- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2017

Bill Luckett is keenly aware that his home state is a punch line. The mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and longtime attorney shakes his head over the stereotype of a state filled with backwards people who “stay in the kitchen and run around barefoot.”

Such preconceptions, he said, plague “the South in general, but certainly Mississippi.”

But Mr. Luckett, owner of the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale — the town where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at “The Crossroads” to become the world’s greatest bluesman — hopes that a new ad campaign will change outsiders’ perceptions of the Magnolia State.

A recent report in the state’s Clarion-Ledger about the campaign shouts, in large print: “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.” Below it are photos of such native scribes as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham and Jill Connor Browne.

It is all part of an ad blitz by the Cirlot Agency dubbed “Mississippi, Believe It!”

“We have a disproportionate number of writers from here in the Delta compared to Mississippi” in general, Mr. Luckett told The Washington Times at Ground Zero. “And Mississippi has a disproportionate number of writers compared to the United States.”

And not just writers. NFL greats Brett Favre, Archie Manning, Eli Manning and Jerry Rice were born here. The state boasts more Grammy winners per capita than any state in the nation, Mr. Luckett said. Add to that list blues legends like Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, as well as LeAnne Rimes and Tammy Wynette.

Not to mention Mr. Luckett’s business partner in Ground Zero, the Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who still lives nearby.

So with such cultural and athletic riches to its credit, where did the scorn from the rest of the nation come from?

“I don’t know if we should attribute it to the fact that we were so rural that people didn’t have a television and they had to entertain themselves by storytelling and playing music or something,” Mr. Luckett said of the shoeless stereotype. “There is something that is in the culture here that is innate, and it just comes out of this dirt.”

That same Delta dirt has been the breeding ground for blues music, which Mr. Luckett calls “America’s gift to the world.” The handed-down musical traditions of slaves and their free descendents became three-chord laments in the early 20th century, used to tell of simple tales of hardscrabble times, poverty, lost love and, just as with the spirituals of yore, a hope for something better.

And while black blues musicians could scarcely be heard much beyond their Southern segregated communities, their music was consumed ravenously in England by the likes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton; the British Invasion was little more than English musicians selling American black music back to American white teenagers as something new.

The Stones’ name even came from a Muddy Waters record, “Rollin’ Stone.”

“It all started here,” Mr. Luckett said proudly.

History and tradition

Mr. Luckett, Mr. Freeman and partner Howard Stovall opened Ground Zero to celebrate the Mississippi Delta as the birthplace of blues. Messrs. Luckett and Freeman also opened a restaurant called Madidi (since closed) as part of their plan to reinvigorate the Clarksdale community, which had fallen on hard economic times and a departing populace in the 1980s thanks to the modernization of the local farming industry.

“Now farming is not labor-intensive at all,” Mr. Luckett said. “Three men can do what 300 men used to do in terms of picking cotton or corn. We lost a lot of population, and with that goes a lot of your retail.

“But it’s coming back.”

Ground Zero opened its doors May 11, 2001. Exactly four months later, the Twin Towers in New York were felled by terrorist acts. The site of so much death and destruction in Lower Manhattan was itself soon dubbed “ground zero.” There were cries locally for Mr. Luckett and his partners to change the name of their establishment.

“The top two definitions of [‘ground zero’] are the place where a nuclear explosion occurs or the point of beginning of something,” Mr. Luckett said. “The World Trade [Center] was neither of those events. It got to be called ‘ground zero’ … I guess because it was a convenient moniker.

“We came first.”

There are also more markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Clarksdale than any other city in the entire state.

“This is truly where the blues music began,” Mr. Luckett said. “Not in the city [of Clarksdale itself] but on the farms … right outside of town. Soul and rock was born here. And all the greats played here in the day. This is the ‘cross roads.’”

Ground Zero offers live music every night of the week. Inside the club, musicians and patrons alike sign their names on every available wall space. Mr. Luckett rattles off a laundry list of the famous who have made pilgrimages here to do just that: Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Ozzy Osbourne and son Jack, Gene Simmons with his son, Paul Simon, Dan Aykroyd of “Blues Brothers” fame, Tim Hinkley of Humble Pie.

Many of those superstar musicians are from England, which Mr. Luckett says is no accident given Britannia’s historic love for the Delta’s music. Union Jacks are prominent throughout Ground Zero’s interior, as are flags from other countries donated to the club by worldly pilgrims and ones Mr. Luckett picks up on his own travels.

He relates how he once introduced himself as the owner to two women from England seated side by side at the bar — neither realizing, until Mr. Luckett introduced them in turn, that the two women had in fact grown up together in Cambridge and now lived near one another in London.

“All the time that happens,” Mr. Luckett said.

A troubled past, an uncertain future

For all of the seeming progress Mississippi has made since the dark days of slavery and the tumult of the civil rights era, decisions made in the state capital of Jackson continue to vex Mr. Luckett, who once ran for governor as a Democrat but lost in a runoff.

He has little kindly to say of Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who signed a so-called religious freedom bill that would sanction discrimination against gays, lesbians and heterosexual couples who live together without being married.

“I call it Hate Bill 1523,” Mr. Luckett said of the legislation that was opposed by the Mississippi Economic Council and the Mississippi Manufacturing Association. “It was one of those solutions looking for a problem.”

Mr. Bryant signed the bill in April, and, just as with a similar move in North Carolina, the economic repercussions were immediate, with Disney announcing they were pulling out of the state. Mr. Luckett is pleading with the entertainment giant not to give up on his state.

“Within two month before it was to take effect July 1, it was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, which it should have been,” Mr. Luckett said. “It runs totally counter to federal law, equal protection, the Bill of Rights.”

Likewise, Mr. Luckett said he remains “in shock” over the election of Donald Trump, who will assume the presidency Friday. He points to the fact that many of Mr. Trump’s most vocal supporters were avowed members of the Ku Klux Klan — with its deep roots in Mississippi.

When asked if he has ever considered leaving, Mr. Luckett admits to thoughts of flight, but staying and fighting for his home has kept him put.

“I thought about never coming back when I left to go to the University of Virginia, but I came back [to go to] law school,” he said. “I came back to my hometown.”

And the world has come calling, with Ground Zero visitors venturing from as far away as South Korea, the Czech Republic, Australia and all over Europe. Mr. Luckett relates how an Estonian television crew once showed up to film the iconic club.

As owner, Mr. Luckett has opened Ground Zero to filming for both documentaries and narrative films. And given his connection to Mr. Freeman, it’s little wonder he too has tried his hand at acting — typically cast as a lawyer or judge — and educated himself in entertainment law.

Ground Zero also plays host to two of the area’s most prominent festivals, the Juke Joint Festival in April and the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. More are likely in the offing.

“We’re the No. 1 city in Mississippi for international tourism,” Mr. Luckett said, adding that Ground Zero was voted best blues club in the nation by BestBluesClubs.org.

“It’s fun being here,” he said. “You can sit on the front porch of this blues club and meet the world.”

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