Duck into one of the curtained private booths for a decadent steak-and-seafood dinner and one of the Delta’s most unique dining experiences. Listen to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s oral history of the place here.
Though breakfast is included with your hotel stay, a stop at Crystal Grill or Delta Bistro for a late breakfast/early lunch is a must. Post meal, pile back into the car and make your way down Money Road where you’ll find the Tallahatchie Bridge (inspiration for Bobbie Gentry’s chart-topping “Ode to Billie Joe”), Robert Johnson’s grave, and the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery, where the events transpired that led to young Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. (The Alluvian Hotel offers a useful map to all three.)
It isn’t the shortest route and your GPS will no doubt start hollering if you head in this direction because you’re backtracking a bit. But from downtown Greenwood return to Indianola and then turn left back onto Highway 61. Continue south. In Rolling Fork, watch out for Chuck’s Dairy Bar. The unassuming brick building sits right on the side of the highway, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. Order the Chuck Burger topped with chili, coleslaw, pickles, mayo, and mustard and take a chocolate milkshake to go. Fifteen minutes south, you’ll find Onward Store, another Delta landmark, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2013. There’s a restaurant, a grocery store, live music, and plenty of snacks for the road.
Thirty minutes later, you’ll arrive in Vicksburg. Until this point you’ve been working on your music education—and possibly putting on a pound or five—but in Vicksburg, you’ll get the chance to brush up on your Civil War history with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park. Along with General Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg—the South’s last major stronghold on the Mississippi River—is considered one of the war’s turning points.
If you can manage it, finish the trip with dinner at Walnut Hills, a white-tablecloth establishment in Vicksburg’s historic district that serves up Southern comfort food favorites. Try their excellent cayenne-tinged fried chicken.
Remember: When you’re traveling in the Delta put your phone down and strike up a conversation with a local. Friendly and outgoing, they’re your best tour guides.