Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jukin’ at Red’s

Red’s Lounge
395 Sunflower Ave.
Clarksdale, MS

I CRAVE authenticity. The real deal.

It’s getting harder and harder to find it in our homogenized, franchised, mass-marketed modern America.

That search for the real thing is what brought me to the corner of Sunflower and Martin Luther King Boulevard on a Sunday night in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

I love the blues.

From Chicago electric blues to the hypnotic rhythm of North Mississippi Hill Country blues to acoustic country blues played on a bottle neck slide that originated right here in Clarksdale, this authentic brand of American music is one of my favorite genres.

Virtually all modern forms of popular music, from rock n roll to hip hop to R and B, derived from black cotton pickers strumming homemade cigar box and dime store guitars here in the fertile Mississippi Delta at the turn of the last century.

While the blues originated as a black genre of music, now days if you go to a blues club anywhere in America, you’ll find yourself surrounded by middle-aged white guys sporting beer guts, beards or pony tails -- or, more than likely, all three.

In the 21st Century, the blues audience is almost completely white.

And chances are the performers are too.

Sure, there are a few black blues artists like Kenny Neal, Shemekia Copeland and Duwayne Burnside who are literally following in their fathers’ footsteps, but the majority of modern blues artists look a lot like their audience.

And I supposed that’s fine. People should be free to listen to and perform whatever type of music they want.

But whenever I’m sitting there in a strip mall blues club sipping one of my microbrews listening to some white guy play a tired version of “Sweet Home Chicago”, I can’t help but let my mind wander…

…to some smoke-filled shack hard against the railroad tracks deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta -- where the blues started.

The real deal.

Dim lights flickering, beer bottles clanging, an old weathered black hand sliding a bottle neck across the strings, big legged women rhythmically swaying their hips to the low down dirty blues beat.

A place where Suit757 doesn’t belong.

A place where I have no business being.

A place where sketchy-looking characters could cut me with a switch blade if I look at them the wrong way.

Yeah. That’s why I’m talking about!

Okay. Some of my friends think I have an unhealthy fixation on danger.

But that’s not it. I just crave something authentic.

That’s why I came to Red’s Lounge.

I heard it was perhaps the last true juke joint left in America.

Juke joints are the down home places where blues were first performed for an audience.

They were places for hard working black people to unwind after hot days under the Mississippi sun picking cotton.

Moonshine, dice playing and felicitous companionship could all be found in theses smoky, sweaty shacks out in the country or in town on the wrong side of the tracks.

For the most part, the local white sheriffs had no interest in interfering with the goings on in black juke joints. Liquor laws, last call, fire regulations went largely unenforced.

Cuttin’ and shootin’ was an occupational hazard for blues players in juke joints.

But as the musical tastes of black folks have evolved beyond their blues roots and the casinos with their free whiskey have drawn them to their riverboats on the Mississippi River, juke joints with live blues have all but disappeared here in the Delta.

Except for Red’s.

Red Paden has been running juke joints for most of his adult life. And he loves the blues.

At his namesake blues club in the heart of Clarksdale, he still schedules live blues every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in a run-down former music store. Whether any one shows up or not.

Walking through the front door of America’s last standing live music juke joint was the fulfillment of a life-long fantasy.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous -- for all the aforementioned reasons.

Plus I had talked to a guy in Memphis who told me Red sometimes “has an attitude” about white people coming to his place to soak up the black juke joint atmosphere. “Although he’ll happily take your money,” he quickly added.

Another guy said when he tried to videotape one of the performers, Red threatened “to cut him”. The opinion of the regulars was divided on whether Red was kidding -- or not.

But that which made me nervous was exactly what made me so excited as I parked my rental car on Sunflower Avenue and slowly walked toward the low rumbling blues pouring out of Red’s door.

As I pushed on the weathered handle and paid my $7 cover to the friendly lady at the front, my apprehension eased a bit.

I pulled up a battered stool near the front door and ordered a beer from Red. Three bucks for a 12 ounce bottle of Miller High Life (I wasn’t about to ask Red for a beer list).

Plus I tipped Red a buck. He seemed to appreciate it.

No sign of a switch blade. That’s a relief.

As it turned out, I didn’t have anything to be nervous about.

The crowd was almost entirely white, except for a few folks who seemed to be kin to the band.

Right up front was a table of five 20-something white girls downing 18 ounce bottles of Bud. I figured they must be European (as was much of the crowd). American chicks would never walk into a place like Red’s by themselves.

It was close to a packed house. That’s a couple dozen people in this cozy joint.

Every last one of them seemed to be damn glad to be there, soaking up the authentic divey charm and the kick ass blues band.

The real deal.

These adventurous blues lovers were just like me!

The band was in the midst of a full blown scorching set of electric blues when I walked in.

Taking the lead was a 14 year old kid named “King Fish”.

Yes. You read that right. Fourteen years old!

Maybe there is hope after all for the future of black blues.

The kid was amazing, playing scalding guitar riffs behind is back and with his teeth, ala Jimmy Hendrix. He belted out blues with a voice way beyond his years.

On keyboard and occasional vocals was David “Space Cowboy” Isaac.

Perhaps most entertaining of all was Space Cowboy’s nephew on drums, aptly named, “Hollywood”.

Hollywood looked like he was twelve at the most, but spent the entire evening effortlessly banging out the blues beat with a charismatic smile plastered on his face.

While Red’s Lounge wasn’t quite as scary as I had feared/hoped, it was plenty authentic.

Years old posters haphazardly tacked to the walls.

Various flotsam and jetsam piled high against the windows.

A tapestry of plastic trash bags staplegunned to the ceiling to minimize the leaking rainwater from the roof.

A soft glow of red snake lights shaped into musical notes.

Most authentic of all was Red himself, stumbling around behind the bar, drinking his own profits and soaking up the kick ass blues unfolding in front of him in his own place.

Red wore a tattered holey Red’s Lounge t-shirt that read “It is what it is”.

I was jealous.

Our entire Suits in Strange Places rating system was devised with places like Red’s in mind.

Uncool touristy places make it easy to buy a t-shirt. They are ubiquitous. Exit through the t-shirt gift shop on your way out.

Think Hard Rock Café, House of Blues, B.B. King’s Blues Club.

The coolest places make it HARD to get a t-shirt. You’d feel like a loser-tourist-idiot even asking for one.

THOSE are the AWESOME places.

The harder it is to buy a shirt, the cooler it is to wear it.

That’s my Suit757 t-shirt philosophy.

I really wanted a Red’s shirt but I was too chicken to ask for one.

Roger Stolle, who owns the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store down the street, told me the next morning that Red’s does indeed sell t-shirts.

Roger said, “I keep telling Red to put up a sign or something if he wants to sell them. But he won’t do it. ‘This is a juke joint,’ he says. I guess to be an authentic juke joint, you have to have some ridiculous conversation to buy a shirt.”


Rating: I really, really wanted to buy the shirt…but I wimped out.


  1. Love it! Your T-shirt point is right on... and says a lot. Red's is definitely a JUKE JOINT, not just a "club". In fact, it's more like a blues house party... except the owner doesn't really want you in his ACTUAL house. Thanks for spreading the word about Red's and Clarksdale. — Roger Stolle (Cat Head)

    1. Thanks! The trip to Clarksdale was an authentic adventure -- thanks to Red's, Abe's and Cat Head.

  2. I have been riding the "Blues Trail" for several years by motorcycle., But also grew up in Rural Mississippi...Red's is one of the last remaining Real" Juke Joints".Places like " Ground Zero" are what I call 'Knock off's"..Clubs trying to look like an old Juke Joint...When I was a teen they were in every town and many out in the country...They were where I tasted my first beer and learned about life..I have never been mistreated or scared in any of the places I visited, ever..Everyone there is there for one reason, To have a good time...The owners are usually someone that will not take any "Junk" from anyone, and cannot afford to..It would keep his customers away..Thank you for your kind words about "Red's"..he is a great guy and runs a wonderful, safe place to listen to the "Blues" and have a great time...Montfort Jones

  3. Great article... Red's is amazing, absolutely love the place... although I have to disagree with your assessment what makes a packed Red's... swear we've been there with 100 other people craving to the authentic Blues!!! If you love the Blues... get to Red's and Clarksdale!!!

  4. I'm going to Clarksdale in a couple weeks so doing some research. I will definitely ask for a t-shirt!! Thanks for the tip ;)