Tunica: Where Blues and Gambling Meet
Sunday, October 12, 2008
If Led Zeppelin fans ever wonder about Memphis Minnie, the pioneering blueswoman who recorded "When the Levee Breaks" four decades before the British supergroup made the song famous, none bothered to visit her grave on this hot September day. Fifteen minutes north of Tunica, the mid-South's gaming magnet, Minnie is buried in a dusty churchyard where the dragonflies are as big as your hand and King Cotton has surrendered his crown to corn and soybeans. As any Delta farmer can tell you, cotton prices are down, and it's just as easy to turn a dollar planting something else.
This, then, is north Mississippi, where economics trump mythology.
With nine casinos to choose from -- including Harrah's Tunica, self-billed as the "largest casino resort between Las Vegas and Atlantic City" -- Tunica's 10 million yearly visitors ain't got time to get the blues. This once-depressed boomtown's riverboat roll-call features familiar names transported from the Nevada desert to the Delta.
Bally's, Resorts, the Horseshoe, Sam's Town: Each gambling floor celebrates the shotgun marriage of Vegas casino action and the uniquely American Mississippi River culture that Mark Twain made famous. If that culture's on display only in Southern-fried casino buffets, so what? Poker is poker, no matter the theme of the window-less, clock-less, air-conditioned room in which one plunks down his blinds. Sure, this isn't the Bellagio: Harrah's, where the self-parking is free and "nonsmoking" is an exotic linguistic construction, cannot boast of jumping fountains or Cirque du Soleil. Tunica's unwalkable collection of isolated properties doesn't aim to reverse-engineer the full Sin City experience: the Strip, the food, the limousines and whatever else happens in Vegas that's supposed to stay in Vegas.
Instead, riverboat casinos -- that is, immobile pontoons that float in man-made moats beside the Mississippi without a view of the river itself -- offer decent rooms and great golf while enabling citizens of Flyover America to place their bets without expensive trips to the Pacific time zone, and a low-cost escape for any gambler trying not to break the budget for blowing the budget. After all, a casino reality-break is a casino reality-break: As Hurricane Ike overwhelmed the Gulf of Mexico barely six hours to the south, a floor manager changed a television from CNN to ESPN at a gambler's request.
For lovers of turnip greens, William Faulkner and Son House, the whir and buzz of riverboat gambling floors distract from Tunica's real attraction, rural Mississippi itself. Any English teacher can guide a 10th-grader through "Huckleberry Finn," but reading Samuel Clemens's masterpiece before taking a ride on the Mighty Mississip' is like learning to ride a bike by reading Wikipedia.
The great river Huck and Jim rode is still here, and so are the mud, the bugs, the humidity, the floods and the mystery. Airplanes clobbered steamboats as transportation long ago, but Muddy Waters's eerie aesthetic wasn't born at Reagan National. The Mississippi Delta is best experienced by getting lost in the tangle of old country roads that play hide and seek with the river's eastern shore, especially Highway 61 (the same one that Bob Dylan famously revisited).
Visitors to Tunica can't avoid the "Blues Highway" -- four lanes of it connect Memphis to the casinos -- but it's worth taking half a day to venture farther south to Clarksdale, where four lanes become two and the country just gets countrier. After a call to information clearinghouse Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, I found myself in an off-road and off-the-map shack in a field near Merigold, Miss., watching Pat Thomas, the son of Delta blues legend James "Son" Thomas, work those three familiar, mournful chords on an acoustic guitar. Much has been written about Mississippi's dying juke joints, which have fallen prey to an aging audience, an overblown reputation for crime and . . . well, casinos. Indeed, as I watched Pat Thomas, I realized that the juke's only other patrons were white European journalists with blousy shirts and windswept hair dead set on documenting Delta culture. These wide-eyed scribes arrived on a tour bus larger than the juke joint itself, wielding miniature recording devices and digital cameras that could never photograph the discreet charm of a music that, though fossilized in heritage museums and ghettoized in beer commercials, still resonates in a smoke-filled room with no cellphone reception.
Still, jukes are alive and a vital part of any music lover's trip to Mississippi.
Of course, an endless supply of Delta bugs eager to meet their end on rental-car windshields will dissuade weak-stomached music-lovers from navigating labyrinthine, potholed dirt roads to see a guy play guitar. But Tunica's appeal is in its options: You can roll high in a luxury casino suite, killing time at $5 slots while subsisting on $25 meals, or browse the gun selection at a friendly pawnshop before grabbing a beer at the nearest roadhouse. Vegas may have jumping fountains, and Atlantic City may have . . . well, the Atlantic, but who needs distractions? In Tunica, they're taking bets and dishing up ribs, and a river runs through it.