About the same time Freeman and Luckett were concocting their plan, Roger Stolle was deciding to move to the area. Stolle, a longtime blues fan and Ohio native, was a corporate executive for a St. Louis advertising firm. Then he had a life-changing experience on a visit to Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint in 1996, and soon became a regular visitor to Mississippi. One summer, he reached the same conclusion as Freeman and Luckett. “I was here in the summer of 2000,” Stolle says. “And on a Saturday night, there was no live music at all. That was kind of stunning to me, on a Saturday night in the middle of summer
Ground Zero of Photo courtesy
Photo courte sy of G round Zero
the home of the blues had no live blues music of which to speak. When tourists would come to town, they’d visit the Delta Blues Museum and inquire where they might hear some live music. Only a smattering of juke joints offered occasional live music, so the tourists left. “Most of the [juke joints] had closed, gone out of business or burned down,” Luckett says. “There were very few juke joints around then. If there were any, there was no consistency to the music offerings.” So, they set out to change that. In 2001, they opened the Ground Zero Blues Club on one end of Delta Avenue in Clarksdale. The intention at the time was merely to provide live blues music, by local artists, on Friday and Saturday nights. A requirement of the liquor license was to have a full kitchen, so a restaurant was born as well. On the other end of the block, they opened the more upscale Madidi restaurant. “We wanted to make them kind of like anchor tenants on a shopping center,” Luckett says. By 2012, Madidi had closed but had served its purpose by spurring some economic rebirth in Clarksdale. Beyond providing a spark plug for local development, the blues club gave blues aficionados worldwide a definitive destination. In time, Ground Zero would provide a nexus — a place where the music lived and breathed among real, living people. No longer was a visit to Clarksdale just a photo opp for an Instagram page; it provided a pilgrimage destination. Along with the Blues Trail, and other attractions around the Delta, the Mississippi Delta increasingly became a hotspot of international blues tourism.
in Clarksdale, Mississippi. That’s what it had fallen to.” By July 2002, Stolle had pulled up stakes and moved to Clarksdale to open Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, a record store and art gallery located on Delta Avenue, smack dab between Ground Zero and Madidi. Just as planned, he’d come to Mississippi specifically to help preserve a blues tradition he loved but felt was languishing. He arrived just in time. “[Ground Zero] was the start,” Stolle says. “Everything else was still in decline. It was one of the few bright spots … one of the foundational blocks. It would take several years and other things happening to really get the momentum, but it was certainly the beginning.” By 2003, Stolle became the talent booker at Ground Zero, and eventually convinced Luckett and Freeman to expand their lineup to include Wednesday and Thursday nights. The goal was to move toward live music every night of the week to convince tourists not just to visit Clarksdale but to stay. “My theory,” says Stolle, “was that if we were the town that had the music at night, we would be the town that had the overnight visitors. Back then, you just got a two-hour visitor, and that doesn’t do anything really. There was the Delta Blues Museum. Ground Zero would’ve been open for lunch, and then Cat Head. You can do that in two hours and then off to the next stop. If we became the town with music, then that’s where you’d spend the night.” He worked closely with the proprietor of Red’s Lounge, the only other juke joint that was operating on anywhere near a consistent basis. Then others started moving to the area. A couple from Florida opened up the Bluesberry Cafe. When they struggled to compete with Ground Zero on the weekends, Stolle coordinated a plan for his employee and blues musician Sean “Bad” Apple to play at Bluesberry every Monday night.
The quarterly magazine published by the Ole Miss Alumni Association for dues-paying members