State Twelve: Mississippi

The Crossroads sign
The Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul

We left Tennessee with the heaviest of hearts, but it was onwards to pastures new and time to see what Mississippi had in store. The state is of course named for the Mississippi River, the fourth longest in the world, which we stayed the Eastern side of throughout our trip round the Deep South.

Leaving Memphis, heading south, its only about 15 miles before you cross the state border into what residents call the Hospitality State. But our first stop was about another 60 miles further on. We were headed for The Crossroads in Clarksdale. This tiny town in northern Mississippi is famous for a number of reasons, Martin Luther King visited in 1958, for example, for the first major meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of which he was President. But what Clarksdale is best known for is the Blues.

The Crossroads, which you hit as you drive towards the centre of town from the North, is supposedly where legend of Blues music Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a successful music career. It didn’t work, he died aged 27 (another one of the 27 club) and his records sold poorly while he was alive, but his memory lived on and no less a performer than Eric Clapton claimed he was the most important blues singer that ever lived.

The exterior of the Ground Zero Blues Club
The Ground Zero Blues Club – complete with scruffy couches

His life, along with those of many others, is celebrated in the Delta Blues Museum about a five minute drive from The Crossroads itself. Its a tiny museum filled with fascinating stories and artifacts, including the remains of Muddy Waters’ cabin from when he was a young man. Appropriately enough, a short walk across a car park will take you to the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by one Morgan Freeman (he wasn’t in when we went). From the outside it doesn’t look much, its pretty shabby and had a scruffy old sofas out the front, but once you’re inside its a different experience. Visitors are encouraged to write on the walls to mark their visit and it looks like every one of them has done so since the place opened in 2001. The bar serves tasty craft beers and there’s live music on all the time.

Back to the Crossroads which is marked in an understated way by three guitars atop a road sign. It’s worth a stop, not just for the snaps but also for the place where we stopped for our dinner, Abe’s BBQ, which is right on the junction. Abe’s is a tiny place, tucked behind Delta Donut, but the food is mighty fine. We sampled the BBQ pork (available in regular or “Big Abe”) which was as delicious as you’d expect, although there was a more vinegar-y tang than we were used to in Memphis and Nashville. We also tried, for the first time, hot tamales. We had no idea what to expect and, frankly, probably won’t be sampling again. They consist of minced beef flavoured with chilli and wrapped in a corn husk (which, incidentally, you’re not supposed to eat…). An acquired taste, perhaps. The service was sweet and friendly at Abe’s, and the prices won’t break the bank.

Sign for Abe's BBQ
Abe’s BBQ – good eatin’!

After dinner we headed to our lodgings for the night, and it was one we had been looking forward to for a long time – the Shack Up Inn. As the name suggests, this inn is rather more rustic than the Peabody Hotel that we’d stayed in the night before back in Memphis. We eventually found the road it was on, having driven past it once because it wasn’t on the sat nav, and pulled into the car park. We were met there by a collection of three or four friendly moggies and aimed straight for the Juke Joint Chapel…which also houses reception. Inside we were met by another character, this time Guinness the black and white dog who is among the friendliest canines we’ve ever been lucky enough to meet. We checked in with the owners Guy and Bill and picked up a Blue Moon from the bar before heading to our room.

At the Shack there are a few choices, you can opt for the Sky Shack which is inside the Juke Joint Chapel, one of the standalone shacks outside or one of the cheaper rooms in the Cotton Gin Inn which is right next door. We opted for the Sky Shack and we weren’t disappointed. It’s spacious and has a little balcony which looks out into the chapel where on some nights you can sit and watch the bands play.

The Shack Up Inn at sunset
Idyllic Americana at the Shack Up Inn

The grounds at the Shack are beautiful, its heaven for lovers of old Americana and it is wonderfully peaceful. We loved our stay at the Shack, if you’re going to come to this tiny corner of Mississippi for the music, you simply have to stay at the Shack Up Inn.

After our night in Clarksdale we continued our journey due South. About three hours after we left Clarksdale we hit Port Gibson, which is tiny and we only mention it here because its where you should turn off onto the Natchez Trace Parkway, if you ever find yourself driving south through Mississippi. The Parkway is one of America’s famous scenic byways and the roads roll through some beautifully serene country landscapes. More forest-y than we were used to in Mississippi and definitely worth the extra twenty minutes or so it puts on the journey.

Prepare to meet thy god at the Juke Joint Chapel
Prepare to meet thy god at the Juke Joint Chapel

At the end of the Parkway you hit Natchez, unsurprisingly. Natchez was once one of America’s richest cities thanks to its perfect position overlooking the Mississippi River. On the back of slave labour rich white landowners built enormous mansions, many of which survive today making for an architecturally impressive stop. After wandering along the banks of the Mississippi for a while we needed some lunch. BBQ of course. Natchez is home to the Pig Out Inn, where you can get awesome pulled pork or beef brisket sandwiches (among many other things). Wash it down with a massive and tasty malt shake from the Malt Shop, about a five minute drive from Pig Out on the way out of town.

In Tennessee we stopped in the big cities but Mississippi gave us a chance to experience some more of rural, small town America. It is unquestionably a place that needs a bit of love and affection, but whoever decided to dub Mississippi the Hospitality State wasn’t wrong. The music, the food, the people…Mississippi is worth visiting for all the right reasons.

Rate the State:

Good for: Fans of the Blues, fans of BBQ, history and architecture buffs.

Bad for: Watch your speed, we got pulled over by the cops!

Overall: 8/10

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