Turning the blues into green

SUN JOURNAL

Delta: Entrepreneurs have converted the shacks once inhabited by Mississippi laborers into an inn that draws tourists from around the world.

April 18, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

CLARKSDALE, Miss. - In the photo, a graying Robert Clay stands on his porch leaning against a post. The photo was taken late in his life, after he had labored in the fields for decades and brought up seven sons in a shack with no plumbing or power.

The picture of Clay, dead four years now, hangs in that same three-room shack today, though he might not recognize the place. Air-conditioning vents have been cut into the tin ceiling. There's a kitchen sink and a bathroom with toilet and shower. Electricity pulses through the cypress walls to run the lights, a refrigerator and a CD player.

Clay's shack, built as shelter for a poor black family, is inhabited now by tourists happy to pay $60 a night to experience a sort of refined dilapidation here in the Delta.

It's part of the Shack Up Inn, run by five men with zero training in the hospitality industry. It emerged in 1998 on the old Hopson Plantation outside this rundown city of 20,000. The B&B - for "bed & beer" - began as a Nashville songwriter's retreat and draws visitors from around the world to its six shacks, from Belgian honeymooners to Alabama tourists.

The shacks are well situated because of the intense interest in the local heritage and blues scene. Just four miles away is the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly gave the devil his soul in return for other-worldly musical talent. This is where Muddy Waters grew up and Bessie Smith died and where hole-in-the-wall juke joints still hop.

The Shack Up Inn is preserving part of that history - if in a peculiar way - by maintaining, even while transforming, the kinds of homes where so many blues artists began life. In the process, the inn also aims to profit from these symbols of wrenching poverty and exploitation. Nobody's getting rich just yet - all profits are going back to the inn.

James Butler, one of five "shackmeisters" who run the place when not at their day jobs, has heard it suggested that the place is in dubious taste. But he rejects the notion that he somehow disrespects the memories of past occupants such as Robert Clay.

"We're honoring this guy," says Butler, known as Jimmy James to friends, over a beer this week. "This man raised seven sons in a shack with no running water or electricity."

To Kappi Allen, tourism manager for the local chamber of commerce, the inn is cause for excitement.

"It has turned into a worldwide phenomenon; everybody wants to see it," she says. "It has brought people the blues would not have."

The reactions of travelers, as put down in the guest book, range from amused to emotional.

"Weird! But good weird!" scribbles Bob of Newcastle, England.

"Do not add, nor detract; 'cause it's perfect and we'll be back," adds D. McKirney and "wife and kid" from Memphis.

Gene Owens of Mobile, Ala., offers a more personal experience. "This brought back bittersweet memories of life in a South Carolina tenant shack," he writes. "At the time I was ashamed of my surroundings. Today, I look back with pride."

Owens adds, "But you guys far surpass the hospitality of the landlords back then."

Butler says the inn has had "a few" African-American visitors. The first was a man who brought his 10-year-old son "to see what grandmama's house looked like when he was his age."

This summer, a black family from Detroit is planning to book the place for a reunion.

Butler admits that not everyone finds the idea of sleeping in a shack worth even a dime. He is Clarksdale's public works director, and some of his employees have told him, "I've seen all the shacks I want to see."

The 800-square-foot Clay shack, acquired by the inn for $600, is an odd mix of authenticity and comfort. Clay's presence is strong, and Butler delights in pointing out the artifacts. The portrait of Clay rests in an old dresser drawer, along with his iron. Copper coils snaking above the bathroom sink were part of a whiskey still he kept hidden in his attic.

Butler even brought over Clay's "dadgum heavy" outhouse, hurrying as if somebody else might snag it. And on the front porch is a broken mirror to ward off evil spirits in combination with colored bottles to capture the spirits, and newspapers placed on the wall to give spirits something to read as a distraction.

Also, there are touches you will find in no Holiday Inn. The refrigerator door hangs (barely) by one bolt. The shower curtain is likely to be on the floor come morning. The screen door has holes big enough for even Delta mosquitoes to fly through, and the door catches on the porch before it's a quarter-open. On the other hand, everyone gets a Moon Pie on his pillow.

But the $17,000 worth of improvements, including the blues music continuously piped in, make it as comfortable as any modern home.

The Shack Up Inn happened almost by accident. About a decade ago, Butler and his wife, Cathy - whose family has owned Hopson Plantation since 1852 - were running an antique shop in the old corrugated-tin commissary.

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