9:34 p.m. March 29
My mind has been in Mississippi.
I just finished Larry Brown’s last (unfinished) rugged novel “A Miracle of Catfish” (Algonquin) and with murky headliners like John Mayer and Rod Stewart, I will pass on this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, perhaps in favor of a trip to the Delta.
This piece was published Jan. 20, 2002 in the Sun-Times. Remember back then? We were in the cold shadow of 9/11 and people set out to retouch America. What went wrong? I went to the Shack Up Inn and wound up being one of the first travel writers to discover the place. I’ve visited the Shack Up Inn a couple of times since this article appeared and it continues to expand by spirited leaps and bounds I’ve edited this piece and for more background, please visit www.shackupinn.com. Tell ’em this Yankee sent ya’.
CLARKSDALE, MISS.— A funky piece of folk art commemorates the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in downtown Clarksdale. A welded pair of 900-pound metal guitars point toward the heavens because this is supposed to be the place where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The truth is that it is unlikely the mystical 1938 detour took place at this intersection. As Steve Cheseborough points out in his fine road book Blues Traveling (The Holy Sites of Delta Blues), even then downtown Clarksdale was too busy for such an event to happen. I am driving Highway 49 outside of Clarksdale, looking for the Shack Up Inn, Mississippi’s “Oldest Bed & Beer (est.1998).” …………
……..It is just before New Year’s Eve. The compound of four restored sharecropper shacks is on the historic Hopson Plantation, four miles south of town. The plantation can barely be seen from the highway. There are no streetlights. There are few headlights from oncoming traffic. Big Maceo is belting out “Worried Life Blues” on my car radio. I am lonelier than a boll weevil in Bolivia. A full moon is rising over miles of flat cotton fields. The light of the moon blankets the Delta soil in a cobalt blue. It is around 8 at night, yet I can see pretty clearly. This is pretty creepy. I can see how someone could lose their soul.
But you can find Mississippi’s heart at the Shack Up Inn. I’ve slept in hotel lobbies in Havana, pontoons on the Mississippi River and a bordello in the Dominican Republic. But I’ve never stayed at a place as cool as the Shack Up Inn. The Shack Up Inn is owned and operated by five guys who call themselves “Shackmeisters.” J
James Butler is kind of the head shackmeister because he is married to Cathy Patton (no relation to Delta blues legend Charley Patton). She is a great-granddaughter of the Hopson family who have owned the plantation since 1852. The other shackmeisters are Jim Field, a Colorado architect; Guy Malvezzi, Bill Talbot and Nashville songwriter Tommy Polk. There are no women directly involved with the shotgun shacks. “I think I’m the only one with a wife,” Butler says during a conversation in the plantation commissary. “No, wait a minute. I think Guy’s got one.” (Malvezzi owns and operates eight shoe stores in the Delta.) Butler is cradling his dog, Brandy. I think she is a girl, too.
Each sharecropper’s shack has been moved to the plantation from nearby plantations. They have only been restored to the bare necessities. The shacks were built from cypress grown on the farm. My “Crossroads Shack” has a space heater, shower, indoor plumbing, a kitchen and a brown, rusty refrigerator that looks like it was last used by Howlin’ Wolf. I open the refrigerator to find one half-empty bottle of Coors beer. My shack also includes a Washburn piano from the 1800s, an antique Victrola and CD player-radio. The shack is equipped with CDs representing regional artists like Son House. A sealed Moon Pie is resting on my bed as I check in. The bed is perched on a beautifully restored pine floor.
The four shacks are neatly spaced on 12 acres of the plantation. The whole town knows about the shacks. While searching for the Shack Up Inn, a gas station clerk laughs, “You stayin’ at the tin shacks?’ The plantation looks pretty much the way it did when it was a working plantation. The original Hopson cotton gin is still standing, as are seed houses and other outbuildings. Butler says the shacks honor the sharecroppers, rather than exploiting a bleak moment in American history.
Sharecropper Robert Clay lived in the Shack Up Inn’s red flagship shack, the largest of the four. It has a full kitchen and separate bedroom and living room. “Robert lived on a plantation 26 miles north of Clarksdale,” Butler says. “He raised seven sons with no running water and no electricity. We’re certainly not leaving it like it was when he was there. He died in that shack. All his sons went to college. His kids tried to move him into town, but he said he loved the shack too much. We hope that visitors think of that, rather than any disrespect.” Shackmeister Talbot lives in the tractor shed and three-bedroom, two-bath house where you register.
Once you check in, ask him to show you the wombat in a cage. When I check out around 8 a.m. New Year’s Eve, Talbot is sound asleep on an old sofa in the house’s living room. He is surrounded by dog-eared books and tattered copies of the Oxford American magazine. He looks like something out of a Faulkner story. The original Hopson commissary has been transformed into a juke joint replete with a stage. The commissary has a corrugated tin roof and Mississippi cypress walls. The commissary hosts live music once a month, and it is rented out for private parties. The North Mississippi All Stars have performed in the commissary, which can hold up to 300 people.
Cathy (Patton) Butler works in the commissary. A happy hour is held for shack guests in a small bar adjacent to the commissary. The bar and kitchen are adorned with vintage Hatch print posters, a Cate Brothers poster and a modest kitchen menu. Every Thursday the shackmeisters host a Busby-B-Q, named in honor of Butler’s friend John Busby. “You take a Boston butt,” Butler says with an emerging smile. “Then you slit and stuff it with pickled jalapeno peppers. It’s incredible.”
The guys worked on the Shack Up Inn for six years. It opened in 1998. I only found out about this place through my friend Tom Marker, the blues expert at WXRT-FM radio in Chicago. Butler looks out a window at the plantation, still drenched in a nocturnal Delta blue. He says, “This was 4,000 acres in the Hopson heyday. Some of my wife’s relatives have 1,200, maybe 1,500 acres they own and still lease out. Others have been lost or sold.”
The cotton picker was invented on this property. In 1935 the Hopson Plantation began a transition to become one the world’s first completely mechanized cotton operation from planting to harvesting. “International Harvester would send experimental models on the Illinois Central railroad tracks out in front of the plantation,” Butler says. “They worked for 17 years in developing the picker. In 1944 they introduced the first pickers here. It revolutionized cotton.” It also revolutionized blues music.
The industrial revolution sparked the northern migration of blues musicians and their families. These future Chicago legends came from this area: Muddy Waters (from Rolling Fork, Miss., moved to Clarksdale when he was 3); Howlin’ Wolf (born as Chester Burnett in Aberdeen, Miss.); Roebuck “Pops” Staples (Drew, Miss.); Sam Cooke (Clarksdale), and Elmore James (from Richland, Miss., he 19 he relocated to the Turner Planation inBelzoni, Miss., when he was 19). A newly transplanted shack is in the process of being dedicated to Waters’ legendary sideman Pinetop Perkins, who was born in 1913 in Belzoni. While growing up, Perkins worked in the shop on the Hopson Plantation. Charley Patton came from this area.
A native of Natchez, Miss., Polk says, “We want to preserve the music and culture of the area. These shacks are falling by the wayside to weather and demolition.” Actually, the shackmeisters aren’t the first to relocate sharecroppers’ shacks. In 1996 the one-room log shack where Muddy Waters grew up was restored by House of Blues founder Isaac Tigrett. The shack–originally on the Col. Howard Stovall cotton plantation in Clarksdale–appeared at the 1996 Chicago Blues Festival.
Songwriter Polk, 46, and Butler, 44, are cousins. Polk had four songs on country singer David Ball’s 1994 debut record with Warner Brothers, including “Honky Tonk Healin’,” which he co-wrote with Ball. Polk has introduced the Shack Up Inn to fellow songwriters Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham as an artistic retreat. The compound is 300 miles from Nashville. Other visitors have included the Squirrel Nut Zippers (their CD was in my shack), Blue Mountain and Boogaloo Aimes, a blues piano player from Leland, Miss. Polk’s shack was formerly a cook’s house on the LeFlore plantation 10 miles down the road.
Butler says, “These shacks were disappearing fast. All of the original Hopson shacks are gone. They were a quarter mile away on the Sunflower river. I never thought about having visitors actually stay in them.” Talbot says it cost between $2,000 and $2,500 to move a shack.
Talbot, 51, is from Dublin–Mississippi, a small town near Clarksdale. The congenial shack-greeter works his day job in decorative concrete in the Clarksdale area. Butler and his wife purchased the commissary and future shack property in 1988. They opened an antiques shop in the commissary before turning it into a music room. Butler is Public Works director for the city of Clarksdale. He says, “This is just a hobby we’re hoping will be a job someday.” All the shacks are sold out during my visit.
The modest shackmeisters have big plans. Two years ago Butler, Talbot and Polk formed the nonprofit organization PORCH (Preservation of Rural Cultural Heritage). They want to create a cultural arts center in the cypress seed house at the north end of the compound. They have received $400,000 in a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission with the stipulation that they have to match 40 percent of the grant. They also want to create an agricultural museum in a fenced-in tractor shop on the west end of the compound. Mississippi’s secretary of agriculture, Lester Spell, spent a night last week at the Shack Up Inn to discuss the project. “It’s not just people traveling through, spending the night, packing their bags and going on,” Polk explains. “They’re taking something with them and they’re leaving something behind. I’ve had people leave harmonicas, candles and books from around the world in my shack.”
Butler adds, “One afternoon I was headed in after lunch and I saw this couple out in front taking pictures of the International Harvester cotton picker. I stopped and talked to them. They were really young. They both lived in New York City. The boy had grown up in Manhattan. She had grown up in Little Rock, Ark. They had just gotten married in Little Rock. “It was the Monday after Sept. 11. They had planned to go to Cancun for their honeymoon, but they canceled. So we got to talking, and I said, ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ And this guy answered, ‘Ninth floor of tower one of the World Trade Center.’ It was unreal. “Then he said, ‘We needed to get out in the country.’ ”