“the culture behind the music…”
Look closely. At first glance, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue in Clarksdale, Mississippi appears to be a store where one can purchase Blues CDs, books about the Blues, and Blues related folk art. Indeed one can pick up all of those items, along with a fountain of information about the Blues, delivered by the store’s owner, Roger Stolle. But the foundation of the operation, and what Stolle is truly hawking, is the “culture behind the music.”
Admittedly, he “didn’t know one Delta town from the other.” Roger Stolle was a successful advertising executive, traveling the world and living the good life, when an obsession with the Blues took him on a trip to Mississippi in 1995 to hear the musical form performed where it was born. He landed at Junior’s Place in Holly Springs, an authentic “Juke Joint,” and there he had an evening listening to live Blues that literally changed his life. Subsequent trips to Mississippi were the result of that life changing night, and in 2002 Roger moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi and directed his promotional skills toward telling the story of “what makes the Blues the Blues.”
“what makes the Blues the Blues…”
Downtown Clarksdale, like many small towns, was dying on the vine. Stolle’s relocation to the small Delta town, and the energy surrounding the Blues that he brought with him, helped to inject badly needed vitality into the struggling community. Teaming with local developer Bubba O’Keefe, the two collaborated on any number of projects aimed at rebirth of Clarksdale, including the creation of The Juke Joint Festival in 2004. The festival, along with endeavors by others determined to bringing a dying downtown Clarksdale back to life, brought the Blues to center stage in the town of slightly less than 20,000. Although in the early stages, some residents were opposed to making the Blues such an important focus in the revitalization of the downtown area, today even “little ole ladies donning hats” can be seen wearing festival arm bands and traveling from “joint to joint” during the event!
Ten years ago the average stay for a tourist in Clarksdale was two hours, and there was live music typically only on Friday and Saturday nights. Today there is live music seven nights a week, and the town boasts tourists from at least 28 foreign countries and 46 U.S. States, plus D.C., some of whom spend a night or two in one of the charming boutique hotels. In addition to the Juke Joint Festival, there are eight smaller festivals a year, with a Film Festival filling the slower winter months.
“authenticity of the Blues…”
Roger Stolle’s love of Blues and for the people who make it is palpable. He has dedicated his life to presenting the authenticity of the Blues, and Cat Head is headquarters for that intent. The charming store is packed with everything imaginable about the music form—CDs, vinyl albums, tapes, photos, books, art, tee shirts, and folk art, and a vast array of knowledge about anything Blues related to be imparted to visitors just for the asking. If there’s a Blues event happening anywhere in the Delta, you can be relatively certain of uncovering complete details from the “pusher of the Blues” at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. The store was listed by Paste Magazine as one of the “17 coolest record stores in America,” was named in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, (Workman Publishing) and received a Keeping the Blues Alive award, from the Blues Foundation. A stop by the store and an introduction to its charismatic owner should be on the top of the list for anyone visiting the Mississippi Delta—especially for anyone interested in the Blues.
In addition to his participation in the organization of the Juke Joint Festival, owning Cat Head Delta Blues, and Folk Art, Inc., and a Music and Tourism business, Roger Stolle has written a book about the Blues, Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, co-produced the award winning film M for Mississippi: a Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues and has produced several critically acclaimed Blues CDs/DVDs. In his “spare time” he is a magazine columnist for Blues Review, WROX deejay, XM/Sirius radio correspondent and Ground Zero Blues Club music coordinator.
Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter