On a sunny morning, the blacktop of Money Road outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, glimmers as it unfurls past fields so flat they seem to defy nature. To drive this road is to seek the essence of the Mississippi Delta, land of epic riches and searing poverty, deep suffering and joyous creativity. You’ll see the fertile fields that made cotton king. And you’ll find not just the birthplace of the blues but the music’s very soul. Here, blues legend Robert Johnson lies buried along the roadside.
And that’s just one stretch of highway. Bounded by Memphis to the north and Vicksburg to the south, this alluvial plain is both storied and stunning. Curving rivers and cypress-studded canebrakes flow across fields and beneath highway bridges. Old service stations and tin-roofed tenant shacks dot the landscape, and spectacular sunsets color the sky in shades of pink and orange above grassy levees.
At Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, you can pass an unforgettable Saturday night watching a bluesman like Terry “Harmonica” Bean sing about bad luck and mean women. He’s an heir to the likes of B.B. King, Charley Patton, and Muddy Waters. All lived and played here, inventing an honest, bawdy musical genre that captured the world’s imagination.
Elsewhere, America might be yielding to a numbing sameness, with everyone rushing to strip malls and chain restaurants. But the Delta remains its funky self, and it puts a premium on slowing down. “People tell stories; they talk to one another,” says Greenwood novelist Jamie Kornegay. “You may not even realize you’re missing that, but the ease with which they share things–it’s just very nice.”
Oxbow Guest House: The building housed an ice-cream factory and a soda fountain until the 1960s, when a family turned the space into a home using elegant architectural details salvaged from Memphis and New Orleans. New owners Erica and Hayden Hall opened last year, preserving the bohemian charm while introducing modern touches. Rates from $129; 662/627-6781; oxbowclarksdale.com/guest-house
Tallahatchie Flats: Situated a short walk from Robert Johnson’s gravesite on Money Road, these modernized farm shacks offer solitude and wide-open views of surrounding flatlands. Far away from city lights, the shacks make a good spot for sitting and stargazing, and have front porches made for watching summer thunderstorms roll in across the fields. Rates from $85; 877/453-1854; tallahatchieflats.com
The Alluvian: Locally headquartered Viking Range, LLC, restored the historic Hotel Irving downtown and reinvented it as a boutique hotel called The Alluvian. Viking preserved the historic architecture and Delta character of the place, while adding sleek decor, plush linens, and plenty of amenities. Don’t miss dinner at Giardina’s, just off the hotel lobby. Rates from $195; 662/453-2114; thealluvian.com
Bluestown Music: Musicians swoon over owner Ronnie Drew’s vintage electric guitars and 1960s amplifiers. Famous customers include Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. A former guitarist for Conway Twitty, Drew is a member of the classic rock band Ronnie & The Remnants. 317 Delta Avenue; 662/645-1816
The Crossroads: Some folks say that the crossroads–where Robert Johnson supposedly met the Devil and traded his soul for musical virtuosity–is in Rosedale. Others say it’s at the intersection of two dusty roads outside Cleveland. Clarksdale claims it happened where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61. Pick a spot and pay your respects.
Dockery Farms: A cotton gin and restored service station still stand on the grounds of Dockery Farms, where hundreds of black tenant farmers worked the fields by day and played and listened to blues at night. Established in the late 1800s, the farm produced Charley Patton, an originator of early Delta blues. Check the website for listings of occasional outdoor concerts held onsite. 229 State 8; dockeryfarms.org
GRAMMY Museum: This $20 million facility opened on the campus of Delta State University in March of this year. It’s the first sister museum ever sanctioned by the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles. 800 West Sunflower Road, Cleveland; 662/441-0100; grammymuseumms.org
Robert Johnson Gravesite: Equal parts man and myth, Robert Johnson is beloved, not just for his haunting music but for the mystery surrounding his life and death. He was allegedly murdered–poisoned in a juke joint–then buried in a grave on Money Road, in a cemetery flanked by the Little Tallahatchie River and the Little Zion M.B. church.
WABG Radio: Tune into WABG AM 960 for the ultimate Delta-rambling soundtrack. Owner and operator James Poe broadcasts an eclectic mix of Delta-focused programming, including interviews with Southern royalty like John Grisham and Billy Bob Thornton. Knock on the door of his station and you’ll likely wind up on the air; Poe invites everybody passing through to come inside for a friendly interview. 68322 Money Road; 662/455-1688; awesomeam.com
Turnrow Book Co.: Owned by Greenwood novelist Jamie Kornegay, Turnrow curates bestsellers, as well as interesting Delta-centric selections. 304 Howard Street; 662/453-5995; turnrowbooks.com
B.B. King Museum: Although he was born in a tiny community outside of Itta Bena, Riley “B.B.” King came to consider Indianola home. For the last 34 years of his life, he returned annually to perform in parks and other venues. The $14 million museum in his honor tells his life story. 400 Second Street; 662/887-9539; bbkingmuseum.org
McCartys: Founded in 1954 by the late husband-and-wife team Lee and Pup McCarty, this artisan shop features earth-hued pottery inspired by the Delta. Godson Jamie Smith now works the pottery wheel using Pup and Lee’s techniques. 101 Saint Marys Street; 662/748-2293; mccartyspottery.com
Red’s Lounge: “We got real blues up in here,” says owner Red Paden. That’s the truth. The gritty, neon-lit Red’s regularly features hot blues acts like Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and the 17-year-old hometown prodigy Chris-tone “Kingfish” Ingram. Red himself can usually be found on a vinyl barstool, talking trash from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Cash only. 398 Sunflower Avenue; 662/627-3166
Ground Zero Blues Club: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Ike Turner got their start in this northern corner of the Delta. Ground Zero, which is co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, opened 15 years ago to celebrate that musical legacy. With bright lights and a burger-and-fries menu, it’s a good choice for early evening. And Freeman, who owns a farm south of town, is a regular. 387 Delta Avenue; 662/621-9009; groundzerobluesclub.com
Po’ Monkey’s: One of the last rural juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s is riotous fun. The legendary blues house sits on a lonely dirt road in the middle of nowhere, beckoning from beneath a garland of Christmas lights. Owner and farmworker Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry opened in 1963. Like all jukes, it was black-only. Nowadays the crowd includes whites and blacks, locals and tourists, farmers and country clubbers. Live music has given way to a DJ spinning soul and rhythm-and-blues. But the juke spirit endures. Open Thursdays only, cash only ($5 cover), and beer only. Brown-bagging liquor is allowed. 93 Po Monkey Road; msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/po-monkeys
Chamoun’s Rest Haven: Immigrant roots run deep in the Delta. In the late 1800s, Italians, Chinese, and Lebanese arrived as laborers and entrepreneurs, bringing traditions that melded into a beguiling Delta culture. That’s how Chamoun’s Rest Haven, a diner that sells homemade chocolate meringue pies alongside fresh kibbeh, became a Clarksdale institution. Cash only. 419 South State Street; 662/624-8601
Delta Meat Market: After working for superstar chefs Tom Colicchio and Sean Brock, Delta Meat Market owner-chef Cole Ellis felt the Delta calling him home. He opened Delta Meat Market in downtown Cleveland two years ago. A seasonal menu features crisp salads topped with charred veggies and homemade bacon, along with heartier fare like a tender Reuben sandwich. Ellis plans to start brewing his own beer and has started hosting casual “happy hour” dinners every Friday with choices like duck confit lasagna or red snapper served over a fennel-orange salad. 118 North Sharpe Street; 662/444-6328; deltameatmarket.com
The Blue Biscuit: Situated just beyond the atmospheric bayou that flows through Indianola, this funky pub specializes in live music and what chef Trish Berry calls “a good level of ridiculous Southern hospitality.” Catch a weekend show and try Berry’s 72-hour pulled-pork barbecue or her decadent Delta beignets. Corner of Pershing Avenue and Second Street; 662/645-0258; thebluebiscuit.com
Doe’s Eat Place: Walk right through the kitchen into Doe’s unpretentious dining room, where seed sacks decorate the walls and there are no menus. Order the two-and-a-half-pound porterhouse, and bring your own bottle of wine. Dominick “Doe” Signa, a second-generation Sicilian immigrant, opened the place in the current spot in 1941, and the same family keeps it going. Look for his grandson, “Baby Doe,” broiling steaks–and 90-year-old Aunt Florence tossing salads and making guests feel right at home, four nights a week. 502 Nelson Street; 662/334-3315; doeseatplace.com
Delta Bistropub: Modern interior design and killer cocktails make the newly opened Delta Bistro-pub feel like it belongs in Nashville or Atlanta. But the clientele is pure Delta: farmers in overalls mingling with tourists from around the world. Try the Pickleback–a shot of pickle juice and a shot of bourbon followed by a perfectly crisp hunk of duck crackling. Or opt for the more refined French 76, a twist on the New Orleans classic. Pair either with food from Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts’ menu of Southern small plates, including black-eyed pea cakes with remoulade, and bourbon-and-cola fried chicken sliders. 222 Howard Street; 662/459-9345; deltabistropub.com
Lusco’s: Buzz for your server from inside a private, curtained cubicle at Lusco’s, which is run by a fourth-generation descendant of founders Charles and Marie Lusco. The Luscos lived in Louisiana before settling in Greenwood, which is reflected deliciously on the Cajun-Italian menu. Bring a bottle of wine and relax. “This is not fast food,” says Karen Pinkston, who married Charles’ great-grandson, Andy, and runs the kitchen with him. “You sit down, you order, and we cook it.” 722 Carrollton Avenue; 662/453-5365; luscos.net
White Front Café: Strangely, Delta folks adore tamales. Historians think Mexican laborers brought tamales to Mississippi’s fields in the early 20th century. African-American cooks embraced them and started tinkering. The Delta version–spicy and glistening with red grease–is smaller than Mexico’s, and made from cornmeal instead of masa. The White Front Café makes them especially rich and tender. Order at least a dozen while you still can: Owner Barbara Pope is considering retirement. 902 Main Street; 662/759-3842