Red Paden was pouring Bulleit bourbon into little plastic cups, one for him, one for his buddy Antonio Coburn.
It was just the two of them inside Red’s Blues Club, arguably the last of the real Mississippi Delta juke joints, set downtown between a weedy graveyard and the lush eastern bank of the Sunflower River. They were mourning Big Jack Johnson, Red’s best friend, star attraction — and, arguably, the last of the great Delta bluesmen.
The pair sat at a table next to the worn carpet, patterned like a loud tie, which serves as a kind of stage, and upon which Big Jack had stomped out countless rhythms.
Big Jack had died two days earlier of congestive heart failure. He was 70. A Bud Light-sponsored sign still hung on the club’s facade, amid the peeling paint and improvised patches of plywood and corrugated tin: “Home of W.C. Handy Award Winner BIG JACK JOHNSON.”
Red — a bearded bear of a man eternally masked in dark shades — was equal parts wistful and angry, grumbling expletives between slugs of the whiskey.
He had planned a benefit show the next night for Big Jack’s family. But he had just discovered that another tribute was taking place that night at the Ground Zero blues club, a few blocks away and across the railroad tracks that have traditionally separated black Clarksdale from white.
He knew Ground Zero would draw a big crowd. It had opened a decade ago to much fanfare, the brainchild of Morgan Freeman, the Mississippi-raised movie star; Howard Stovall, a Memphis entertainment big shot; and Bill Luckett, a prominent Clarksdale lawyer running for governor. With its deep-pocketed owners and patina of Hollywood glamour, the club has become a catalyst for a rejuvenated tourism industry celebrating the blues.
Ground Zero is a simulacrum of a juke joint in the House of Blues style, with mismatched lounge chairs on the porch, graffiti on the walls and 21st century amenities — a juke that takes American Express.
At best, Red said, it was a “prefab” blues experience, though he had kind words for Luckett. “One of the few white boys who would jump the tracks back in the day,” he said. “The rest … were too scared.”
Tonight, Red was feeling upstaged. But he was also heartened to recall that when Big Jack became a hot commodity on the international blues circuit, the guitarist would usually choose to play his hometown gigs at the little tumbledown club. Red said it was an act of loyalty.
“What do friends do?” Red asked. “They look out for one another.”
Now with Big Jack gone, he had been wondering whether it was time to shut down the club. It was a hassle, and he was getting old. But he also knew this was something that would have to endure.
Earlier on that March day, Red had been out in the wide, flat Delta farmland where he and Big Jack grew up. He called on his old friend Ruben, whose work shed was furnished with a pool table, two banks of video poker machines and a fridge full of Bud Lights.
Red cracked a Bud: “Funeral’s 11 o’clock at the Pinnacle, Saturday” — the Pinnacle being the 5,500-seat basketball arena at the community college, where Big Jack would be viewed, for the last time, in the teal three-piece suit his family had picked out for him.
A few miles down the road, Red delivered the same details to his friend Charles.
“I’m going to have my alligator shuffling shoes,” Red said. “And I’m going to get me my walking cane.”
Red stopped in a country graveyard on New Africa Road to visit Sonny Boy Williamson’s grave. Tourists had left a pile of harmonicas. Red picked one up and blew through the grit.
“If you don’t want to die,” he said, “don’t be born.”
The Mississippi juke joint has historically been a word-of-mouth affair, its elusiveness a hedge against the strictures and caprices of the white man or local sheriff. Red Paden is similarly difficult to pin down: He won’t disclose his age, although he is a contemporary of Big Jack’s. He won’t say how he got the nickname Red — although he swears it’s a hell of a tale.
Asked if he is married, Red answers with something like a blues lyric: “I guess I don’t know, me and that damn woman been apart so long.”
He and Big Jack met half a century ago, when Jack was playing house parties out among the cotton and the cane stalks, raucous affairs fueled by homemade corn whiskey and homemade music. He was a strapping young man, 6-foot-3 with the grace of a cat. The music poured out of him — from his guitar, his mandolin, his mouth.
“I’ll tell you how he was — you ever been outside when it’s lightnin’? That was Big Jack,” Red said. “He could move. And the girls? Whoa.”
Though Jack never achieved the fame of a B.B. King, locals and aficionados over the years acknowledged him as the inheritor of Clarksdale’s formidable blues legacy — a player worthy of the town where Son House honed his craft, where Muddy Waters set out by train for Chicago, where John Lee Hooker and W.C. Handy once roamed the streets.
Red, meanwhile, learned to run a juke from an uncle who had a place a few miles south near the town of Alligator. When the adults wouldn’t let him in, he used to crawl under the floorboards to feel the music.
He went to college, got a degree and briefly worked as a teacher, among other jobs. But for 36 years, Red’s Blues Club has been his calling.
There was a time when most of Red’s customers were a lot like his uncle’s: black farmers, black laborers, black nightlife characters. But from almost the beginning, he noticed that he also attracted small groups of whites. They were Europeans, mostly, blues pilgrims who had come to find the root of things.
Though the crowds at Red’s stayed somewhat steady, by the 1990s, the black fans at juke joints had dwindled. They died or moved away, retired from the nightlife or took refuge in their churches. The young were lured by the sirens of hip-hop.
But outside the Delta, people did want to hear the blues, and Big Jack was traveling the world, some years spending 300 days on the road.
When he came home, he and Red would talk about country-boy things: when to put in tomatoes; when to put in the collards; family matters. They fished the turbid side-streams of the Mississippi River, hauling in perch, catfish and brim. Big Jack would take them home and fry them in a big black pot.
In Clarksdale, a city of 20,000, things began to change about the time Morgan Freeman and his partners opened their club in 2001. The blues, long shunned and ignored, were now being recognized as a tourist draw worthy of glossy brochures and historical markers. Along with Ground Zero, now there was the blues-themed cafe, the blues record and memorabilia shop, and the yearly Juke Joint Festival.
At the edge of town, a couple of guys opened a place called the Shack Up Inn, a collection of refurbished sharecropper shacks with WiFi service.
Now there were even more white people at Red’s. Not just the tourists, but white locals who recognized it as a treasure.
Red embraced the new clientele, and some became friends. Still, he grumbled about Ground Zero. How could the big boys not be cutting into his business?
On that Wednesday night, the Ground Zero tribute drew a crowd of more than 100. Terry “Big T” Williams, who had played with Jack since he was 12, blew through the dead man’s fast, shuffling version of “Catfish Blues.”
Luckett, the co-owner and gubernatorial candidate, sat on the front porch in a blue blazer, sniffing out potential voters and charming the tourists.
He explained how his staff regularly sent people to Red’s for a taste of an old-school juke joint. “I subscribe to the ‘casino cluster’ theory,” he said. “If there’s one casino, 10 people will come. If there’s two casinos, 30 people will come.... Red’s is a very necessary part of it.”
The next night, Red opened the place about 5 p.m. He was taking shots of a clear liquid in a Hawaiian Punch jar that smelled of Aqua Velva. At 7 p.m., it was just him and Antonio.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Red growled.
Whose heart, Red?
“Mine. I got a heavy heart.”
But over the course of the hours, they all trickled in: the ancient white hipsters who had moved to town to be near the blues, and the sidemen who used to tour with Jack. Old friends and old regulars. The guy named Dingo with the black bowler hat and pinstripe pants, and his friend with the gold teeth. The record store guy who moved here from St. Louis.
Big Jack’s nephew Ellison, the smooth dancer in the white loafers, and the guy with the snakeskin boots who dances like a chicken. The sorority girls and the good ol’ boys and the businessmen and the curiosity seekers.
Many of them hugged Red, or clasped his shoulder. Big T sang a song about how when you lose a loved one, there ain’t a damn thing you can do. Red nodded and swayed in his chair.