Jan 15, 2020

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., gets to the heart of the blues

Clarksdale, Miss., is often referred to as “Ground Zero” for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the blues.  And, why not?  Geographically, it’s centrally located in the Mississippi Delta region.  It’s literally and figuratively located at the “Crossroads” of the blues where U.S. Highways 61 and 49 meet.  And it’s surrounded by sites that are historically significant to the birth and evolution of blues music.  So, it should come as no surprise that the biggest and most celebrated blues club in Clarksdale (and perhaps the entire country) is in the heart of downtown – the appropriately named Ground Zero Blues Club.

With its official address at 0 Blues Alley, practically adjacent to the Delta Blues Museum (which I highly suggest visiting), Ground Zero Blues Club can’t be missed.  That’s not just a recommendation.  The building is huge; it looks like a converted warehouse that reportedly once housed the Delta Grocery and Cotton Co. 

But despite its size, the ambiance for the place is “juke joint” perfect from the moment you pull up and walk up the crumbling concrete steps to the entrance.  There’s even some out-of-place furniture outside for seating if you find yourself waiting in line to get in on a rowdy weekend night. 

You’re also liable to be greeted by this smiling smoker near the door, and if you’re lucky you’ll be enticed by the aroma and smoke emanating from it.  It may be just the kind of legend that helps sell barbecue, but supposedly this smoker was built and brought to the Ground Zero Blues Club by its most famous co-owner, actor Morgan Freeman.  Regardless, Mr. Freeman is a frequent visitor to his establishment, which alone should be reason enough to go.  After all, who wouldn’t want to meet Morgan Freeman and hear him talk like Morgan Freeman?

When Punky and I first visited, however, the club was far more restful than rowdy, and there was no Morgan Freeman in sight.   We were simply there for a little mid-afternoon food an and refreshment before checking in to the Shack Up Inn on the outskirts of town.  The lull between lunch and dinner made it easy to have our pick of seats at the bar that runs along the right side of the club.

Just sitting there taking in the abundance of graffiti, posters and other knick-knacks on the walls put me in a happy place. 

As a lover of blues music for as long as I can remember, the surroundings were everything I expected and hoped for.  The guitar donated by blues legend John Lee Hooker was probably my favorite item on display. 

When it comes to the service at Ground Zero Blues Club, I can’t say that I disagree with many of the reviews I read about the longer than expected wait times for food, especially considering how vacant the place was when we got there.  Maybe they should consider closing for a few hours after lunch and reopening later in the evening during slow times of the year?   

So, the servers are very nice, but you probably shouldn’t be in a hurry for your food.  Once you get your order, though, you’re likely to be wowed by how good it is.  These fried green tomatoes, for example were just the right combination of crispiness on the outside, slightly tart and tangy on the inside and doubly delicious with either a ranch or Ground Zero’s “Gitback” sauce (which reminded me of a good remoulade).

Punky made quick work of that sammich!
But the consensus winner for best thing on the menu is the catfish BLT, and Punky can concur it’s deserving of its reputation.  They provide a generous amount of catfish filets fried seemingly in the same cornmeal breading used for the green tomatoes … maybe a thinner coating.  This catfish was undeniably fresh and good quality.    

Overall, the food menu at Ground Zero Blues Club is a little sparse, but it’s really good selection of bar food, and they rightfully call their sandwiches “sammiches.”  Most people should be able to find something to their liking. 

Most importantly, while we came for the food, we knew we had to return later that night for the music.  Since opening in 2001, Ground Zero Blues Club has cemented its position as the biggest, baddest, best … and occasionally only … show in town (depending on the timing of your trip to Clarksdale) for authentic, rocking live blues music.  The club hosts a different band at least four nights every week, and often more.  I confess to not remembering the name of the band we saw, but in a way it really didn’t matter.  No matter the night, we would have been treated to a great show.  Expect lots of dancing in front of the stage, too.  Punky even had me dancing before the night was over.    

It’s also important to note that even on “slow” nights the club can fill up fast after dark. You can expect to pay a cover of around $10 per person at some point before the band begins to play.  Trust me, though, it’s a bargain!

Ground Zero Blues Club is one of those destinations that stays authentic in spite of its success as a tourist draw.  It’s synonymous with Clarksdale and its blues music heritage.  And it’s loved by tourists and townsfolk alike.  Don’t miss it as part of any excursion into the Mississippi Delta.

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