Friday, August 28, 2009

The Delta: Turnrow Books and Jimbo Mathus

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Despite what is typically a grueling schedule, set to a soundtrack of your own voice talking about the same thing over and over again, a book tour can be really fun. It gives you a chance to see new places and meet new people while selling and talking about a book you love.

I didn’t talk with Jimbo Mathus about any of that, but he was one of the highlights of last night’s visit to Greenwood, Miss. for a Sultana reading at Turnrow Books.

I love the Delta and I’m crazy about Turnrow owners Jamie and Kelly Kornegay. So I was looking forward to the event for a lot of reasons. Last time I was at Turnrow they paired my reading of Mississippi in Africa with a performance by African blues musician Guelel Kumba, who goes by the stage name Afrossippi. It was an inspired playbill: A white Mississippian who wrote about Africa; a black African who plays Mississippi music. In short: Jamie and Kelly get it.

They also have one of the most beautiful spaces for a bookstore I’ve seen, on Howard Street in downtown Greenwood next door to the Alluvian Hotel and Gardinia’s Bar. Turnrow is not only a nice space, it’s laid out in a way that makes it easy to peruse books, which is something I can’t say of a lot of bookstores, even some I really like. Even the authors’ pictures on the wall are different at Turnrow. Instead of a series of staged mugshots or publicity photos, they have original photos of writers taken in and around Greenwood that are interesting in and of themselves.

Then they have the Delta, and they get that, too. The Delta is a conflicted yet magical place, home of plantations and the blues, poverty and great literature. Most of the Delta’s towns are dying, having tipped from the point of attractive, arresting malaise to the moment when the roof falls in. Greenwood has fared better than most, primarily due to the economic stability provided by Viking Corp., but it still has that worn-down, former-great-beauty Delta feel.

There’s nothing worn down about Turnrow. Any town would be lucky to have a bookstore like this one, which is one reason the Kornegays are able to draw big names to what is, for many of them, likely their smallest venue. Leave it to the Delta, which despite being an isolated province, is anything but provincial. Deltans of means have traditionally had a broad world-view, even when they’re wrong (see “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof”) and at the poorer end of the scale, they have used the materials at hand to produce music that changed the world. There’s a lot going on. On my drive up to Turnrow, I saw what has to be the last cotton-chopper in America: A single man with a long hoe chopping weeds in someone else’s thousand-acre cotton field. Only in the Delta, for better or worse.

Not surprisingly, the Delta is known for its characters, and the audience for the Sultana reading at Turnrow was no exception. The Half King in New York City may have had war correspondents, photographers and actors, but Turnrow had those characters: An eccentric guy who told a story about trying to repair the engine on his broken down motorboat on the Mississippi River as a towboat bore down on them, terrifying his passengers, one of whom sat beside him at Turnrow and said he has never been out on the river again, as a direct result; a budding young writer; a guy who kayaks on the river, including during last year’s Sultana-worthy flood; another who’s working on a book about a Civil War boat, the Star of the West, which lies at the bottom of the river in Greenwood; a man who told of a friend who was an ace fighter pilot during World War II, who got shot down and imprisoned by the Germans, who has grainy films taken by a camera on the nose of his plane; a Harvard-educated lawyer who’d been drinking with his friends at Gardinia’s beforehand, one of whom was a lovely, charming and intelligent woman named Dixie; and a host of other lovers of Delta culture, black and white. Needless to say, they asked good questions.

After the Sultana signing a group of us headed to Carrollton on the kind of 20-mile dinner-and-drinking journey that people in the Delta think nothing of undertaking. You find good food and libations down lonely gravel roads in the Delta, and people are used to the idea of traveling comparatively long distances across the flatlands to get what they’re looking for. Carrollton is nestled in the hills on the eastern edge of the Delta, and is probably the best-preserved town in Mississippi, architecturally. It was once the home of the Carroll County Picture Show, which was memorialized in Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billy Joe,” and served as the set for the movie based on Faulkner’s The Reivers, starring Steve McQueen. It was more or less a ghost town not so long ago, but is coming back with bells on.

One of the new attractions is the Carroll County Market, a restaurant-music venue in an old building on the square, across the street from the courthouse. It was there that wiry Jimbo Mathus, who looks like a cross between Woodie Guthrie and Jerry Lewis, dressed in tight jeans and a western shirt, played to an enthusiastic crowd of locals ranging in age from 20 months to 80 years. There was dancing. One woman requested a song called “My Cornbread is Nasty.” Jimbo said he’d never heard the song but liked the sound of it.

Mathus, a wild-eyed singer-guitarist with a gold-capped tooth, founded the successful nineties band the Squirrel Nut Zippers and played rhythm guitar for blues-great Buddy Guy as well as with his own two bands, Knockdown South and the Starlite Wranglers. He was in rare form on this night, his driving, electric hillbilly blues – “crazy white boy music,” he’s called it – on full display. Mathus describes his band as a folk orchestra and summed up his style of music for one reviewer when he said, “I like the real deep roots, but I also like the modern thing.” Apparently that’s true of the folks who were gathered at The Carroll County Market, too.

After the band shut down, the group from Turnrow dispersed to various late-night endeavors, including a bonfire at Wilson Carroll’s nearby farm, which is known as Seldom Seen. In the wee hours I headed home to Bolton, driving across the Delta under a full moon, serenaded by the ringing of Jimbo’s guitar in my ears and bugs hitting the windshield. Along the way, juke joints and honky tonks were the only places I passed where the lights were still on.


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