Mississippi’s Musical Tapestry

By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Mary Ann DeSantis; Grammy Museum, exterior, provided by Grammy Museum; MuddyWaters Exhibit provided by Delta Blue Museum; Elvis’ birthplace provided by Bob Franks and Tupelo CVB; The MAX The Made in Mississippi Wall in the Community Gallery provided by Ron Blaylock.

World-class museums honoring Mississippi’s musical legends dot the state and are attracting visitors from around the world who want to experience the birthplace of American music.

Mississippi has lots of crossroads, but none is more famous than where Highways 61 and 49 connect near Clarksdale. Anyone who loves the blues knows that’s where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar talent. On the eastern side of the state, however, traffic at the crossroads of Interstates 20 and 59 is exiting in Meridian for the new Mississippi Arts+ Entertainment Experience, also known as The MAX. It’s the latest of many venues dedicated to talented Mississippians. Don’t miss these favorites on your next road trip:

The MAX stands as an ultra-modern monument to all of Mississippi’s creative legends – not only musicians and singers but also writers, visual artists, and actors. The multi-media tributes showcase the rich culture and legacies of artists like B.B. King, Elvis Presley, William Faulkner, Jim Henson, Leontyne Price, and others.
“Every artist here is a brilliant thread in Mississippi’s tapestry of creativity,” says the banner in the Hall of Fame Gallery, the centerpiece of the first floor, which honors 18 artists who are the inaugural class of The MAX Hall of Fame. But that’s only the beginning; more than 280 famous Mississippians are mentioned at the one-of-a-kind museum, which includes six galleries focusing on areas that influenced the artists.
“It’s not a traditional museum,” explains Paula Chance, director of marketing. “We have lots of high-tech interactive experiences that offer more of an emotional connection to the artists than physical.”
During the museum’s opening, it was fitting that performer Britt Gully was on hand to do his remarkable musical impersonation of Meridian native Jimmie Rodgers, known as the father of country music. Called the ‘man who started it all,’ Rodgers placed a defining stamp on what country music would become, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame. A smaller museum honoring Rodgers is nearby, and certainly adding to Meridian’s designation as a new music gateway into the state.

Elvis Birthplace Museum
Driving due north from Meridian on Highway 45 to Tupelo, visitors will arrive at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum. To truly appreciate Elvis Presley’s journey to fame and Graceland, it’s helpful to experience his humble beginnings. In 1934, Vernon Presley borrowed $180 for materials to build a two-room house in East Tupelo where Elvis was born a year later.
Although the family moved from the home after three years, Elvis lived in Tupelo until he was 13. He returned to Tupelo in 1956 and 1957 and donated the proceeds from a 1957 concert at the local fairgrounds to the City of Tupelo to start a park. The city purchased 15 acres surrounding the house where Elvis was born, and in 1971 the East Heights Garden Club began to improve the birthplace as a club project.
The complex now includes the actual church where Elvis learned gospel music, a museum, and an amphitheater for special concerts. Two bronze sculptures – ‘Elvis at 13’ and ‘Becoming’ – are popular highlights with photographers.

Gateway to the Blues Center
A two-hour drive from Tupelo to Tunica puts you at the gateway to the blues. Elvis himself paid homage to the blues performers who influenced him and so should any music lover – especially rock ‘n’ roll fans. After all, as musician Muddy Waters once said, “The Blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
A journey down the legendary Highway 61 through the Delta is filled with world-class museums that recognize these musical pioneers’ contributions.
The Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum is a must-see landmark as well as the place to get a blues primer. Housed in an 1895 train depot, the museum opened in 2015 and has interactive exhibits and interesting artifacts, including a 1952 Les Paul guitar – the first made to be amplified. The museum offers a great overview along with the lowdown on events and not-to-be-missed restaurants along the Blues Highway.

Delta Blues Museum
Clarksdale, once a transportation hub, is where Highways 61 and 49 connect. Those highways, in fact, are the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul. The Crossroads marker is a hard photo to take, because it is a busy intersection after all, so just head into the “ground zero” of blues known as Clarksdale.
The Delta Blues Museum, the state’s oldest music museum, showcases just how blues music inspired rock and roll. With so much to see, it’s easy to miss the piece de resistance – the “Muddy Wood” guitar created by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame. Gibbons picked up some loose boards from Muddy Waters’ shack at the Stovall Plantation and had the guitar made, which he played in concerts before donating it to the museum. Peek around the corner to see a Muddy Waters replica sitting in his home. The wax figure is so lifelike that Maie Smith, a tour guide for 23 years, still takes pause when she sees it.

Grammy Museum and Dockery Farms
The first Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles is located in this hip college community that is also home to Delta State University. Open since 2016, Grammy Museum Mississippi deserves a full day to see everything and experience the many interactive displays.
The “On the Red Carpet” gallery is filled with legendary performers’ original costumes, including Beyoncé’s 2014 sheer white lace gown. The Roland Room lets visitors channel their inner rock star with an elaborate set-up with instruments and flashing strobe lights.
The Grammy Museum’s mission is all about education, especially the history and cultural significance of American music. Another intent is to inspire the next generation to explore and create new forms of music.
“We want them to dream,” explains NaCherrie Cooper, marketing director for the museum. As the great-granddaughter of Muddy Waters, she knows about the power of a dream.
“The best gift my great-grandfather gave me was a dream,” says Cooper who remembers her great-grandfather driving her to elementary school. “I share that – the power of having a dream – with the students who visit.”
With so many world-class museums along Highway 61, skipping nearby Dockery Farms – considered the birthplace of the blues – would be a mistake. B.B. King once said, “It all started here.” Roseanne Cash described Dockery Farms in her 2015 concert there as “hallowed ground,” and indeed it felt like that on a rainy Delta morning when I walked through the cotton gin where blues pioneers Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House and others worked during the early 20th century. During their breaks they created the music and culture that became known as the blues.

B.B. King and the Delta
Interpretive Center
The thrill is not gone at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a beautiful facility in King’s hometown of Indianola.
Riley B. King was a sharecropper and truck driver before his transformation into the “Beale Street Blues Boy.” The museum chronicles King’s development from a musician touring the Chitlin’ Circuit in the South to his international acclaim. And if you’ve ever wondered how his guitar “Lucille” got its name, this is place to hear the true story. Finally, pay your respects to the icon himself, who was buried in the courtyard in 2015 following a procession down Highway 61.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.