The Blues Highway

  • David "Honeyboy" Edwards at Hopson Plantation, just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi.
  • With the blues playing on the radio, the Cadillac shrugs off the Mississippi rain with aplomb.
  • Before hitting the road, PM"â„¢s Chuck Tannert and the author stock up on music at Chicago"â„¢s Jazz Record Mart "“ a gold mine for rare blues albums.
  • Freedom came courtesy of four wheels and miles of tar for many bluesmen. We picked the Cadillac CTS and the Lincoln MKX to explore the Blues Highway in appropriate style.
  • T-Model Ford rips it up at the Delta Blues & Heritage Festival in Greenville, Mississippi.
Date:30 June 2008 Tags:, , , , , , ,

The road between Chicago and the Mississippi Delta is a pathway to great music, food and adventure – if you know where to look for them.

It’s 6 am on the fifth day of our journey down the Blues Highway, and the roar of cotton-picking machines warming up for the day’s harvest rouses us from a deep slumber. Spending the night at the Shack Up Inn on Hopson Plantation, just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, seemed like a fun idea when we were organising this musical pilgrimage. Surrounded by a working farm, the inn bills itself as “Mississippi’s oldest B&B”, which in this case stands for bed and beer. “We don’t fool with no breakfast,” manager Bill Talbot said as we checked in the day before. Like the renovated sharecropper shacks we’re staying in, the inn’s “lobby”, which in its previous incarnation was a tractor shed, is stuffed with memorabilia, such as battered guitars and hand-cranked phonographs. But last night’s impromptu beer-fuelled jam session on the lawn behind our shabby-chic dwellings went very late, so this rude mechanised wakeup call isn’t appreciated by anyone.

The humidity down here in the Delta, the fertile northwest corner of the state that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, is already stifling. It’s easy to imagine how this hothouse atmosphere gave rise to the most intense and influential brand of blues, spurring guitarists like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson – the man who sold his soul to the devil for fame and fortune at the crossroads – to write songs about the hardships of sharecropping on Southern plantations and their desires for a better life.

One of the only truly American musical art forms, blues music spawned rock-androll, rhythm and blues, soul and even rap. We’re on a quest to discover if the sound that originated in Mississippi’s cotton fields and juke joints is still alive and kicking on the blues mother road, from Chicago (where it was popularised) to the Mississippi Delta (its birthplace).

After a breakfast of Southern-style biscuits and gravy and hominy grits at a local diner, we stumble across one of the original acoustic Delta blues musicians, guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who’s still playing at the age of 92. He’s at Hopson to be interviewed for a documentary being filmed for the BBC about the Delta and its unique style of music. But he seems more interested in the 2008 Cadillac CTS and 2007 Lincoln MKX we’ve been driving the past several days than in the fact that the video crew is an hour late.

“I had all kinds of cars,” he says. “Bigtime cars, too, man. I had two Cadillacs.” He even remembers the exact colour, year and make of the vehicle that legendary folklorist Alan Lomax drove when he travelled to the Delta in 1942 to record the guitarist for the Library of Congress: “He had a green ’36 Hudson. Weren’t too many of them cars around then.”

For pioneering bluesmen like Edwards, who was born in Shaw, Mississippi, in 1915, cars were a symbol of success but also a means of escape – whether from a jilted lover, a jealous husband or the law. Then, as now, freedom came courtesy of four wheels and miles of tar.

The blues songbook is studded with tunes about cars. Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” references a classic late ’30s Hudson. Sonny Boy Williamson extolled the virtues of his straight Eight in “Pontiac Blues”. And Ike Turner helped launch the rock-and-roll era with his uptempo shout-out to the Oldsmobile, “Rocket 88”. So, obviously we couldn’t hit the Blues Highway in just any cars. We picked a Caddy and Lincoln, two classic American nameplates.

Honeyboy’s peers are a who’s who of legendary blues artists. He was running with Johnson the night the musician was reputedly poisoned to death by a lover’s jealous husband. He riffed with Howlin’ Wolf in the ’30s, when he was just 17 years old (Wolf was 22). And he has influenced such musical acts as Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Keith Richards. This year, Edwards took home the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. We’ve been looking for places where the blues is still alive, and we found one here. Edwards is the real deal. We spend much of the morning listening to his tales about the music he’s made, cars he’s owned and life on the road.

These days, Edwards still gigs nearly 100 days a year, travelling the country’s highways and byways. “We were in New England last weekend, and we were in South Texas the weekend before that,” he says. “And we’re going to Portugal in a week. But it don’t bother me none.”

Us neither. For almost a week now our routine has been to wake up, load up, drive south, check into a hotel and find a blues bar – or some variation thereof. Then do it all again the next day. From behind the wheel of the CTS and the MKX, with the landscape constantly changing through the windscreen, the repetition never gets tedious.

Sweet home Chicago
Starting in the Windy City, we drive in the reverse direction of the Great Migration, which drew over a million blacks northward in search of work post–World War I, bringing with them this unique style of music – hence the route’s name, the Blues Highway. Leaving behind the harsh, limited life of the plantation, musicians from the Delta flocked to Chicago’s South Side, finding jobs in factories and an audience for their down-home music in the city’s notorious nightclubs and in neighbourhoods such as Maxwell Street, which played a bit part in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.

Though most of the original hot spots have died off, along with most of the original bluesmen, Chicago still has the most vibrant blues scene on the planet. It’s just before midnight when we roll up in the MKX to one of the best joints in town, B.L.U.E.S. on North Halsted, where John Primer and the Real Deal are rocking the house.

We nab some stools at the end of the bar next to Big Time Sarah, a boisterous singer who moved to Chicago as a child, from Coldwater, Mississippi. She hands me one of her CDs, with no intention of taking it back. “You owe me a $20, baby,” she says, before making her way to the stage to belt out a few numbers with the band.

By the end of the evening we’ve hit four clubs, finally landing at Rosa’s Lounge on West Armitage, where harmonica player Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues are playing to a packed house. It’s just a typical night in Chicago.

St Louis Blues
Interstate 55 is flanked by seas of swaying maize, separated only by small towns and dingy truck stops. Heading south toward St Louis with Popular Mechanics senior automotive editor Chuck Tannert on point in the MKX, I have plenty of time to check out the CTS.

Although it may not be top dog of the sport sedan segment, Cadillac’s entry-level model can certainly hold its own against offerings from BMW and Lexus in both luxury and driving prowess. It has a beautifully designed interior – quite possibly the best GM has ever done. And there’s ample in-cabin technology for any geek or music fanatic. Centre stage is a 20 cm touchscreen display that rises out of the dash to control the car’s sophisticated entertainment system. And a Bose 5.1 Cabin Surround Sound setup offers an almost overwhelming array of music options: CD and DVD-Audio, an aux jack to plug in a portable music player, a USB port for access to MP3 or WMA files on a thumb drive, and AM, FM or XM radio. Also onboard is a 40 GB hard drive that can house hundreds of music files ripped from CDs or downloaded via the USB port in the centre console. I bank a dozen of my favourite blues CDs into the hard drive and wonder if I’ll need to touch a disc again in the CTS.

The low-slung vehicle’s suspension is a bit firm, and the tar is a little rough down here, but the Caddy’s ride is pleasant and smooth.

We pull into St Louis at dusk, park the vehicles at the hotel and walk through a nearly deserted downtown area searching for South Broadway. After wandering a few dark blocks, I miss the nav systems and the sheetmetal security our rides provide. But we soon run into the Broadway Oyster Bar, where we find the best crawfish étouffée north of New Orleans and Cajun guitar slinger Tab Benoit tearing it up in front of an appreciative crowd on the club’s brick patio.

Memphis in the meantime
Chuck and I switch vehicles for the trek to Memphis the next afternoon. I really like the high perch and miles of visibility provided by the MKX. Amazingly, the hefty SUV has a smooth and controlled ride and responsive handling. It glides over most road imperfections with ease. On paper, the 3,5-litre V6 might look a little on the lean side, but it gives this midsize sport ute plenty of pep.

Compared with the Caddy, however, the Lincoln’s interior is rather ho-hum. And its in-dash electronics are not as advanced as those in the CTS – no hard drive, USB port or even satellite radio.

Past the rolling hills of southeast Missouri, we traverse the northeastern tip of Arkansas, where the landscape flattens into cotton country. Crossing the Mississippi River, I cue up Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” as we enter the singer’s namesake city.

Beale Street was once the epicentre of black culture in the South, and most blues musicians have played here at some point in their careers. WC Handy, the father of the blues, even operated a music publishing business on Beale. Today, it’s like Bourbon Street North, with bluesthemed tourist bars and frozen daiquiri shops. Even at BB King’s, you’re more likely to hear KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty” than Elmore James’s “Shake Your Moneymaker.”

Thankfully, we stumble upon the band Delta Highway playing a frenetic set at Mr Handy’s Blues Hall. Brandon Santini, the band’s singer and harmonica player, tells us after the evening’s last set that he and guitarist Justin Sulek moved to Memphis from North Carolina to play the blues: “But there wasn’t much of a scene here.” Yet the band earns a living playing for tips four nights a week. “We’ve become the band we came here to find,” Sulek adds.

Highway 61 revisited
After getting our fill of Beale Street’s watered-down blues scene, we’re ready to tap the source in the Mississippi Delta. Heading down Highway 61 toward Clarksdale, the rain is coming down in sheets, but the CTS’s all-wheel-drive system keeps the car firmly planted as it ploughs through standing water on the road. Clarksdale was home to many blues greats. Actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in neighbouring Greenwood and is one of Clarksdale’s biggest boosters, opened Ground Zero Blues Club downtown in early 2001.

After arriving in Greenville, we leave the Caddy at the hotel and drive the MKX to the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, our final destination. Try timing your trip to the Delta to coincide with a major festival, like this one – they are the best places to hear real blues. Modern-day blues fans are a truly roadloving bunch. Mixed in with plenty of late-model pickups and SUVs are RVs and mobile homes of all sizes. And although it’s a one-day event, judging from the gear attendees haul in – camping chairs, awnings, barbecue pits, folding tables – it looks like they’re preparing to stay for weeks.

After watching a few of the lukewarm acts on the main stage, Chuck and I wander over to the smaller Juke Stage and find a handful of people grooving to a solo T-Model Ford, a guitar slinger and ex-convict from Forrest, Mississippi. We park ourselves for the rest of the festival on an old bench seat stripped from a ’50s-era car, leaving only for sustenance: succulent ribs, hot tamales, tasty Cajun boudin and beer.

Just after the sun sets, local blues singer Mississippi Slim – resplendent in a multicoloured three-piece suit and hair dyed various shades of blue and purple – and the Mississippi Delta Blues Revue take over the small shack. They have the crowd hootin’ and hollerin’ in no time. It’s safe to say that the blues is alive and well on the mother road. You just have to let the tar lead you to it.

Sound Improvement 1
Add a powered subwoofer
Why:
Bass is the Achilles’ heel of any sound system – whether at home or in the car. It’s
typically either nonexistent or too loud and muddied. A subwoofer is designed specifically
to reproduce low frequencies (under 200 Hz) so that the “boom” is musical, punchy and
clean. It takes the burden of reproducing bass off smaller front and rear speakers, making
them sound cleaner and louder. Recommendation: Infinity’s 200-watt, 25 cm Basslink
thumps and only takes up about 28 dm3 of boot space. Ease of installation: Simple.
Comes with speaker level inputs, so all you have to do is splice into the existing speaker
wire. www.infinitysystems.com
 

Sound Improvement 2
Replace the speakers
Why:
Unless you’re riding around in, say, a Jaguar with a high-end audio system
engineered by Bowers & Wilkins, the factory-installed speakers in your car probably
aren’t very good. Car manufacturers care more about the size and weight of electronic
components than about how they sound. Upgrading the speakers immediately makes
instruments and vocals sound more realistic. Recommendation: Polk Audio’s db6501
16 cm component speakers offer flexible mounting options and can handle 100 watts
(continuous). Ease of installation: Moderate. The size and shape of your car’s stockspeaker
locations determine the kind of replacements you can use. Measure before you
buy. www.polkaudio.com

Sound Improvement 3
Install an amplifier
Why:
Factory systems simply don’t have the gusto to rock the beats, so the sound falls
apart (read: distorts horribly) when you pump up the volume. An amplifier boosts the audio
signal so you can play your music louder, bringing out musical details and enhancing
clarity. Recommendation: Total Mobile Audio’s four-channel T320.4 offers plenty of power
(60 watts continuous) as well as a built-in crossover. Ease of installation: Moderate to
difficult. Most factory head units don’t have preamp-level RCA outputs, so you’ll have to
use an OEM interface such as JL Audio’s CleanSweep CL441-dsp to tap into the factory
wiring harness. www.jlaudio.com

On The Web
Check out a select playlist of blues tunes from our road trip at popularmechanics.com/freedomoftheroad08.