American Pickers Star Mike Wolfe Explains How Soothing Sights, Sounds and Smells of the Deep South Can Save Your Soul
There’s a road — though in some places not much of one — that carves out a skinny triangle of America, from Music City to Bluff City to the Crescent City and back.
It leads you out of Nashville on 16 lanes of concrete and heads southwest for Memphis, then it gently rolls south to New Orleans. Its backside meanders through long, lonesome stretches of Mississippi, past Natchez, Tupelo and Muscle Shoals, all but calling out to Clarksdale and Cleveland, Tennessee.
At first glance, there’s not a whole lot to look at, stop for or make note of. It looks beat down, used up. Not empty like the open spaces of the West, but empty because everybody closed shop. They were cotton pickers once, until the machines came. So they moved on.
But the cotton fields are still there.
Occasionally they’re interrupted by the last stubborn stands of tobacco, struggling for just one last season.
When it’s not dripping hot, it’s dripping warm; the air is close, the insects closer, and most of the year, the whole place is colored a million shades of yellow.
The inclination is to roll up the windows, blast the air-conditioning and head for Graceland, the French Quarter and finally back up to the Grand Ole Opry as fast as you can. But take it from me: This is the time to slow way down, open the windows and listen.
This, my friends, is the Americana Music Triangle. You have just entered one of the last places in this great country where you can have an authentic experience; where you can dip your soul in the unique stew of people, geography, history and weather that bubbles out of its pot and brings us music — the cultural currency of the South.
Jazz, blues, country, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass — all the distinctly American music that’s been sent to every corner of the world, seasoned with new ingredients and sent back — they were all born in the Triangle. If you listen, you can hear Cajun -melodies, African rhythms, a Latin beat, the epic poetry of the Celts and Anglo–Saxons. Whatever the form, it’s all cooked in the Southern heat and humidity, informed by the lessons of survival — tornadoes and hurricanes, slavery, poverty, anger and pride — and always moving, like the mighty Mississippi just over yonder.
Out of this brew rose giants of 20th-century American music: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. The list goes on, time lines of mostly short lives that began in the Triangle and ended somewhere else way too soon.
And like road signs insistently leading you to a destination, the names on that list sooner or later drop you in front of the big question: What kind of magic must live here to grow this much genius?
That was my question, and by the third autumn after I’d moved my family and my life to the mid-Tennessee hills, I was ready to go pickin’ for stories and find some answers.
I also travel by motorcycle, of course, and not just any motorcycle. A 1941 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead.
I found that bike three years ago in Wilmington, Ohio. It belonged to a man named Johnny, who bought it when it was new and who loved it for more than 30 years. When he passed away, the Knucklehead sat in his garage, just where he’d left it after his last ride. Johnny’s wife had promised him she’d never get rid of that bike, and for nearly four decades, she kept her promise.
When I first met her, she told me she’d been feeling like it was time to start getting her things in order. So she went to the cemetery, sat by Johnny’s grave and asked him if it was OK now to sell the bike. She left his grave feeling like it was, as long as she found someone who’d treasure it as Johnny had.
That someone was me.
I’m honored and grateful to ride Johnny’s Knucklehead. All bikes are transportation, but this one’s a transporter. When you mount up, it takes you not just down the road but back to the time when he bought it shiny-new, when headlamps were dimmer and motors were smaller and gas was pennies. And those genius musicians down in the Triangle were, as they always have been, traveling Highway 61, The Blues Highway. I could hear them the minute I sat on that bike and closed my eyes.
U.S. 61 is a road of ghosts, but I also have a lot of the living on this trip: Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach, the embodiment of soul and blues; Dave Ohrt, my mentor and the man who introduced me to antique motorcycles; producer, songwriter and recording artist Butch Walker; Curt Lisius, at 63 the grand old man of the group; Todd Stopera, sound engineer and motorcycle junkie; fashion designer Matt Eddmenson of Imogene + Willie; and of course my brother Robbie, one of the American Pickers. Quite the crew, indeed.
A few years ago on a pick in Davenport, Iowa, I found a faded old jacket patch from the ’30s stitched with the name “Lucky Riders.” Since then, when we ride together, we’re the Lucky Riders. Matt made us matching jackets. Dan got us patches. I got us shirts and hats. We’re like teenagers again.
We set off from Nashville on the first morning astride eight Harleys — six Knuckleheads and two Panheads — vintage 1937 to 1954. An hour later, we’re broken down on the side of the road and two hours after Dan’s bike is patched up, Butch’s Panhead buys it. If it wasn’t for Dave, we’d still be sitting on the side of the road.
It’s more than 200 miles to Memphis, and we pick our way across that last 110 miles of Tennessee countryside under cover of night, counting on the dim glow of 70-year-old headlamps to get us to the front door of the old lady who rules the city — The Peabody Memphis hotel.
She’s best known for her ducks, who live in splendor in their rooftop penthouse and who’ve been taking the elevator down for a splash in the fountain every day for over 80 years. But it’s also a fact, and anybody will tell you, that the Mississippi Delta begins right here in the lobby of The Peabody Memphis.
Beale Street, the home of the blues, begins just a short walk from here. We make our way along the sidewalks, breathing in smells from the oldest restaurants in the city, sounds from the clubs and air thick with history. About 150 years ago, yellow fever took a lot of the people and most all the property value off these streets, so after the frosts came and nipped the fever away, this two-mile stretch opened its arms to the black community. They came, and they stayed here. Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, -Memphis Minnie, -Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon … they made Beale Street famous. The “B.B.” in B.B. King stands for “Blues Boy” of Beale Street. And walking those blocks that night, we can hear them all.
We get chased out of Memphis the next morning by the kind of storm you’ll never find outside of the Delta: rain stinging us through our jackets, blinding tornadoes of swirling dust and grit, bone-rattling thunder. You want to know where gospel music came from? It came from cotton pickers and sharecroppers who sang their hearts out in gratitude every time they lived through a storm exactly like this one. There’s no music coming from us Lucky Riders though. We just point our bikes toward Clarksdale, ride until we lose our nerve and then cower underneath an overpass and hope we live long enough to get there.
Old 61 takes you into Clarksdale, Mississippi, the spiritual home of the Triangle. It doesn’t look like much; hard to believe this place feeds the needy souls of strangers. Yet out of this ground, hallowed by musicians and sacred to music lovers, rises magic that fills the emptiness and heals the pain.
This is the town that nurtured and embraced W. C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and dozens of others who were born here, who chose to make their homes here or who maybe just dropped in for a time. This is the town where Robert Johnson planted the seeds that grew into the Mississippi Blues, and all he had to do in return was sell his soul to the devil down at the fabled crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.
We arrive in the middle of the second day, pores open, every sense on “receive,” desperate to absorb the enchantment of the shabby, peeling town. In the center is the old Greyhound bus station, now reclaimed as the tourism center, albeit a quarter inch below the surface. Still the bus station was where itinerant musicians arrived, seeking their piece of the magic, and from where, after they were touched, they headed north.
Radio station WROX was for 52 years the home of Early “Soul Man” Wright, the first black disc jockey in the state. Everyone from Muddy Waters to Elvis Presley made the pilgrimage to WROX to sit and talk with “Soul Man,” and in silence, you can still hear the echoes of those late-night conversations, the hopes held and the secrets told.
Most of the buildings stand empty, abandoned for years, pretty much untouched except by weather and time. Dotted here and there are places still — or once again — in business. But occupied or not, they look alike. The front porch of Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero reaches out into the street to grab passers-by and invite them in to stand a while and listen to Kingfish. He’s the 15-year-old blues prodigy performing with an 80-year-old guitar player who remembers the night in ’37 when after a car accident out on the highway, the great Bessie Smith died down the street at the Riverside Hotel. We accept the invitation and listen, mesmerized by the story.
We make our way into Red’s Blues Club, following the sound of the music and the smell of the barbecue through an old overhead door and into a room packed with locals. Finding a spot in the crush isn’t easy. Travelers may always be welcome, but they’re never coddled.
The music goes on all night in Clarksdale. The Lucky Riders last until exhaustion and sensory overload, finally succumbing to road-weariness in the wee hours of a Mississippi morning.
By the dawn’s early light, the town looks sleepy. But we are energized. We are initiated. We’ve only touched the Triangle and we’ve only skimmed the surface of the bit we’ve touched, but even that has added a new layer to our love of the music. We know what spells are cast here, and as we turn and ride toward Nashville, we know we’re caught and we’ll be back. The Lucky Riders will ride again.