Highway 61 running south out of Memphis forms a legendary route along the Mississippi River evocative of a delicious slice of Americana represented by a genre of music known as the Delta blues.
A road is a road, but sometimes it's more. Sometimes a road sings. Drive the old Blues Highway—Route 61 between Memphis and Vicksburg—in search of music, and you'll find it everywhere you turn. Soul, gospel, and R&B spill out of car windows and church doors. Sometimes the music is played on guitars picked with calloused fingers in juke joints tucked under the pine trees. Muddy Waters rode the Blues Highway. So did John Lee Hooker, Bessie Smith, and B.B. King. Elvis knew it, too—his rock-and-roll is as rooted in the delta as a cypress tree in the lowland muck.
Start in Memphis
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 E. McLemore Ave.; tel. 1 901 946 2535 http://www.staxmuseum.com/) is named for an influential 1960s label that recorded such talents as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes. The Stax sound—driving, playful, passionate—gave voice to a new optimism rising from the region. "Highway 61 was the road by which black people left Mississippi to find better opportunities," a museum spokesperson says. "And by leaving they took their music to the world." The museum's collection includes more than 2,000 exhibits, videos, stage costumes, photographs, and instruments used to record the Stax sound.
Want to hear live blues? Local guide Tad Pierson offers evening tours of Memphis nightclubs and daytrips down the delta (tel. 1 901 527 8870; www.americandreamsafari.com). He might take you to Wild Bill's (1580 Vollintine Ave.; tel. 1 901 726 5473), a juke joint three miles north of touristed Beale Street. Inside, the air swirls with cigarette smoke and guitar chords being thumped out by a local band. The song is Prince's hit, "Purple Rain," played blues style. The crowd shouts its approval. "There are only two reasons to go to Wild Bill's—because you're feeling good or you're feeling bad," says Pierson. "These are hardworking people, and maybe things aren't going their way. This music sets you free. The blues are cheaper than therapy."
Another form of therapy is luxury. Sleep on high thread-count sheets at the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis (79 Madison Ave.; tel. 1 901 333 1200; www.madisonhotelmemphis.com). The 17-story Madison has a distinctly European sensibility with down-home warmth. You might hear an elegant receptionist announce she is "fixin'" to do something. Also consider the stately Peabody (149 Union Ave.; tel. 1 901 529 4000; www.peabodymemphis.com), famous for the ducks that traipse through the lobby twice daily.
Memphis is alleged to have more than a hundred barbecue joints. Downtown's Rendezvous (52 S. Second St.; tel. 1 901 523 2746; www.hogsfly.com) is justly famous for its dry ribs. Another favorite is Tops Bar-B-Q (multiple locations, including 1258 Union Ave.; tel. 1 901 725 7527; www.topsbarbq.com), where the meat, if not the decor, is sublime.
With its garish, casino-based economy, Tunica looks like Las Vegas. But even if gambling isn't your thing, stop here for a meal at the Blue and White dinner (1355 Hwy. 61 N., Tunica; tel. 1 662 363 1371). It's right on 61, and it's fried chicken and peach cobbler Southern cooking at its best.
Tonight travelers and locals alike gather around platters of barbecued chicken for a jam session. The setting is the old commissary of the historic cotton farm, the Hopson Plantation (www.hopsonplantation.com) in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This is not far from the storied blues crossroads where legend says the devil walks, guitar in hand, at midnight. Seth Limmer, a rabbi from Armonk, New York, finishes his version of Neil Young's acoustic classic, "The Needle and the Damage Done"; then the owner of a Clarksdale music store picks up the pace with a rendition of Roger McGuinn's "Chestnut Mare." Hopson's attracts an eclectic mix of fans, writers, artists, and other free spirits eager to travel the byways of the delta and sample the famed Mississippi hospitality. Spend the night on the plantation at the Shack Up Inn. It's is a collection of restored sharecropper shacks and boutique hotel rooms built inside renovated cotton bins (Hwy. 49, Clarksdale; tel. 1 662 624 8329; www.shackupinn.com).
More Live Music and Good Eats
In Clarksdale check the "who's playing" board (or the website) at Cat Head (252 Delta Ave.; tel. 1 662 624 5992; www.cathead.biz), a blues music and folk art store that lists performances at local joints like Sarah's Kitchen (278 Sunflower Ave.; tel. 1 662 627 3239). Catch a band and a down-home meal at actor Morgan Freeman's nightclub Ground Zero Blues Club (0 Blues Alley; tel. 1 662 621 9009; www.groundzerobluesclub.com). Right next door is the Delta Blues Museum (#1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale; tel. 1 662 627 6820).
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Back on the road south of Clarksdale, you'll notice that Highway 61 is a lot of four-lane now, slicing through the flat, black earth of the delta as easily as a silver knife through moist cake. Divert yourself west to the parallel Highway 1, a quiet two-laner running along the Mississippi's "Great Wall," a never-ending levee. Here you'll find Rosedale, a town famed blues musician Robert Johnson sang about. Today, what's worth singing about are the Mexican tamales at White Front Café (Main St., Rosedale; tel. 1 662 759 3842).
Nearing the end of the journey, still north of Vicksburg, as old 61 is relegated to "business" status, you brake suddenly for what appears to be a fever dream on the right: a collection of plywood and brick towers rendered in white, pinks, reds, and yellows, with hand-painted Bible verses. Welcome to Margaret's Grocery (4535 N. Washington St., Vicksburg; tel. 1 601 638 1163). While no longer a working store, it is an enduring testament to the faith of Reverend H.D. Dennis. Back in 1984, he promised his beloved Margaret that if she consented to marry him, he would build a palace to honor God. Inside a cramped chapel is his Ark of the Covenant cobbled together from plastic, old Mardi Gras beads, and gold spray paint, illuminated by a string of Christmas lights. At the end of the drive, the Battlefield Inn offers an alternative to cut-and-paste hotel chains (4137 I-20 N. Frontage Rd.; 800 359 9363; http://www.battlefieldinnms.com/).
Road Kit Memphis Convention and Visitors bureau (tel. 1 901 543 5333; www.memphistravel.com); Mississippi Division of Tourism (tel. 1 601 359 3297; www.visitmississippi.org); Clarksdale Tourism (tel. 1 662 627 7337; www.clarksdale.com); Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 800 221 3536; www.visitvicksburg.com
—Text by Andrew Nelson, adapted from National Geographic Traveler