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Staying at the Shack Up Inn, a real-deal blues hotel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT) - The sunset signaled the cocktail hour, and white tourists were relaxing on the porches of their sharecropper shacks.
Suddenly, their reverie was interrupted by the lights of a Japanese camera crew filming its arrival at the Shack Up Inn like it was entering a sacred shrine.
The inn is a collection of relocated shacks available for nightly rental. The Cotton Gin Inn is a new addition, with 10 rooms in a restored building shod with shiny corrugated steel. Nine shacks were being rented during my stay, with two more sitting in a field across the railroad tracks.
"That's going to be Shackville," said Bill Talbot, one of the creators. "The Europeans are here, and they like it. So why not run with it?"
Indeed, the shack next to mine had a Canadian couple in it. When they moved out, the Japanese moved in.
The complex includes the Commissary, a bar that sometimes has live music. The ragtag buildings sit on the outskirts of Clarksdale on the Hopson Plantation, which in 1944 became the first to produce a cotton crop with machinery. That spelled the end of cotton picking, and the beginning of the black migration up Highway 61 to northern cities in search of jobs.
But Clarksdale remains the epicenter for Mississippi Delta blues, and music lovers flock here from all over the world in search of the real thing, including a stay in a cotton picker's former home. One original owner raised seven kids in his shack; a still was found in the attic during its relocation.
THE BASICS: The exteriors, and interiors, of the shacks look plenty lived in. Porches and ceilings have been shored up with new wood, but no paint was wasted. I was in the Crossroads Shack, which had a double bed, a stuffed chair with the stuffing falling out, a standup piano that looked perfect for the blues, a rusting Sears refrigerator with no ice trays and a bathroom with the sink coming off the wall and shower walls of corrugated steel.
The Web site practices truth in advertising. "The Ritz we ain't," it says. "Roof leaks, only if it rains. Room service, call the Peabody in Memphis. Sheet thread count? No kidding folks, some crazy lady asked this question."
AMENITIES: Well, there's indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water, a wall air conditioning unit, a small gas heater that wasn't hooked up yet for winter, a TV, a coffee maker with coffee in a Mason jar, and an Oriental-style carpet that probably wasn't original equipment. Old 78 rpm records hung on nails as wall decoration, and guests have added blues posters. The mattress, thank goodness, was new and the bedding clean. When I asked the guy for ice at the check-in desk, he said the ice machine was broken and gave me a cold Corona.
THE UNIQUE: Where do you start? Some nitpickers back home groused about well-to-do whites, including travel writers, "slumming" in what was once home to a poor black family. Well, most music lovers visiting the Delta are looking for the real deal, and you can't get any more authentic than the Shack Up Inn, with plenty of down-home ambience you won't find at the Super 8. And sitting in the battered metal folding chair on the front porch, with morning coffee and evening cocktails on a homemade plywood table, was totally relaxing and absent all pretensions. I wore my tattered sweats and houseshoes.
THE HIGH POINTS: I didn't have to tip the bellman, because there was none. The guy next door was playing a tasty R.L. Burnside CD. And, the ladies staying next to him apparently didn't notice their windows lacked curtains.
THE LOW POINT: At night, when I walked across the floor of my shack, the whole place shook, rattled and rolled.
THE BOTTOM LINE: You must be 25 or older to rent a room. Weekends require a two-night minimum stay. No smoking inside the rooms. Pets allowed in the shacks. Nightly rates Sunday through Thursday are $60 to $75 a night, depending on the shack. Weekends are $75 to $90. Most shacks have one queen bed, although the Electric Blue Shack sleeps four with two queen beds in separate bedrooms. Cotton Gin rooms are $65.
1-662-624-8329 and www.shackupinn.com.
© 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.