Kick back and soak up the soul of Cleveland, Mississippi
By Boyce Upholt
TUNE IN TO CLEVELAND
It used to be a weekly tradition, back when I lived in other towns: by mid-morning Thursday, I’d start to feel the itch. Time to get out.
I’ve always been a wanderer. It’s that urge to wander, in fact, that I blame for my chosen career. I’m a writer—sometimes, among other genres, a travel writer. I’ve got a healthy aversion to stoplights and could-be-anywhere strip-malls, and a love for the open road.
Two years ago, when I settled in Cleveland, Mississippi, I discovered a few different routes that would take me in and out of town—always on back roads—to avoid the highway sprawl.
Those routes, I’ve found, have a secondary benefit: when I pick up friends at the airport, I can introduce them to Cleveland in the most accurate way: we pass massive granaries and a few humble houses and then the historic shops of downtown.
Cleveland for me was at first just a suitable small town. A few years before I landed here, I had moved to the Mississippi Delta, attracted by its history of stories and storytellers. I had lived in various small towns, moving ever closer to Cleveland, it seemed, like a moth being pulled toward the light.
Once I finally settled in Cleveland, I found my antsiness disappeared. As the weekend approached, I would always hope for a quiet calendar—an excuse to stick around.
The Delta may be known for its history. It’s deserved, too: just east of Cleveland, on Dockery Plantation—called by B.B. King the birthplace of the blues—Charley Patton helped coach the young music scene, teaching acolytes from Robert Johnson to Roebuck “Pops” Staples. But to linger too long in history is to miss how alive this town still is.
The Delta may be known for its history. It’s deserved, too: just east of Cleveland, on Dockery Plantation—called by B.B. King the birthplace of the blues—Charley Patton helped coach the young music scene, teaching acolytes from Robert Johnson to Roebuck “Pops” Staples. But to linger too long in history is to miss how alive this town still is. Just a few years ago, there were only two restaurants downtown; now, there are more than a dozen. Which means that on Friday night I don’t even need to head down back roads in order to find myself in perfect trouble.
Sometimes I blame my inertia on happy hour. Though, perhaps, it’s more apt to call it happy evening. Each Friday, Cole Ellis, who returned to his hometown after stints cooking in Charleston and Nashville, hosts what feels like half of Cleveland for craft beers and supper at the Delta Meat Market. It’s the one night a week that Ellis’ butcher shop-cum-gourmet lunch joint stays open for dinner. Serving meat cured in-house and hosting live music, it’s the sort of function where college students and parents and even their rambunctious four-year-olds all feel welcome to ease themselves into the freedom of the week’s end.
Once Ellis closes up shop, someone is bound to be walking the two blocks to Hey Joe’s, our local beer-and-burgers joint, where some as-yet-unknown synth-rock band is bound to be playing, and we are bound to sit out on the patio to listen, drinking one of Mississippi’s new craft beers. (When I moved to the Delta, there was only one brewery in Mississippi. At my latest count there were 14, though that number seems to grow by the month.)
Sometimes I blame my inertia on happy hour. Though, perhaps, it’s more apt to call it happy evening.
Delta Meat Market's Happy Hour
Heart and soul
I don’t mean to suggest that these adventures are weekends-only. Even a simple walk to my local coffee shop—which sits across the street from a blues marker commemorating the “enlightenment” of W. C. Handy—reminds me of the deep history of this place. Here, a local blues band upstaged Handy—a well-known composer—during a dance in a defeat that inspired his own interest in the music. Eventually, he became known as the “Father of the Blues.”
Sometimes when I head north, I’ll cut through Winstonville, past the former site of the Harlem Inn, a blues club that hosted national names. Or I’ll wander backroads to remember the history recorded on the county’s 19 Blues Trail markers.
In Cleveland, such legends of the past blend with contemporary musicians like a double helix. At the new GRAMMY Museum ® Mississippi—the big news in town this year—there are mid-week lectures and screenings. The museum was built in part to honor that same music history—Mississippi has more Grammy winners per capita than any other state. But the bigger reason the museum is here is the fact that music pulses through town like a heartbeat. There’s a house rule at Hey Joe’s that could be a kind of mantra for this town: no cover bands. Cleveland is about continuing a long tradition of originality—not just repackaging the same ol’ songs.
The museum sits on the campus of Delta State University, home to the Delta Music Institute, an undergraduate program that prepares students for entertainment careers, from songwriting to artistic management to production. The DMI has four working studios where students produce their own music. Combine the DMI with Keep Cleveland Boring—a local nonprofit, ironically named, that hosts a calendar full of music and food events—and it’s no surprise that Cleveland has been the launching pad for some of the hottest new bands in the state. If you want proof, come this fall for Otherfest, KCB’s Saturday festival of good music, good food and good beer.
Combine the DMI with Keep Cleveland Boring—a local nonprofit, ironically named, that hosts a calendar full of music and food events—and it’s no surprise that Cleveland has been the launching pad for some of the hottest new bands in the state.
Otherfest presented by Keep Cleveland Boring
The right pace
These days, once I land at the airport and start to drive back home—following my back-roads routes, of course—I’m always surprised to feel a sense of relief. I swoop down that big hill, and suddenly the Mississippi Delta unfurls in front of my car, wide and green and humid, ready to swallow me up. It’s a relief, then, like an itch scratched: I’m here, among friends, back home. It’ll be time soon to kick back, Delta style, and relax.
Discover Cleveland’s music.
Boyce Upholt is a Mississippi Delta-based freelance writer. He writes about the way we shape place and the way place shapes us.