When Roger Stolle first arrived in Clarksdale, Miss., it was difficult for the Ohio transplant to find a good cup of coffee.
When he left his Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art shop at 5:30 p.m., he was usually “the last man standing” in the tiny Mississippi Delta town on the crossroads of U.S. 61 and 49.
Slowly, that began to change when people realized Clarksdale and the surrounding area was a tourism gold mine.
Today, a good espresso is not hard to find, and when Stolle leaves his downtown shop, his parking space is quickly taken.
The transformation from a sleepy Delta town with a population of 20,000 to an international tourism destination for lovers of American blues music didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s something that the tourism commission has been selling and pushing for 20 years and, of course, it’s something that has been a part of our heritage and culture since the beginning of the Mississippi Delta,” said Kappi Allen, executive director of the Clarksdale Tourism Bureau. “We have seen a huge surge in the interest in our tourism.”
Alabama’s blues challenge
The Shoals is about four hours east of Clarksdale, and has a musical heritage of its own dating back to the early 1960s with the founding of FAME Recording Studios and the birth of the Muscle Shoals sound.
Some have said the Shoals and even Alabama have never taken advantage of its musical heritage or used it as a tourism tool the way places such as Clarksdale, Memphis and Nashville have.
“Our area and our state haven’t embraced it,” said Rodney Hall, president of Fame Music Publishing and son of FAME Recording Studios founder Rick Hall. “Look at what Mississippi has done with their music and what Tennessee has done with theirs.”
Tennessee has the luxury of having two cities that have become synonymous with music, Hall said. Mississippi has the blues and Louisiana has New Orleans blues and jazz, but is mostly a place known for live music.
“I don’t think we ever got the vision that Alabama music is a huge brand, and Muscle Shoals music is specifically a huge brand,” Hall said. “We’ve never attached a star to it and taken advantage of it.
“I think that’s starting to change.”
The change and the branding have to come from within the community and from private investment, Allen said. That’s what happened in Clarksdale.
“You have to have the investment,” Allen said. “In order to have people come, you have to have something for them to come and see. If not for the private investment that was made here, there would not be the level of tourism that there is.”
Alabama State Tourism Director Lee Sentell said the state devoted an entire year to showcasing its musical heritage. Its “Year of Music” showcase included a partnership with Oxford American Magazinev, which sponsored a series of concerts featuring Alabama artists. The Tourism Department sponsored a statewide songwriters contest and issued a CD featuring forgotten classic Alabama songs.
“Our agency invested a lot of time and effort in putting the Year of Music together,” Sentell said. “We certainly will support initiatives in northwest Alabama to promote live music as well as the heritage of Alabama’s music pioneers, if they will tell us what they want us to do.
“I think the leadership has to come out of the Shoals.”
Clarksdale had private investors that included Stolle and renowned actor Morgan Freeman, who opened the Ground Zero blues club.
“You’ve got those that will kind of come and go, but in place of those that did not make it, there have been others that have come in and been quite successful,” Allen said.
Today Clarksdale has several art galleries like Stolle’s Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, new restaurants, a variety of lodging options, the Delta Blues Museum, the Rock & Blues Museum, and several permanent venues that feature the blues. Stolle said blues music can be heard in Clarksdale seven days a week.
Clarksdale has two major blues festivals and several smaller festivals during the year. Stolle said last year’s Juke Joint festival logged visitors from 23 foreign countries, 46 states and 53 of Mississippi’s 82 counties.
Part of the secret of making the festival successful, Stolle said, was making it half music festival and half “small town fair” with events geared toward children like a petting zoo, racing pigs, and monkeys riding dogs. The music and cultural tourism aspect attracts the out-of-town visitors, while the racing pigs and monkey riding dogs keep the local residents interested, he said.
He said local residents’ attitudes have changed since the days when complaints were lodged at City Council meetings about spending tax dollars on tourism.
Stolle said Clarksdale wants to keep the experience authentic and does not want to become another Beale Street, Bourbon Street or Branson, Mo.
Cleveland, Miss., which is about a half-hour south of Clarksdale, has also taken advantage of the interest in the blues, but like Clarksdale, it wasn’t easy.
“When you would bring up the blues, people would kind of laugh,” said Cheryl Line, tourism director for the Cleveland Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce.
She said tourism officials started noticing visitors in the region from Memphis down to Vicksburg, including from international regions.
“They know our history better than we do,” she said.
Muscle Shoals’ first steps
The Shoals’ music history boasts some heavy hitters in American music. Father of the Blues W.C. Handy, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sam Phillips and Nashville record producer and music publisher Buddy Killen were all born in Florence.
The Shoals has one big music festival, the W.C. Handy Music Festival in late July, but music is a part of other festivals such as the Helen Keller Festival in Tuscumbia.
Bud McGuire, owner of Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals has written or published four No. 1 country hits, and said the community has missed the boat on promoting its music heritage to a broader audience.
“The Handy Festival is great, but nobody knows who he is,” McGuire said. “Muscle Shoals music is so much more than Handy or the studios. It all should be promoted and represented internationally.”
By refocusing what the community has to offer in music, both past and present, McGuire believes a music festival of grand proportions could attract upward of 100,000 people.
“This is music for the ages,” he said. “People all over the world know the songs, but many of them don’t know they were recorded here with local musicians and songwriters.
“There needs to be better strategic planning and global promotion.”
There are only a few music related attractions in the Shoals. Handy’s birthplace, a log cabin that has been moved from its original location, is open for tours five days a week. FAME Recording Studios is open about an hour every morning for tours and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios is open by appointment. Cypress Moon Productions, which is in the second location of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, also provides tours by appointment.
The area’s major music attraction, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, is closed and there are no clear plans to reopen it.
“There is a shortage of sites for tourists to visit and tour,” Sheffield City Councilman Steve Stanley said. “I don’t think we’ve exploited it or taken as much advantage of our musical heritage as we need to.”
Sheffield is home to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the home of the first Singing River sculpture, an 18-foot tall aluminum rock ‘n’ roller that stands at the north end of Montgomery Avenue. Three more sculptures are being made by artist Audwin McGee.
Sentell said the recent debut of “Muscle Shoals,” a nearly two-hour documentary that examines the early days of the Muscle Shoals recording scene with an emphasis on FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound studios, is a valuable tool to spotlight the local music heritage.
Rodney Hall said the buzz surrounding the documentary could help spur interest in the Shoals musical past.
“When they see what music came out of here and what continues to come out of here, the next few years will be really good,” Hall said. “What was needed (was the) movie or something like it to educate people.”
In Cleveland, Miss., the city began using its connections to the blues to tap into the tourist market.
“We discovered we had one of the last true juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s,” Line said.
Cleveland also has Dockery Farms, which is recognized as a birthplace of Delta blues. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cleveland has been selected to be the home of a $12 million, 20,000-square-foot, Grammy museum, the first of its kind outside California.
“You have to find out what you have to market and slowly and surely get the word out,” Line said. “Now that we’ve got locals interested in how much of an economic development tool it is, it’s just huge.”
Stolle said he began visiting Clarksdale as a blues fan and fell in love with it. He spent 15 years in the retail and corporate marketing industry and decided to move.
“Downtown was dying,” he said. “There were live blues one or two nights a week.”
Stolle said other people have moved to Clarksdale to open businesses, including people from England and the Netherlands. His assistant recently relocated to Clarksdale from Nashville.
Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Director Debbie Wilson agrees the Shoals has not capitalized on its music heritage, but said attitudes are changing.
“We continue to see a real surge in interest since the movie premier,” Wilson said, referring to the “Muscle Shoals” documentary. “We’ve just needed somebody to lead the charge.”
Sometimes, she said, it takes somebody from outside to suggest it.
Wilson said there are other signs, such as more restaurants featuring music more often and even the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library’s plan to allow patrons to check out guitars later this year. The new tourism office under construction in McFarland Park will have a Muscle Shoals music exhibit.
“I do think the energy and enthusiasm is finally there,” Wilson said.
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