Road Trip: Chasing the Blues through Mississippi and Beyond

A musical route from Memphis to Clarksdale to Florence to unforgettable

Photo: MerSadies Stanley Photography

The stage at Ground Zero Blues Club.

The moment that altered the course of my father’s life happened inside a southeastern Missouri farmhouse, as his grandmother sat him down with a lap steel guitar. He’d watched her and his grandfather play music throughout his seven ripe years on earth, she on guitar, he on his fiddle—but this was my dad’s first chance to play for himself. He remembers the sound and the movement stirring something in him—something that’s kept stirring all his life.

As family legend states, my dad and mom fell in love playing music together in his trailer not far from her college campus. The soundtrack to many of my favorite hazy memories is the sound of their voices in song. I can close my eyes and hear them singing Ella Fitzgerald’s “Summertime” in the yard. I’d often put my ear to the hardwood of the living room to listen to my dad singing in the basement, his deep voice carrying a favorite Tom Rush song: “Can’t say much in a phone call babe, you know how it is, but I have to tell you one short thing–won’t you listen to this…”

Neither of my parents made music their career, but it feels woven into our lives together. My brother and I are both musically inclined—he can play just about any instrument, and my hidden talent is the ability to match most pitches. So earlier this year when my dad called to ask if I might like to check out the Mississippi Blues Trail, it took me about three seconds to say yes.

What unfolded was a five-day road trip with my parents, aunt, uncle, and four of my dad’s thirty-something first cousins. Each had their own grandma-gave-me-a-lap-steel-guitar moment from the family farm. This trip was total magic. I felt the joy that songs have imbued in my family through generations, experienced my dad in the comfort of his people, and soaked up so much amazing music.

No matter your family history, swinging through the following itinerary promises an unforgettable few days of sights and sounds, but any blues adventure is sure to come with some surprises that will make it wholly your own. Make sure your travel companions are primed for late nights, dark bars, and a good old-fashioned road trip.

Starting Point: Memphis

I kicked myself for booking a 5 a.m. flight from Charleston, South Carolina, but as soon as I landed in Memphis, my parents whisked me away to breakfast and coffee at the Liquor Store. Over biscuits and gravy and sweet potato hash, my dad checked his group thread for “the cousins’” whereabouts as they converged from Florida, Rhode Island, and Missouri and my mom gave me another run-down of the family tree. I hadn’t seen half of these folks since I was a toddler. Before venturing farther South, we spent a full day at the National Civil Rights Museum, which I recommend putting aside plenty of time for. Set inside the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it’s a stunning retrospective that begins with the Atlantic slave trade and concludes with a view into the balcony and room where King spent his final hours. It stands as a powerful orientation to this swath of the country.

We had to mosey on, but next time, I plan to hit a couple more Memphis highlights: Graceland for a deep dive on Elvis, and two spots lauded by my friend Emily—dive bar Earnestine & Hazel’s for live music, and Payne’s BBQ, which she claims as her “favorite barbecue ever.”

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At the Heart of It All Beats Clarksdale, Mississippi

The Mississippi Blues Trail runs deep and wide across the Delta, but we opted to spend our time in Clarksdale, motherland to the likes of Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, and newcomer Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. The drive from Memphis took about an hour and a half, and we rolled past blocks of bright murals to arrive at Delta Cotton Company Apartments above the blues club Ground Zero. My room was an actual shrine to its co-owner, Morgan Freeman. Photos, drawings, sculptures, autographs—the only likeness not present was the actor himself. My family claimed almost every one of its quirky, high-ceilinged, brick-walled suites, be-bopping from room to room to pregame with grocery store wine and summer sausage imported with care from Stonie’s in Perryville, Missouri.

On a trip like this, I can’t think of anything better than a bar and live music just below our bedrooms. With the threat of a storm our first night, we marched downstairs for an early dinner, grabbing the table closest to the stage. Over cocktails in Styrofoam cups and a feast of tamales, fried okra, and barbecue from the giant smoker out front, I heard stories of my no-nonsense great-grandmother and her various attempts to put her grandkids to work on her farm. We witnessed an outrageous performance by Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, who was something of a child prodigy and revered as a local legend. Nothing could pull us away from his set. Not the pouring rain that leaked through the ceiling, not the cataclysmic tornado that we found out later came quite close by, not our drooping eyes from a long travel day. Once I found my way upstairs, I slept soundly to the tune of booming blues through the floor.

photo: Sadie Robertson
Anthony “Big A” Sherrod.

There’s more to explore in Clarksdale’s daylight. Music, art, and beer were everywhere, and our favorite spots for all of the above were Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Deke’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, and Hambone Art Gallery. There are many newer businesses continuing to breathe life into historic buildings downtown; check out Blue Cotton Baking Company for sweets, Yazoo Pass for breakfast, and Meraki Roasting Co. for coffee (make sure you take home a few bags of their Delta Roadkill blend). 

photo: Ellen Schmedinghoff
Tributes to blues greats by local artists at Cat Head.

Now hooked on the blues, we found ourselves at Bad Apple Blues Club for a full three-hour review in the middle of a weekend afternoon, led by Sean “Bad” Apple. Completely in the dark but for blue light, we sat on school bus benches and traded $5 bills for cold beers. Another local, Lucious Spiller, joined for a set and brought me to tears as he sang and played guitar with a tiny amplifier. Just recovering from a stroke, he did originals and a cover of “Rainy Night in Georgia” that I haven’t stopped thinking about since hearing it.

photo: Ellen Schmedinghoff
The scene outside Bad Apple Blues Club.

The grand finale was dinner outside at Hooker Grocer & Eatery and a night in the warmth of Red’s just a few blocks away. This iconic locals’ club glows in the light of red neon musical notes and is covered in art and photographs of the greats who’ve played here. The best bets behind the bar are large format Coors Lights and homemade moonshine, and if you get lucky like we did, a flautist will get up from his seat to play the harmony of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” as the room sings along. I couldn’t stop smiling from my bar stool in the back row, next to my mom and aunt who took up residence on a leather couch. Our joy carried into the morning, with our last full gathering at Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes before the Missouri crew rolled back home. We ate huge breakfasts, nursed our cups of coffee, and snapped the requisite group photo of my dad, his sister, and their cousins together—each giggling but feeling wistful to say goodbye. 

photo: Ellen Schmedinghoff
Inside Red’s Blues Club.

There is far more music to explore in Mississippi—and plenty of ideas here. We had a fun stopover in Oxford, whirled through every Square Books outpost, and then headed on to Alabama.

Music Plays on in Florence, Alabama

Since watching the Muscle Shoals documentary years ago, I’ve been captivated by the story of the creative enclave of the Shoals area. We stayed at the Stricklin Hotel in downtown Florence, a quiet boutique option with a bowling alley called the Boiler Room downstairs. We were just a short walk to Billy Reid’s flagship store, the much beloved restaurant Odette, and Turbo Coffee for proper caffeine and breakfast. 

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Our ultimate destination was FAME Recording Studios, infamous for a very specific sound that you must hear to understand. Cue up Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” and Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” and you’ll feel the magic this studio infused in its recordings. We opted for a backstage tour to see a working studio that hasn’t changed since its sixties and seventies heyday, with instruments used for Franklin, the Allman Brothers, and countless others in place—and still actively used to record. With more time, we’d have explored the hiking trails along the Tennessee River and done the Shoals History Tour.

photo: Ellen Schmedinghoff
Where FAME Studio founder Rick Hall produced his legendary Muscle Shoals sound.

The Final Note in Birmingham, Alabama

All good things must end, but the springtime ride through Alabama helped ease the pain of leaving as we rolled up and down green hills alongside budding trees. Before my flight, we drove through the Forest Hills neighborhood on the recommendation of my friend Laura Kate, a Birmingham native. We fueled up on poboys and muffulettas at the Rougaroux, got coffee at General, and soaked in some serenity walking through the nursery at Shoppe. If you’ve been following along, do as we did and make sure to grab a locally brewed Good People beer at the airport before the wheels go up on your musical journey.

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