CAT HEAD STORY
Cat Head is named after three things (in reverse order): "cat head biscuits" (a Southern biscuit the size of a cat's head), animal-themed blues record labels (Alligator, Fat Possum, Rooster, etc.) and the "cat head" drawings of Leland, Mississippi, bluesman/folk artist Pat Thomas.
A deejay here once labeled me "Clarksdale's Blues Ambassador." Kinda nice. I'll take it.
Hi. I’m Roger Stolle. Cat Head is my place.
Cat Head is Mississippi's Blues Store, but honestly, I never set out to own a record store or art gallery or souvenir stand (or whatever the heck this thing is). I set out to fulfill a mission.
In 2002, I moved to what some called a “dying” town to organize and promote from within.
How did I end up in Clarksdale, and what am I “organizing and promoting,” exactly? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Much of what follows is excerpted from the Introduction to my book, Hidden History of Mississippi Blues (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing). You really should treat yourself to a copy. Just sayin'...
I grew up in a family that didn’t really listen to much music. My dad loved talk radio. My mom had a few dusty albums we rarely played. And my older sister mostly kept her pop records hidden from her less cool, younger brother.
This all changed on the morning of August 17th, 1977.
I was 10 years old and living in Dayton, Ohio. As I walked into the family room of our small, ranch home that morning, the local paper stared up at me from our faux-brick tile floor. Over the photo of a bejeweled Elvis Presley, a banner headline read, “The King is Dead at 42.” Elvis’ life, death, funeral and fans made the front page of the newspaper every day for the next week.
It wasn’t long till I extracted the music that moved me ... Elvis’ versions of Mississippi-born classics like “That’s All Right” (Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup of Forest, Mississippi) and “Mystery Train” (Herman “Little Junior” Parker of Clarksdale, Mississippi). Deep South-penned blues and R&B songs like “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” and “When It Rains It Really Pours.” I moved first forward and then backwards, listening to other artists, reading magazines, and searching for what made this music so compelling and unforgettable.
I started paying attention to the song credits on the records, and every day, the picture came a little more into focus. This soulful, edgy music wasn’t the product of my own white bread ancestry, it was the legacy of an African-American art form that emanated from the South – far from my own Midwestern comfort zone – deep in the land of catfish and cotton.
The music was blues. The state was Mississippi.
Fast forward a decade or so. There I was, nearing high school graduation, finding myself sitting in a cramped, fluorescent-lit office with a disinterested guidance counselor. When I mentioned that I either wanted to be a race car driver (cars – another hobby) or a lawyer (girls liked the sound of it), I was met with the kind of stare that makes you major in English Literature. I added in Journalism later just for good measure.
Finally, after four years of Shakespeare, blue books, and the school paper, I began answering every classified ad that began or ended with “writer.” Soon, I was writing advertising copy for ladies’ underwear and men’s shoes. Soon, I was a professional writer.
After working my way up to senior copywriter some five years later, I was recruited for an advertising managerial position in St. Louis, Missouri. I moved, and six months later, my boss was fired. This began a rapid progression of promotions – first at that company, later at another.
In the end, I was the Director of Marketing, reporting directly to the president of a multi-billion dollar company. I traveled to New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Taipei, Ljubljana, etc., on business. I had a team of 14 talented individuals reporting to me either directly or indirectly. I received raises, stock options and holiday bonuses. And we did super-cool, creative work – including brand creation, cutting-edge graphic design and even product development. On paper, I’d stumbled into The American Dream.
Then, I took a trip to Mississippi.
I’d been in Memphis for two days, done the museums and stood under the ancient sound tiles at Sun Studio. Beale Street had been a party but not the blues heaven I had long imagined. Now it was Sunday and time to pull out those crummy directions. The ones I’d hastily copied from a magazine or somewhere. The ones that led to a decaying old building near Holly Springs, Mississippi – to a juke called Junior’s Place.
Just before never, the music finally started. It rocked and rolled, it grooved and gelled – late into the night. An area recording artist, R.L. Burnside, and his extended family all played. A guy from Oklahoma City named Ray Drew performed. And of course, Junior Kimbrough and his clan took the stage more than once. His music in particular was mesmerizing, hypnotizing and many other “-izings” as it swept over and enveloped me. There were lessons to be learned that night. The main one I took home was that you can take the blues out of Mississippi, but you can’t make it feel the same. No matter how good the record or how good the tour, this whiskey ain’t the same when you pour it into a different bottle.
Basking in the moonshine of a muggy, Mississippi night, my life was forever altered. I awoke the next morning in a dingy Holiday Inn – a changed man.
About six years later, in spring 2002, I left the warm, comfortable arms of Corporate America and charted a course for a fabled land. Mississippi – my home of the blues.
“Why’d you move to hell?”
That was an actual question a middle age, white woman asked me upon my move to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in May 2002. She’d grown up there and apparently wasn’t happy about it.
Clarksdale is a small, dusty town of just under 20,000 people. Most would agree that its glory days are now behind it, and until recently, more people were moving out than moving in.
So, why did I “move to hell”?
I moved to Clarksdale to circle the wagons, to mount a defense, to help the last generation of cotton-farming, mule-driving, juke-joint playing bluesmen deeply inhale the final breath of this amazing tradition we call Delta blues. My idea was to help other like-minded individuals and entities organize and promote this uniquely American art form from within – and by all means necessary.
“Blues” as a genre isn’t dying. It’s the last of the true, honest-to-Muddy, Mississippi blues characters that I’m worried about.
With the passing of each Mississippi blues veteran, decades of life experience and musical knowledge vanish into the Delta’s rich alluvial soil. Stories go untold; songs go unsung.
An old African proverb, often quoted by blues scholar William Ferris, says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Clarksdale welcomed me with open arms, and for that I am grateful. After a decade and a half here, I’ve celebrated many Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store anniversaries, hosted dozens of musical performances at my shop, (co)produced blues films/CDs, written a blues history book, (co)founded festivals, hosted radio shows, taken ancient bluesmen to fresh foreign lands, booked music for clubs/jukes/fests… and taken part in too many other amazing projects and events to even remember.
As I tell y’all when you visit my Cat Head store, “the blues brought me here, but the people made me stay.” Ours is a town steeped in rich, seemingly bottomless history – a history that is still living, breathing and asking for the occasional shot of Jack Daniels. When I opened up shop here almost a decade ago, the traditional businesses were closing and moving out of the historic downtown. Fortunately, that mass exodus faded out after a couple years. Then, for about 5 years or so, it was folks like me – outsiders, transplants – who kept the flame burning downtown. Others moved in or invested here – many opening their own businesses. In the last couple years or so, locals have reawakened to all that a little “step back in time” downtown business district can offer. In that time, there have been three new restaurants (with a fourth coming soon), three new art galleries and some new overnight accommodations that have opened up within a block of my store. All of them were opened by native Clarksdalians who absolutely understand why someone like me would “move to hell.” All of them welcome both natives and visitors from foreign lands. Pretty cool, eh?
Come visit the Mississippi Delta soon and experience some Clarksdale magic for yourself.
When you do, please be sure to stop by Cat Head to say hello. We’ll help you find the best music and most up-to-date tourism information. In the meantime, definitely check out this web site’s “Music Calendar” and “Clarksdale Guide" (including accommodations) web pages; they will make your visit here deeper and more memorable, I promise. If you have questions, please call or email. 662-624-5992, firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for y’all that have already visited or moved here, thanks for all of the friendship and support through the years. (That goes for all my Clarksdale-born friends neighbors as well.) The best is yet to come! Seriously, it really is...
Cat Head's Stolle can't remember tourists' names but always greets them with a smile.
Cat Head owner's excellent blues book (and rather average hand). History Press/Arcadia.
"Cat Head store. Well, according to the GPS, this is the center of the Blues Universe."
Cat Head beverage glasses. Field tested many bluesy nights. You know, for quality control.
"It's like the 1990s in here!" No worries, the Cat Head has records... er... "vinyls," too.
The sign says all you need to know. But ask the guy at the counter something anyway.
1960s advertising "Mad Man"? Nope. Cat Head founder in corporate marketing pose. Yup. We had photo IDs. Just like the FBI.
Customer service issue? "Talk to the pug." Miss Sadie is super helpful. Until she's not.
A shrine to the owner's thriftiness (above).
94 minutes of my buddy Jeff and me being amazed by a dozen real-deal bluesmen on a road-trip through North Mississippi, www.mformississippi.com
My Broke & Hungry Records buddy Jeff Konkel and I hung with the coolest of the cool on a road-trip to show y'all some juke joints and live blues, www.wejukeupinhere.com
We can't promise to make you look as super-cool as bluesman-turned-hat-model Mr. Leo, but our hats are pretty darn hip.
We're somewhere under that red star. (No. Putin didn't hack Mississippi. That would require reliable internet.)