Maybe it’s the last item on the bucket list (I’m no spring chicken), a kind of rock-n-roll recrudescence. Or maybe it’s because my 15th movie (I’m no spring chicken), “The Highwaymen”, happened to be shooting in the same southern region as my very first movie “Crossroads,” a film that grew out of my scuffed-up, battered, and barely legal past life as a bar-and-grill blues musician.
Whatever the case may be, I shook hands goodbye with Kevin Costner at the catering truck, shared a Hawaiian ‘shaka’ with Woody Harrelson, thanked them for breathing such brilliant life into my characters, then got in my rental car and left New Orleans, bound for the Mississippi Delta.
I drove alone.
A solo trip along the legendary Highway 61. A lot of time to reflect as I listened to B.B. King’s Bluesville on satellite radio, cruising the very same trail I had hitchhiked and train-hopped in the late 1970’s. When I passed an old haunt like Yazoo City or Clarksdale, I pulled off. Even just to get out, smell the air and stretch. In Clarksdale I climbed up into the old railyard to survey some defunct and rusted trains, wishfully looking for my old hobo handle ‘JF’ the J and F merged together like a cattle brand. 40 years of rail-riders had spray-painted the cars since. Boxcar art is uber cool by the way.
At Robert Johnson’s crossroads — if you are from the camp that believes this devil’s altar is at 61 and 49 (others believe it’s where Dockery Road meets the Old Hwy 8) — I found things had changed a bit. There is now a historic marker with two crossed guitars on a tall pole, illustrating a duel. When I got out (stunned af) to take a pic, a figure suddenly blocked frame. He was an aging black man who seemed to emerge from nowhere, striking a mysteriously defiant pose. I took the shot and then he approached me, gently telling me where I should go for the best BBQ in the area.
He suggested that I should tip him for his recommendation. Because of the nostalgic power of the moment — and something that felt oddly more than that — I gave him a tip that should have made him smile, at least a little. But he looked at it with indifference, tucked it in his pocket, and strode off from whence he came. I never did figure out where that was. Or who he was. But you might have your suspicions.
In any case, mojo was happening. A vibe, a feeling; a dominant 7th sharp 9 chord cutting through the frozen ocean of my soul. For months before — I guess a few years now really — I had been re-exploring my music and starting to compose again. Getting organ-ized. Singing. Singing like I learned how from Brother Roy Dunn and other itinerant blues men during harder days. Now I was feeling something akin to a creative levee starting to give. I was feeling the call of the blues. On that very same highway. Only now I could afford a sandwich — and I am grateful for that beyond measure.
Driving onward, I reached Memphis at day’s end, just in time to catch Blind Mississippi Morris (Willie Dixon’s cousin) at B.B. King’s. Pulled pork, corn bread, and a glass of gin. I made some lyric notes on a napkin. Walking up Beale Street in the dark, a wandering man (could have passed for a cousin to the guy back at the crossroads) said “Hey, Cool Cat — Welcome to Beale Street.” True story.
In the morning, with a cold brewed coffee in lap, Cool Cat would drive the short (very short) distance across the border into North Mississippi to meet with Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi All-Stars fame. That connection, too, linked back to the “Crossroads” as Cody (and his brother Luther’s) dad Jim — yes, the legendary Jim Dickinson (look him up, Kids) worked on my film as a musical consultant.
I’m a big fan of NMA on so many levels. The fact that these preternaturally young musicians are keeping this roots music alive and sending it into new places makes my heart woogie like Cody’s electric washboard. The idea was to visit, share stories, and maybe jam. But it would turn into so much more than that…
TO BE CONTINUED