Growing up in Maine, the closest I got to the blues was when BB King played the Bangor Auditorium. Seeing that show as a fourteen-year-old was a full on event in my life. One of those flashpoints where you glimpse a world of experience outside of your more narrow lens. I was difficult to not be hooked on the raw, soulful rhythms. They seemed to contain a history of pain, balanced with a spirit of resilience, in every note.
Two decades later, living in New Orleans, my access to world-class music has taken a 180. On any given night, I can tuck into a small venue and see some of the best musicians in the world play. But while the Crescent City itself deserves all the accolades and attention it gets, it’s only been one chapter – on jazz – in my musical education. If you want to truly dive into the history and culture of Southern music, you have to take a short drive along the often overlooked Mississippi Blues Trail.
The Blues Trail is an extensive string of landmarks documenting the history of the blues and the artists who created and crafted the genre. The radio stations, cemeteries, churches, homes, recording studios and music halls that make up the trail tell stories of Civil Rights, the Mississippi Delta itself, and the musicians who played its clubs and bars.
I’ve been able to spend a lot of time in the Delta over the past two years. Writing my first book, Cooking with Spices, allowed me to travel the country learning about the flavors that make various regions of this country unique. Along the way, I was struck by the Delta’s food, culture, and history. It’s verdant, ancient-feeling scenery. In my mind, driving the Blues Trail is a classic American road trip — one that you can squeeze into a single long weekend, just a few hours out of Jackson (Mississippi) or Memphis (Tennessee).
In Greenwood, Mississippi, you can’t go anywhere without seeing signs for the Blues Deejays, Baptist Town, Elks Lodge, Furry Lewis, Guitar Slim, Hubert Sumlin, the WGRM radio station and Robert Johnson’s gravesite. It’s like a tumbledown blues museum. It’s also a great city to spend time in. Turnrow Books is one of the iconic Southern Bookstores (like Lemuria in Jackson and Square Books in Oxford). The Alluvian Hotel has all the charm that a stay along a Southern road trip demands, paired with a refined, bourbon-centered cocktail menu.
Further along the trail, Cleveland is home to the can’t-miss GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. In 2016, the GRAMMY Museum in LA opened a sister museum in Mississippi to acknowledge the contributions of Mississippians and the surrounding area. BB King’s sixteen Grammys and Muddy Waters seven speak to that legacy.