Sometimes, in the course of your travels, you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a place with just the right vibe. A place you go to not for its famous sights or fancy venues, but for its particular energy. A place that gets passed on from person to person, through the tales of those who have been before. A place where you immediately bond with the people you meet, because it feels like you just uncovered a secret together. Clarksdale is one of those places.

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Where the hell is Clarksdale?

Clarksdale is located 75 miles south of Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a small town of roughly 17.000 inhabitants, surrounded by rural areas.

How on earth did we end up there? Well on a warm night of June 2013, in a baseball stadium of Memphis, Tennessee, my friend N. and her travel mates were complaining loudly (like the loud Aussies that they are) about the lack of good blues music in so-called Blues City. Hearing that, the guy sitting behind them tapped on N.’s shoulder, and said those magic words: “…Y’all should go to Clarksdale, Mississippi.”

Fast-forward to September 2014: we were road-tripping the American South without a car (because none of us had a license), and N. just wouldn’t shut up about this place she went to the year before. Now, Clarksdale is not somewhere you can get to without a car, but N. insisted that this little town in Mississippi was the coolest spot on the whole continent, and that we absolutely had to find a way to get ourselves there… So we ended up deciding to Greyhound-our-way to the town — and just wing it.

As within half an hour we had managed to burn bridges with the only cab driver in town (he ripped us off, we didn’t like it), we spent the next three days struggling like hell to get around… But you know what? It was worth it. More than worth it. Why? Well, let me run you through the basics.

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The Blues

If you like blues music, Clarksdale is the place for you. This is where it all started, and the town is still a regular purveyor of madly-skilled bluesmen. When it comes to venues, you’ll inevitably hear about the big player Ground Zero, co-opened by Morgan Freeman in 2001 in a former cotton store, which hosts many famous acts.

However the place you should head to is Red’s, on the other side of the railroad tracks. Red’s is a minuscule juke joint that’s as back-to-the-basics as it gets: dim lights, a couple of chairs, easy drink choices (beer), and bloody good music. Sometimes there’s a bbq serving food at the front, sometimes there isn’t. Avoid behaving like a jerk in there — when I asked Red how he got his nickname, he said it dated back to a time when he was doing bare-knuckle boxing.

Our favourite night was when we saw Leo Welch, a gospel blues musician who just recorded his debut album at the young age of 81-years-old. Definitely check him out if he’s playing when you’re in town.

By the way, it’s also in Clarksdale — at the crossroads between Highways 61 and 49 — that bluesman Robert Johnson is rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unparalleled guitar skills… So watch out if you’re out in the area around midnight.

travelettes marie colinet clarksdale mississippi red's lounge blues club Red’s Blues Club. Please excuse the poor quality of these phone pics, but Red’s is no place to rock up with a camera and a tripod. Actually saw someone getting kicked out because they were filming.

Shacking it up

The Shack Up Inn is the kind of place you come to for one night, and end up staying two. Or three. Or four… and then continuously long to get back to. It’s a collection of ancient sharecropper shacks that the owners have collected across the state, assembled on the site of a former plantation and refurbished just enough to accommodate 21st Century travellers (hot water, wifi, TV). There’s also rooms in the main Cotton Gin building — but really, you’ll want to stay in a shack. They all have great names (we had the twin shacks “Biscuit” and “Gravy”) and tuns of cool details.

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Spend your afternoons doing some good old porch-sitting: rock your heart out in an old rocker, Southern Pecan ale in hand, breeze coming through the squeaking screen doors (you gotta love a door with a good squeak), listening to B.B. King Radio (or to your neighbours jamming), chilling the hell out. You’ll inevitably meet cool people: everybody spends their time going from shack to shack, and it’s hard to not make friends.

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Southern hospitality is not a myth, and the owners and staff went out of their way to help us on more than one occasion. Also, the food we had on site at Rust Restaurant (which serves Southern cuisine with a creative twist) was hands-down the best of our whole trip in America. The Shack Up Inn does zero advertising and completely relies on word-of-mouth; I personally recommend you go out of your planned route to spend a few days there, and then to tell your friends about it.

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The town

Taking a walk through the centre of Clarksdale will make you feel like you just teleported back to the fifties. There’s several nice murals (including one of blues musicians John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith), colourful and fairly decrepit buildings a-plenty, and lots of tamale places. There’s also a Delta Blues Museum that’s supposed to be great (although we didn’t have the time to visit), and a pretty funny Rock & Blues Museum that’s full of memorabilia from floor to ceiling. You’ll find books, records, local art and giftable curiosities in blues emporium Cat Head. More blues art, wooden objects and occasional gigs are to be found at Hambone Gallery. Looking for a custom-made harmonica (or a gator head shaker)? Head to Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones.

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Getting there

Fly into Memphis, rent a car and take Highway 61 down to Clarksdale (approx. 1.5 hours drive). Yes, you need a car. Really, you do. If — like us — you don’t have a car, you can grab a Greyhound bus from Memphis Station and ask the guys over at the Shack Up Inn to recommend a driver to pick you up when you arrive.

To get around at night, there’s a limo shuttle that goes to Ground Zero and back. But whatever you do, don’t walk back to the Shack Up Inn from the town centre; the outskirts of Clarksdale are no place to mess around. Also, don’t hitch rides. (This is all advice from locals.)

April is the month of Juke Joint Festival; don’t miss it if you have a chance to visit at that time of the year!

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All photos by Marie Colinet.

mariecolinettravelettes Marie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!