The Constant Traveler: The Tennessee Delta - East Valley Tribune: Travel

The Constant Traveler: The Tennessee Delta

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Posted: Monday, June 23, 2014 3:00 pm

Linzie Butler is a big fella, with square shoulders and a barrel chest, but when he plays the blues harp, he squinches in, as if he was trying to wrap his large body around that very small instrument.

Born in Jackson, in the heart of Tennessee’s rural, delta region, Butler is a local blues legend, having played with blues and pop musicians from Piano Red to Furry Lewis, from Sleepy John Estes to Papa John Creech.

Butler’s father, Linzie “Sam” Butler was also a fine bluesman, who played with the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson.

I caught up with Butler at a vast tourist enterprise in Jackson called the Casey Jones Village, where he was going to entertain a private group. The Old Country Store at the Casey Jones Village is renown for its country buffet with such regional favorites as fried chicken, catfish and turnip greens, and everyone stacks their plates as if they hadn’t eaten in years.

Butler was regaling me with stories of the delta blues scene, when it was time to hop on the buffet line. Buffets are tough for me because I don’t eat a lot so I squeezed in behind Butler, who much to my surprise put even less food on his plate. “What gives,” I said, pointing to his plate. And he mentioned something about health issues, a stroke, recovering from a car accident.

I shook my head in wonder and with a broad smile he placed his immense hand on my shoulder, saying, “I’m mint-juleped out.” Hmm, not sure what that meant.

I’m an amateur musicologist and this was my third trip to Memphis in the past six years as I consider it one of the most important places in the country to get to the heart of the American sound that conquered the world. I’ve been to every important music stop in Memphis – Graceland, Beale Street, Sun Records studio, Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum at least twice.

With this trip, I had two motives. First, on my prior trip to Memphis, I headed south to Clarksdale, Miss., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where so many musicians and bluesmen began their careers. Besides the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, one can also stand at the mythological “crossroads” where Robert Johnson met the devil exchanging his soul to create the blues. So, this trip I was interested in traveling north to the Tennessee delta region to pick up the roots of a different kind of sound.

Secondly, I had written a book a couple of years ago called The Death of Johnny Ace, about Memphis, R&B singer Johnny Ace, who at peak of popularity in 1954 took up the game of Russian roulette – and lost.

I wanted to find either Johnny Ace’s grave or the church, which held his memorial service

I was sitting in a Memphis restaurant called Sweet Grass when the mayor of the city, a dapper gentleman named A C Wharton Jr, walked in. We chatted and I told him, because I wrote about Johnny Ace I was looking for his grave. He gives me his City of Memphis business card and says, “I think I can help you on this.”

I’d like to say he was a huge help, but I didn’t hear from him. He apparently had other things on his mind; the Royals, Prince William and Prince Harry, were coming to town. That would take a lot of time out of his schedule.

On my own, I did manage to track down the Johnny Ace memorial venue, the old Clayburn AME church near downtown Memphis, which, on the day of the funeral, was overwhelmed with 5,000 mourners.

The 1893 structure with the cut-stone facade was the second home of the second Presbyterian Church (organized in 1844) and then sold to the AME church in 1949. It was then renamed Clayborn Temple.

Those were the glory days. Now it was decommissioned and for sale. The windows were boarded up and a chain-link fence surrounded the property

On closer inspection I saw there was a metal plaque on the front doors. It read: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke here. Many civil rights activities were held here in the 1960s.”

I was dumfounded. Here was a church over 100 years old that saw a lot of Memphis history, but no one in the city knew what to do with it? Where was that card of the mayor?

If Memphis had trouble savings its history, the small town of Brownsville works overtime to save all things related to the many musical heroes the Tennessee delta has nurtured.

If you head northeast from Memphis, find your way to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center. This little place just off the highway is essentially a visitor’s center, but just about the best I’ve ever seen because it’s also a small museum. What interested me was the room spotlighting the musicians who came up from the West Tennessee Delta region including Tina Turner, Sleepy John Estes, Carl Perkins, Eddie Arnold, Sonny Boy Williamson, Malcolm Yelvington, T.G. Sheppard and Big Maybelle.

The folks at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage take their work so seriously, they’ve gone the extra country mile of preserving their musical heritage. They began by acquiring the small house where blues singer Sleepy John Estes was born and bringing it to the heritage center for restoration. More recently, when they were told the one-room schoolhouse, sitting in the middle of a farmer’s field, which Tina Turner attended, was going to be torn down, they raised the money to bring it to the heritage center for restoration as well.

I headed as far north in the delta as Union City, which is located in the northwest corner of the state. My stop was Discovery Park of America, a Smithsonian type entertainment megapolis, built by a quirky entrepreneur named Robert Kirkland. Discovery Park was developing itself as a summer concert venue and for locals and visiting celebrities it hosted a gala. The entertainment was Philip Coleman, a local boy who became a famed Nashville songwriter. He brought along two of his songwriter friends. Three songwriters singing their number one hits made for a beautiful evening, at least until Wynn Vrabel, who wrote, I’m A Little More Country Than That, launched into a venomous, gay-bashing ditty.

This wasn’t what the widely inclusive and varied Tennessee delta music scene was all about and left me with a sour feeling – at least until I met up the next day with Linzie Butler, who confessed to me times had been tough in the delta, but he no hard feelings.

As he said to me, “I paid my dues to play the blues.”

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