Justin 'Aquarium Drunkard' visits the blues, and lives to write about it
For every McDonald’s and Waffle House blighting sight lines, the old “weird America” still lurks if you look hard enough. Over the course of three trips and 2 1/2 months, Los Feliz residents Justin and Melissa Gage rambled through the Delta Blues Trail in search of the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Son House, and Skip James — from Memphis’ Peabody Hotel to the cotton fields and alluvial lowlands of Mississippi.
The offspring of this odyssey is “Memphis & The Delta Blues Trail: Great Destinations,” a travelogue published by The Countryman Press offering tips on the best sites, sounds and places to stay along the fabled route. In addition to running Aquarium Drunkard — one of Los Angeles’ most popular and respected music blogs — Justin Gage hosts Sirius XM and Little Radio programs, promotes concerts and runs the Autumn Tone boutique imprint, fast becoming one of the city’s finest indie labels. A former travel editor of CitySearch, Melissa Gage currently works as a freelance writer and screenwriter.
Tonight the pair will host a reading/celebration at the new Stories Books in Echo Park, with acclaimed Autumn Tone act Le Switch on hand to play a set. In advance of the festivities, Pop and Hiss spoke to Justin Gage about his experiences on the road and the drinking etiquette of Southern roadhouses.
What sparked your desire to write a book about the Delta Blues Trail?
Prior to becoming a screenwriter, my wife was a travel writer and the idea was to couple her experience with my music background to try to create the ultimate guide to exploring the Delta region and the blues. The only books out there were geared toward the history of the region — where Muddy Waters’ house was, or the pharmacy that Robert Johnson was said to have played at.
Besides that, there wasn’t a lot of meat-and-potatoes stuff about what you do when you get to Friar’s Point, Mississippi — the off-the-beaten-path stuff, so you don’t have stay in the Holiday Inn, but rather a really cool house where you can only rent one room and you get a proprietor who will tell you endless stories about the region and the music. Or the right mom-and-pop places to eat at. The entire region is like going back in time. There aren’t any blockbuster cineplexes, no Starbucks, no grocery chains. It’s a place that corporatization hasn’t touched.
Why do you think the area has escaped the deregionalization that’s occurred in other places?
Sadly, a lot of it just has to do the region being largely economically depressed. Because there isn’t as much wealth, there aren’t that many Fortune 500 companies coming in to standardize the area.
In “Chronicles Vol. 1,” Bob Dylan laments the demise of regionalism and glorifies how in the '60s each area had its own food, customs and culture. The Delta area is still like that — it’s not some strip mall wasteland, it remains an area with a strong regional identity.
Did you find a lot of ancient, undiscovered bluesmen still plying their trade, or is that idea largely much an antiquated cliche?
Actually, the youngest blues player that we saw was in his mid-40s. I talked to some of the older blues guys about their art form, and they were all skeptical about its ability to persist — they predicted that within 20 years it will be a lost art form. They claim that the younger generations that would’ve replaced them is so heavily into hip-hop that they don't care much for the blues.
Did anyone in particular stand out?
We got to see [bluesman and Fat Possum recording artist] T-Model Ford, who has got to be pushing 85, playing a pick-up show at a little diner in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Here’s a guy who goes over to Europe and plays large theaters, and here he is playing to just 60 people, mere miles from where he grew up. In general, the art form is a lot more appreciated in Europe.
What tip would you give to people who want to travel the blues trail?
Bring a GPS — so many of the juke joints that we went to were literally off dirt roads in the middle of cotton fields. We’d arrive at hundred year-old buildings made out of tin and sheet metal, without a liquor license. They wouldn’t keep regular hours, either. You might read in a guide book that they were open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but we’d pull in on a Friday and they wouldn’t be open. Call ahead if you can.
Without fail, they usually serve two kinds of beer. They’d either have Budweiser or Miller and then the light beer equivalent. You’d walk in and order from a window cut into a wall, and they wouldn’t hand you a normal-sized beer. Instead, they’d give you 60 oz. bottle, paper cups, and napkins. You’d pay a man in cash, and he’d turn around hand it to another man, who would instantly put the money in a safe — in case there was a robbery. If you brought drinks with you, they’d give you a “set-up” — a Tupperware bowl filled with ice, some glasses and a can of Coke.
Reading for "Memphis and the Delta Blues Trail," and performance by Le Switch, 7 p.m., Stories Books and Cafe, 1716 Sunset Blvd., free.
Photo: Courtesy Justin Gage