A guide to doing a Blues Trail Road Trip
If you’re a Blues Music fan, then a Blues Trail road trip is simply a must. Highway 61, also known as the Blues Trail, rivals that of Route 66, if not for its historical importance, certainly for its musical significance.
One of the first stops many Blues fans will make is in DeSoto County to the grave-site of one of the most famous female Country Blues artists, Lizzie Douglas, aka Memphis Minnie. Even in death Lizzie still draws a crowd.
While Louisiana may be the birthplace of Jazz, Mississippi Delta, is where the Blues were born! Music, comfort food and southern hospitality run deep in the Delta. The Blues Trail road trip begins in Memphis, Tennessee which is where the Delta starts, but it’s not long before road trippers heading south cross the border into Mississippi. Along the way are a cluster of small towns, each filled with their own unique charm.
Travel has been a popular theme in Blues lyrics, and highways have symbolized the potential to quickly “pack up and go,” to leave troubles behind, or seek out new opportunities elsewhere. Some of the most famous Mississippi artists who lived near Highway 61 included: B. B. King, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Sam Cooke, James Cotton and Jimmy Reed, just to name a few.
The Mississippi Blues Trail road trip markers tell stories about Blues artists through words and images, about the places they lived and the times in which they existed—and how that influenced their music. The marker sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots, cemeteries, clubs to churches.
DeSoto County derives its name from the 16th Century Spanish explorer, Hernado DeSoto. There is also a town that bears his first name, where world famous author, John Grisham, based his first novel, “A Time to Kill.” The DeSoto county courthouse is featured in the film, and the historic town-square of Hernando is absolutely worth a stroll. A great place to have lunch is at the Underground Café
Heading deeper into the Delta, the next stop on the Blues Trail road trip is Tunica, which is home to the Gateway Blues Museum that also doubles as a visitor’s center. This museum is extremely well done and is really worth a stop. The front of the venue is constructed from a rustic train depot, circa 1895. Inside are beautiful Blues exhibits and artwork.
Gaming is quite popular in Tunica and the casinos offer some of the best lodging in the area. I would recommend the Gold Strike Casino Hotel. The hotel features a contemporary feel and has a smoke-free gaming area. Next door is Jack Binion’s, a fantastic fine-dining restaurant. It’s one of those classically sophisticated restaurants that reminded me of being in Chicago with its rich and elegant décor and extensive array of classic American dishes.
While in Tunica, I would also recommend stopping by the Tunica Riverpark and Museum, an interpretive center filled with authentic artifacts and exhibits showcasing the history of the Mighty Mississippi. Click the following link to read my Tunica Riverpark write-up and see the short video. If you’re really into Southern comfort food, there is probably no better, or historic, place than the Blue & White Restaurant. Established way back in 1924, the Blue & White is situated right on Highway 61 and has served all the great Blues musicians over the decades.
If you happen to be on your Blues Trail road trip during mid-April, I highly recommend attending the annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale. Steeped in history with rugged character to boot, Clarksdale is said to be ground zero for the Blues. As a matter of fact, there is a wonderful juke joint with the same name that is co-owed by Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman. The photographic opportunities in Clarksdale are endless, and so too are the listening pleasure of Blues music on nearly every corner (and inside the clubs) during the festival. Clarksdale is just forty minutes south of Tunica and has a famous landmark that is said to be the site where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, it’s called “The Crossroads.”
After soaking in some soulful Blues music in Clarksdale, I would recommend heading to Indianola to visit the B.B. King Museum. B.B. King has been the foremost ambassador to the Blues, so it made sense to build a facility to pay homage to the legend, which, interestingly, is on the site of an old cotton gin where Mr. King once worked. It’s really an amazing venue; it’s not just a tribute to B.B. King, but also a wonderful historical representative of the Blues music in general.
While in Indianola, I would also recommend The Crown, a charming restaurant that serves some of the best catfish I’ve ever had. The Crown is much more than just a restaurant; it’s an art gallery, gift shop and bookstore all rolled into one. The best part about dining at The Crown has to be the way they serve dessert…unlike any place I’ve ever been before. After your meal, you can head to the back of the restaurant where a large table has an array of desserts on display. From there, you simply help yourself. You can grab a large slice of pie, or take a sliver of everything they have to offer. A brilliant concept if you ask me.
Next stop on this Blues Trail road trip is to Greenwood, which is home to Viking Appliances and where they filmed many scenes from the Hollywood movie The Help. On a nice evening you will often find the large arched wooden doors at Williams Landing Winery swung wide open, inviting passersby to come in for a tasting. At this boutique winery they feature a line of Delta Blues inspired vino. One vintage I had never tried before was made from figs (which are in abundance in Mississippi Delta). The light, but not too sweet, fruity wine would pair well with salads, Gulf shrimp, or other seafood.
For dinner you might want to try Delta Bistro, right in downtown Greenwood and just down the street from Williams Landing. This hip and upscale restaurant was not what I was expecting in the heart of the Delta. The vibe and décor are amazing.
The legendary Blues Highway 61 continues south, running right through the heart and soul of Vicksburg, which is the next stop on this Blues Trail road trip. The antebellum architecture, Civil War history and of course the Blues music are just some of the highlights in Vicksburg.
You could do this Blues Trail road trip starting from either Memphis, Tennessee to the north, or New Orleans, Louisianan from the south. I’ve done it from both directions. If you’re flying into the area, it might be best to fly into one airport and out the other. Either direction you start from, I would recommend staying a few days in Vicksburg, it’s such a wonderful city with so much to see and do. I would suggest an entire day just to see the National Military Park.
The National Military Park is a road trip in of itself, with many pullouts over its 16 miles of monuments and other displays. The lush green grass, dense trees and foliage make the park feel like a well-deserved memorial to all of those who fought and died there. There is a staggering 1350 monuments within the park, 28 of which are bronze reliefs by Tiffany’s. There is a lot of symbolism in the park, with respect to the monuments. For example, there are 47 steps at the Illinois monument, which represents the 47 days of the Vicksburg Siege.
Vicksburg Restaurants I recommend:
- Café Anchuca A fine-dining experience in a historic home that exudes Southern charm.
- ROCA – Euro-influenced menu accented in Southern flair with a live music lounge.
- Rusty’s Riverfront Grill – A newer place in town with a modern and cool feel with delicious seafood.
- 10 South Rooftop Bar & Gril– Situated on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, which provides a stunning view of the city and rivers below.
- Beechwood has been a Vicksburg staple for over sixty years.
- Bourbon’s restaurant features steak and BBQ in an atmosphere and manner that is distinctly Southern.
Places to listen to the Blues:
- AmeriStar Casino at the Bottleneck Blues Bar. The Bottleneck is a refined venue, accommodating larger acts and larger crowds.
- For a more intimate and perhaps authentic Blues experience, check out LD’s.
BLUES TRAIL ROAD TRIP ENDS IN NEW ORLEANS
In addition to being called the Blues Highway (or Trail), Highway 61 is also known as the “Great River Road,” as it follows the mighty Mississippi River. There are, however, areas where the highway is east of the river and can’t be seen from the road, but the picturesque view coupled with the speedy efficiency of a four-lane highway creates an almost ideal situation for the romantic road tripper. The rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley show off their beauty as the road meanders along, showcasing striking bayous and dense woodland.
Continuing south on Highway 61 toward New Orleans, you’ll come across the Natchez Trace Parkway, where the stunning scenery continues. Eventually you’ll want to veer off onto highway 98, which cuts east across the Homochitto National Forest and runs into Interstate 55, which will take you south right into New Orleans and end your Blues Trail road trip. Exploring New Orleans is a trip that requires no road tripping. You can drop the car off at the rental location and explore by foot, carriage, trolley or a hop on/hop off bus. Known as the Crescent City, or the Big Easy (locals call it NOLA), New Orleans will captivate, tantalize and hug you with hospitality.
New Orleans is so much more than just Bourbon Street of the French Quarter, it’s incredibly rich in history, steeped in culture, with a distinct identity that few can claim. The energy is contagious. The hospitality is genuine, and the kindness of its residents is inspirational. From classic creole to refined gastronomic experiences, the food scene is legendary. And of course, the birthplace of jazz is felt everywhere you go, from heterogeneous street performers, to clubs dedicated to the propulsive rhythms.
NOLA Restaurants I recommend:
- Dominique’s on Magazine – The sophisticated creations coming out of the kitchen are as delicious as they are artfully presented.
- Tableau – The sophisticated Creole cuisine holds true to Louisiana’s rich culinary history, while enhancing it to meet the expectations of the gourmand.
- Lüke’s– Details are highlighted throughout the restaurant and flows right into the amazing epicurean creations coming out of the kitchen.
- Galatoire’s – This fine-dining establishment retains its traditions through and through—its classic formalities take guests on a culinary journey of yesteryear.
The legendary Blues Trail road trip via U.S. Route 61 is an unforgettable journey evocative of a delicious slice of Americana, represented by a genre of music known as the Delta Blues. Spilling out car windows and church doors, soul, gospel and R&B can be heard around every bend in the road. I enjoyed the rural quirkiness, the hard-to-reach wonders and found it necessary to budget extra time for enjoyable and unscheduled conversations. The Delta is the real deal when it comes to the embodiment of the American road trip experience.
I found the Mississippi Delta to exude charm and hospitality, while its music permeated my soul and found a place in my heart. If you’ve ever visited the Mississippi Delta, please leave a comment below and share your experience. Click the following link if you’d like to see more of my photos from Mississippi Delta.
NOTE: If are interested in doing a Blues Trail road trip, there is a great app to guide the way. Click the following links for Android Blues Trail app, or iOS Blues Trail app. If you’ve ever road tripped the Blues Trail, please leave a comment below and share your experience and/or suggestions.