Roger Stolle runs the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which he opened in 2002, after moving from St. Louis with a mission to “organize and promote the blues from within.” Since then he’s started a record label, written a book on the history of the blues in Mississippi, produced several documentaries about the blues and been behind several blues festivals now flourishing in the town.
The Cat Head store is a treasure trove of blues related stuff – CDs, DVDs, posters, books, memorabilia – and Roger says, “I basically tried to build the store I wanted to walk into but could never find!” Of Mississippi he says that when he moved there he found some of the nicest, most open people he’d ever met.
Roger’s is a remarkable story of one man’s love for the blues, for the Mississippi Delta and the people of Clarksdale, which, in many ways is the home of the blues. Roger told Down at the Crossroads his story –
DATC: Roger, how does a guy from Ohio, a successful corporate marketing executive end up in the Mississippi Delta, with his life revolved around the blues?
Roger: It’s crazy! But let me back up a little and tell you how I got into blues. It’s August 17, 1977, I’m ten years old, I’m in Trotwood, Ohio and Elvis Presley just died. “The King is dead at 42,” said the newspapers, and I’m, like, “what is that?!” My parents didn’t listen to music, and to me, this looks interesting. And then you turn on the TV, the radio, you go to the mall and hear the PA, everything is Elvis. It was crazy, he was on the front page of our papers in Ohio every single day for the whole week. It was huge.
So, I’m exposed to this music and, to be honest, not all of it hit me in the same way – I didn’t know what I was hearing, but what I now know is that I was into his blues and R&B stuff. I was into the Tupelo-Memphis Elvis, not the Hollywood-Las Vegas Elvis.
So that’s the music I kept trying to seek out. I’d buy these little 45s at Sears – and the reason I know what I liked is I still have that stuff – they’re all blues and R&B covers. Anyway, I’m getting into it without knowing it. You move forward a little, I’m getting older – I won’t say that I was necessarily an Eric Clapton fan at the time, but I knew that he was a big blues fan and in interviews he loved to mention Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, Freddie King and so on. And I would just jot those names down, and I’d go to all the little malls and record stores in our area, looking – ‘cos there’s no Internet, there’s no Google, you can’t look this stuff up, even to know what ones to buy. And a lot of the time, I would just buy the cheapest used LP or new cassette tape – and sometimes you got a good one and sometimes you got, like, the one bad Lightnin’ Hopkins album! So I tried to self -educate.
Keep moving forward in time and after college I stumbled into advertising. I worked my way up pretty quickly into management and moved into a great job in St Louis in February 1995.
So I move there, but I’m a blues fan at that point. I’ve been educating myself, I’ve seen whatever blues artists have come through the crossroads of I70 and I75 in Dayton Ohio. Oddly enough, the first time I ever saw R L Burnside was in 1998 at a jazz club in Dayton – and the next time I saw him was in a juke joint in 1996 in Mississippi.
So anyway, I come down here around 1996 and do what I call for my customers the Dead Man’s Blues Tour. I really thought it was all gone, but I thought I’d come down and see where my heroes came from. And there weren’t that many headstones at that time – most of them are modern, paid for by fans – and there’s no Mississippi Blues Trail or history markers. The State was not recognizing blues as being important yet. There were no guide books, and you just showed up and tried to talk to people. And it was really cool, because you got to meet blues folk who I always found to be fabulous – they’d invite you to their homes and stuff. If you were here on a weekend, there might be some live blues somewhere in the Delta, but it wasn’t a guaranteed thing, certainly not in Clarksdale.
There were three main blues festivals in the region, two in Mississippi, one in Arkansas, that I’d come down for. The Sunflower Blues festival in Clarksdale, the Delta Blues and Heritage festival in Greenville and then the King Biscuit festival in Helena, Arkansas, which was particularly good during those years. But that was really it. Now of course we have a whole bunch of festivals.
So I just kept visiting and I’d go hang out with T-Model Ford – he became a buddy so I’d come down and hang out with him and his family. And he’d get the guitar out, and I had a great job, so I’d always pay him like it was a little house party.
After six and a half years of visiting, I just felt like it was all slipping away. And these little towns like Clarksdale that I had fallen in love with were dying. The downtown was dying, people were moving out of the neighbourhood…
And so I moved here with a mission to organize and promote the blues from within. That was my mission statement on my business plan – it wasn’t just about opening a store, it was about the mission. I moved here, trying to work with musicians, juke joint owners, club owners or potential club owners.
DATC: That was quite a vision, Roger.
Roger: Well, it’s funny to look back. I forget sometimes how crazy it actually looks! Now it seems like it’s brilliant! But it was pretty crazy, I have to admit. I mean the job I had was the sort of job people dream of getting. It was awesome, I was going to Hong Kong and Taipei and Europe and New York all the time, I had 14 people working for me, the pay and benefits were crazy, but I kept on coming down here and I realized, this is where I was supposed to be.
DATC: How did your family feel about this crazy move?
Roger: Well, I went and saw my Dad and stepmother in Florida and his comment was, “Well, we know you wouldn’t do anything stupid son.” And I was like, I wouldn’t give me that much credit! But my mother was so upset – she’d been bragging to her friends about what I’d been doing in my career – but she just stood up off her sofa, didn’t say a word, and walked out the front door! She wouldn’t talk to me that night, she was so upset. But now she’s come around because I’ve sent her my book and magazine writings and documentaries and CDs and so on. She understands now why I’ve done it, even if it’s not her dream.
DATC: Leaving the corporate world to start up a small business, always seems like a big risk to people who don’t do it.
Roger: When I resigned my boss, who was new in position and suddenly had me who is responsible for this whole department of people, resigning – first he tried to bribe me and then to guilt me out of it. They tried to not let me quit. It was the craziest thing.
Anyway, I land here in Clarksdale, and of course I knew a lot of people I’d met over the years. But it’s one thing to be visiting and another to say, hey I’ve moved here! I needed a two-wheel dolly and there’s a local company here in Clarksdale that makes them. So, I thought, cool, I’ll buy local, and I go out there and there’s this older white lady at the front counter who says, OK, follow me, I’ll show you what we got. We start walking back towards the warehouse, and I said, I just moved here from St. Louis and I’m opening a store, and before I could even get the statement out, she stops and turns around and says, “Boy, why’d you move to hell?”
DATC: Wow! And that’s your first day?
Roger: Yeah, in her mind the town was done, and she was just stuck here.
DATC; Did that unsettle you Roger?
Roger: Not at all! The glass is always half full for me. I remember going on one of those first weeks to the Mayor and board of commissioner meetings at City Hall to get in tune with what is going on in town. And I remember this old man – there use to be this public comments section which they did away with – this old white guy standing up and he just ranted about blues ain’t gonna save our town and I’m tired of hearing about people spending time and money on this. And of course my argument was – yes you’re exactly right, blues will not save the town – alone. But – I don’t see anything else to work with, so that’s the first piece on the table, work with that, start building on to it and you get somewhere. One thing alone isn’t going to do it unless Nissan moves a car plant here or something.
So that’s what we’ve been doing for 16 years, slowly building this community of people working on this.
DATC: Did you find, Roger, people at the beginning were resistant to this guy coming in from the outside with his vision for their town. Did you get any naysayers, apart from the woman who thought you’d moved to hell?
Roger: Well, I’m no brain surgeon or rocket scientist and I can prove it any day of the week! One of the things I bring to a situation though is that I’ve always been able to work with almost anybody. So coming here my whole thing was, I’m not going to be telling people what they should be doing or how they should be doing it, and I sure wasn’t going telling people why they should think blues is important. I’m going to show them, let them discover things in their own way for themselves.
So for example, one of the major ways we were able to do that, is I partnered with Bubba O’Keefe, a local Clarksdale guy – super energetic, very intelligent, a local businessman who loves this town. And we started a juke joint festival. It’s now our town’s biggest event, coming up to its fifteenth anniversary. The secret of that is that it’s not just another blues festival – it’s half blues festival, half small town fair, and all about the Delta. So this year we have 110 blues acts, but also monkeys riding dogs herding sheep! Also we have racing pigs, and a petting zoo and things for kids. Those kind of things everybody wants to see – we may not think it’s right, but we wanna see it!
And you know, Southern hospitality is a real thing. People are going to ask you where you’re from and be hospitable if you can put them in the same room as these tourists from around the world.
We polled people in 2016 and we found people from at least 28 countries. I think that’s insane! So those people are all here. And locals are, like, hey, where are y’all from? And the overseas folks start talking about how much they love the town. Not just the music, but the town. And those are the type of situations, umbrellas if you like, that we’ve been trying to open around here
DATC: So what do you particularly like about living in Clarksdale?
Roger: When I first moved here, people would say to me, hey, you must really love the blues to have moved here. Well, I do, but that alone wouldn’t have done it. It’s the music that brought me, but the people that made me want to stay. You know, being friends with someone like Red Paden who owns Red’s Juke Joint – awesome. And having been friends with and taking guys overseas who aren’t with us any more like Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford – having those experiences – priceless. Those are the kind of things that made it all worthwhile, honestly.
And it’s a cool little town. It’s become kinda artsy, very musical. We’ve had people who have moved here in the past 13 years from at least 4 or 5 foreign countries, a couple of couples from Australia for example, others from over a dozen US states. So you have that interesting mix of people, but everybody brings some kind of quirky thing from where they came from and people who come here know it’s not a place you come to “do it your way.” You come here and you get in where you fit in.
DATC: What are your hopes for the town in the future?
Roger: More of the same. Continuing to develop downtown, sell more buildings, get more tourists here. But it would be nice to see a more consistent traffic all year round, because it is a real challenge to do business here. In the bigger picture, what Clarksdale really needs is to attract a decent sized manufacturing plant, somebody who can add a few hundred jobs. And like many small communities, our schools continue to need work. Those are the kinds of things that blues and cultural tourism literally can’t fix – but it can attract people who are able to fix those things.
DATC: Roger, you own and manage the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store; but you do other things as well…?
Roger: So the films that I’ve worked on – Hard Times, M for Mississippi, We Juke Up in Here, and then Moonshine & Mojo Hands is our newest project, which is a web series that going to go to DVD shortly. And my partner on those film projects and some of the recording stuff too is Jeff Konkel, who still lives in St Louis. He came down to my store and saw I’d started a record label, and he said, “If that idiot can do it, I’m sure I could do it,” so he started his own. Frankly, he’s probably done better with his than I did with mine!
Then we started working on bigger projects together. I also wrote a book called the Hidden History of Mississippi Blues. I’m hoping to write a new one, due out next year on juke joints. I did three albums on Big George Brock, and then there’s the festivals.
DATC: What is it about the blues that appeals to you, speaks to you? What is it that still draws people to the blues, to artists whose music has been around for a long time?
Roger: It’s a great question, and I think language fails us trying to describe it. When you hear it for the first time, it’s the feeling of it, the truth of it, the humanness of it. But when you sort of analyse it, in the long term, especially nowadays – there’s a word, authenticity, that gets overused and misused. And when we’re talking about music that came from here, it’s just that authentic musical experience, it’s the voice of a culture. To me, you feel that, it’s real. It’s not this process-created, marketed kind of thing.
Now of course blues as a genre has become huge, in terms of the breadth of it. But for me, when you come to the guys who came from the culture, that is why they sound the way they do. That’s the kind of stuff that gets to the heart of things, for me. It’s hard not to be touched by it.
DATC: And you’ve spoken to a lot of local blues artists, some now passed on, like David Honeyboy Edwards, and recorded that in your columns in Blues Revue and in your book; What are some of the broad impressions about the blues and the history of the blues you’ve gathered as you look back on those interviews?
Roger: The biggest eye-opener for me, once I was here for a while, when I would do an interview with someone like Bilbo Walker or L.C. Ulmer or Big George Brock, people of that generation – you know these guys grew up the exact same way, almost without exception, as Charlie Patton, or Son House, or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. The plantation system here, sharecropping, segregation, these things were all in place during that huge swathe of time. Like those forefathers of the music, none of the guys I mentioned got to go to school, they were all illiterate. All these factors – it’s like having a bee trapped in amber – which suddenly you’re able to let out. When you asked them questions, you got answers like you would have got from these bluesmen of antiquity. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a right thing, it’s just how it was.
DATC: It really shows you how the context of the blues is really what gave rise to it. The situation of African Americans in the early decades of the 20th century and what they went through is what gave rise to the music.
Roger: Absolutely. Big George Brock, for example, told stories of this mule he worked – owned by the plantation of course – named Ida. He would sing to that mule to make her work – but he was ploughing with a mule before they had a tractor. And I’m talking to a guy about this, who is 85 years old and who experienced that. It’s fascinating, and that’s why the music – it may have been updated in terms of electricity, for example – but it still feels the same way.
DATC: Thank you Roger!