(I was a guest of the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association on this trip; almost all of my travel expenses were paid for by them.)
“I’ve got rambling, I’ve got rambling on my mind….” sang bluesman Robert Johnson to all of the boogie chillen, then and now and forever.
After rolling down those hypnotically flat, straight roads lined with cotton fields, you ramblers are going to need somewhere to stay the night, but there’s one place that is not for everyone, as Shack Up Inn owners Guy and Bill make quite clear on their Inn website.
“Room service — call the Peabody [Hotel] in Memphis
Phone & fax service — call a Comfort Inn anywhere
Sheet thread count — NO KIDDING FOLKS, SOME CRAZY LADY ASKED THIS QUESTION…call the Alluvian in Greenwood, they really have the good ones
Wake up call — yea right, automatic one minute after check out time, it consists of a chain saw right outside your bedroom window at 11:01 AM”
After one too many carousing college kids misunderstood what the Inn is all about, they won’t let anyone under age 25 book a room, and there’s a whole section of the website titled, “The Ritz we ain’t.” You come here to appreciate history and soak in Mississippi Delta culture and music; do not expect a typical taupe-tinged, predictable hotel stay.
For US$75-95 per night – there’s a two night minimum on weekends – you’re getting a lodging bargain plus sensory overload.
That’s not to say that it isn’t quite comfortable here on the former Hopson Plantation just outside of Clarksdale, where blues pianist Pinetop Perkins used to drive a tractor when it was still a working farm (look for the Mississippi Blues Trail marker on the property.)
The converted sharecropper/tenant farmer shotgun shacks, grain bins, and cotton gin rooms all have air-conditioning and heat, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, coffee makers, TVs,”….and we buy really nice mattresses!” says Guy.
Yes, I slept quite well through the dark Delta night, in the Piedmont Shack.
The attention to detail is astounding.
A guitar pick nonchalantly left by the bed. A list of live music venues in town and who’s playing, tucked into your check-in materials. Half-buried car tires to neatly mark the parking spots. A profusion of plugs everywhere you look, to accommodate today’s traveler electronics load, plus free WiFi. A map of the new multi-state Americana Music Triangle stuck on the fridge door, in case you need more reasons for road trips in the South. The perfectly rusted cream and red 1950s-style metal chairs on the back porch, plus a black plastic ashtray sitting on the seat of a nearby red Naugahyde chair, because this ain’t Portland and people still smoke around here, dammit.
My shack came with a small, clean, tidy kitchen, a metal-topped red and white kitchen table that reminded me of one in my grandmother’s house, and the shower in the bathroom was cleverly designed from corrugated tin.
The heavy white bathroom sink stuck on the wall was small, like they used to be, with that little indentation next to the faucet where your bar of guest soap is supposed to sit.
This was not my first stay at the Shack Up.
In the summer of 2004, my family and I stayed here (kids are okay with adult supervision, but ask first) in Legends, one of the first shacks that Bill and Guy brought onto the old Hopson Plantation property that is now a much larger collection of buildings, plus a bar, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a large-ish live music venue not owned by the Shack Up folks.
It made such an impression, I knew I’d return one day.
Where else would someone like me, white and fairly privileged, be able to even remotely grasp how a Mississippi tenant farmer lived and in many cases, still lives today? As I told my kids back then, look around you, then remove the A/C, the electricity, the indoor plumbing, the running water, the “really nice mattresses,” and start to gain an appreciation for what people in poverty struggle to overcome.
If you were black, overlay Jim Crow intimidation over that.
Even on this visit, knowing what it was like and having stayed in a somewhat similar place called Tallahatchie Flats in Greenwood, Mississippi, I still sat on the screened-in back porch and felt a little weird. Was I trying to experience some sort of funky “poverty chic?” I could drive through poor residential areas in any Delta town and find run-down houses, but would almost certainly not have an urge to stay in any of them overnight.
I asked Guy if it’s over-thinking to feel this way.
Interestingly, he told me that international visitors, “the ones who come the furthest to find us, like the Germans, the Brits, the Aussies,” are the ones who most appreciate their efforts to honor, respect, and share Southern rural culture and blues music. Those who might be considered closest to it – Mississippi locals and even people from up the road in Memphis – “don’t get what we’re trying to do here and they complain the most about the accommodations.”
Based on some wide-ranging discussions, I can tell you that Guy and Bill are not making a bunch of money with this labor of love lodging that has, somewhat to their surprise, become a world-famous tourist magnet.
They can’t help themselves; they see something special even in the grungier parts of the Delta, and they’ve tried to find a way to share it, but with respect, a big dollop of humor, and no small amount of impatience with those who pick at their intentions.
I do not intend to let another decade pass before I visit them again.
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