On a recent Wednesday night, there was something of the atmosphere of the United Nations at the Ground Zero Blues Club. There were visitors from 11 foreign countries and 15 U.S. states enjoying a club that has become a magnet for blues music lovers across the world.
“We have a high level of international branding now,” said Bill Luckett, who owns the Ground Zero Blues Club along with the actor Morgan Freeman and their partner, Howard Stovall. “Several of those countries had more than one group visiting. Australia had four groups. France, Belgium and England had two groups each. For a Wednesday night, not even a weekend, that is just amazing. I’m meeting people all the time from Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway and even South Korea.”
The Ground Zero Blues Club is part of a package for blues lovers that includes blues museums in Indianola, Leland and Clarksdale, the Blue Trail with its many historic markers of interest, and other “juke joints” in the Delta.
In addition to articles in magazines, the Ground Zero Blues Club is included in many international guidebooks. It has also been featured in a number of television shows, and even a few movies.
It is exposure of all kinds that drives visitors to the club known for mismatched furniture, old sofas on the porch, and other dumpster diver type décor. This isn’t a Disneyfied version of a Delta juke joint, but has the feel of an authentic venue where music isn’t just background to eating and drinking, but one of the best things in life.
Ground Zero Blues Club celebrated its 11th anniversary May 11. Like any startup, it struggled initially. But word got out as they stayed true to their mission to provide good, live blues music. Eventually they were able to expand from weekends only to now having live music at least four times at week, and also sometimes at noon on Saturdays and Sunday evenings.
“The beauty of the place is in the diversity of the people who come,” Luckett said. “We get lot of school children on buses. And we have everything from a tattooed, leathered-out bike rider to the lawyer down the street trying a lawsuit. We run the gamut. Music is a great unifier. Everyone is there to have a great time. Rich or poor, black or white or in between, we all get along great.”
Morgan Freeman is not just an owner, but someone who clearly enjoys hanging out the Ground Zero Blues Club. The native of Memphis who grew up in Greenwood has a home not far from Clarksdale, and can often be found taking up a bar stool at the Ground Zero Blues Club when in between shooting movies.
“People don’t come just to see Morgan, but that is an added treat,” Luckett said. “He’s very gracious about allowing himself to be photographed with folks. Just the sighting of him alone is big for people. In five different occasions in the past six weeks, Morgan has been here at the club. He and I host things together like charity events. He is an active owner.”
Luckett and Morgan, both pilots, have been friends since 1996.
While the blues club and museums are big attractions for visitors, so are the people who live in the Delta.
“People are realizing Mississippi has very friendly people,” he said. “I get comments all the time about how nice people are. It may be we have a natural curiosity about strangers who come to town. We are just a hospitable people.”
Luckett said while agriculture will continue to be the main economic driver of the Delta economy far into the future, tourism is also big business in the Delta. It is helping to replace the jobs lost in manufacturing.
“Something needed to fill that void, and tourism is becoming that on an increasing basis,” Luckett said. “The Delta is waking up to that. Rather than rivaling each other, the more offerings we have for tourism here, the better we do. The casinos taught us if you can get that second or third night with that tourist coming in, it certainly enhances the economy. But we must have enough to attract and keep them. With a number of different clubs, restaurants, museums, and blues trail markers, we are developing more and more of a base for people to come enjoy our food and music.”
The blues club’s direct economic impact is employing 15 to 20 people, and purchases of food and drinks from vendors. Indirect benefits include payments for 200 band appearances throughout the year.
“We’re paying out good money to these bands,” Luckette said. “A lot of these bands weren’t used to making money like this. That is a big driver in our community. The Ground Zero Blues Club has been a great thing for us and Clarksdale. It is a good success story now. It gives me a lot of pride to sit in there sometimes and seeing people really enjoying themselves.”