What happens in Natchez...
Jesus, what a night. I'm still wrapping my head around all the events that took place last evening during our stay in Natchez, Mississippi.
I guess the best place to start would be right at the very beginning.
We pulled into a parking spot on Main Street in downtown, historic Natchez, MS. The town is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year - making it the oldest settlement on the mighty Mississippi River. The venue we were playing at was The Rolling River Bistro & Listening Room, and man, this place was sweet. The restaurant occupies one of the beautiful old buildings that flanks Main St., and embodied every bit of old world charm and class. Upon arrival we soon met Michael, one of the co-owners, and were immediately treated to his overflowing generosity and southern hospitality. It wasn’t long before we were bellied up to the bar with a pint of beer in hand and a dozen chargrilled oysters in front of us (this was before we even started playing). Michael was insistent that we try the oysters - claiming they were the best way to eat the delicacy - and holy shit guys, chargrilled oysters are the.best. Even Brad, who is not one to enjoy the treasures of the sea, was hucking them back one after another. So there were were, well fed and watered before we even sang a tune - we were feeling pretty good.
The show went great. People clapped after every song, threw paper money in our tip jar and we chatted with some great folks during the breaks - I can’t say enough good things about the establishment, the patrons or the folks that worked there - if you ever find yourself in Natchez, MS you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t stop in (and eat as many chargrilled oysters as humanly possible).
So after the show during tear down, Michael approaches us and asked if we’d be interested in going to see some real Mississippi blues at a little place down the way. He told us that there was a newish venue in town that brings in some incredible talent and that he’d be more than happy to have us come along and would even take care of the cover charge. Being adventurous folks, we thought this might be an interesting opportunity and decided to see where this road would lead - so we said yes. Once the restaurant had closed it’s doors, we sat at the bar with two of the bar staff who were also coming along and we had a few drinks, ate a burger (cause the dozen oysters surely weren’t enough) and shared some conversation with the three Southern gentlemen.
When the time came to head over to the juke joint, Michael grabbed a bottle of Maker’s Mark (the venue only sold beer but permitted you to bring your own liquor) and we caravanned over the three blocks to the venue. From the outside, Smoot’s Grocery, appeared to be a dilapidated old row house. Sitting across the road from the Mississippi river, the outside was clad in weathered barn wood and housed under a rusted old tin roof. We had passed the place at least twice that day and didn’t think much of it, but under the cloak of darkness this place was a buzz. The barn wood was aglow against the various neon signs that adored the outside, the windows were pulsing with shades of blue and yellow and there were folks on the surrounding porch lighting up darts. I was not prepared for what I saw when we walked through the heavy oak doors. Two steps inside the door I felt like I entered a different world. The inside was completely redone in a mix of modern/rustic/industrial - it was incredible (and sadly I don’t have any photographs to prove it). The building was a shotgun setup with a stage at the far end and the bar along the side wall. The rest of the floor space was peppered with a few couches, tables and chairs. On the stage sat a single chair and a resonator guitar on a stand and on the back wall was a simple sign that read Smoot’s Grocery, Blues Lounge. We followed Michael to the end of the bar and he quickly turn to me and said “Come with me”. He grabbed my hand and lead me over to a grouping of chairs and couches and told me to have a seat then asked what I’d like to drink. Then he quickly turned away and was gone, and I was sitting in the middle of a buzzing room all by myself (it should also be noted that Michael referred to me as ‘the feline’). After a few minutes my mind started to get the better of me and I had a mild panic attack – after all, here I was in a strange city, alone in some weird-ass bar, separated from Brad. But just as soon as my eyes grew wild, Brad swept in from behind me and had a seat in the adjacent chair, and was soon followed by the rest of the fellas. It wasn’t long before a tall, slender man dressed in black with shoulder-length white hair wearing a black cowboy hat took the stage (he was clearly the Mississippi cousin of Paul Court). The man picked up the steel guitar and began playing some incredible hill-country blues, and the room quieted to a murmur. After a few numbers, the man was joined on stage by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (best described by Brad as “a 70-year old black dude that looks like he works at the gas station”). The black man sat down with a guitar and the white man picked up the harmonica and the sounds that came out of these two for the next 40 minutes was incredible. During each number, while Jimmy paused between lines, hoots and hollers and “oh yeahs” were shouted out from random folks in the audience. I felt like I was in a movie scene, and had to repeatedly remind myself as to where I was and that this was indeed happening.
Somewhere around 12;30am, Brad and both agreed it was time to head out. The southern gentleman had been doing a fine job at depleting the bottle of its liquid and at one point had all gotten up for the chairs – so that is when we decided to make our exit. We headed to the doors and quickly discovered they were locked, which seemed rather odd. We went to the other side of the room and tried the other set of doors, they too were locked. I don’t know how bars in Mississippi work, but it seems very strange to have a bunch of folks in a room for a concert and have them locked inside. Finally we spotted a third exit near the stage and when Brad pulled on the latch, they too were locked. We both kind of looked at each other and thought “WTF?”. The locks consisted of iron bars latching the doors by the top and bottom into the beams and foundation - with one quick jolt, Brad freed one door from it’s holdings and we quickly made our escape, heading back to the RV which was parked just out of sight.
Once inside, Brad fired up the engine and we slowly weaved through the narrow streets of Natchez and out of town on Hwy 61. After having driven for a bit we both realized that there was not a single other car on the road, not even a transport truck - the road was deserted and we were basically in the middle of no where as we headed towards Baton Rouge. At one point the engine in the RV started to choke out as we ascended a hill. It sputtered and missed and I was sure we were going to have to pull over and call CAA. Eventually we flattened out, the issue passed and we sat silent for what seems like forever. From the darkened side of the road, a sign came into view “Rest Stop – 2 Miles” and a sigh of relief was shared. We pulled in beside an 18-wheeler, used the restroom and tucked into bed.