Author Greg Iles’ roots are in the Mississippi mud

Mississippi author Greg Iles has written numerous best-sellers and even had one of his novels made into a film.
Yet, Iles quickly admits he’s yet to write that “one great book.” And he is perfectly fine with that.

“Cemetery Road” latest for writer whose had 15 books appear on NY Times’ best-sellers list.

(This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019, issue of The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register newspaper.)

By Michael Banks

Greg Iles has had 15 books appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, including one that reached number one. The Mississippi-raised author has had one of his novels made into a film and his work’s been published in more than 35 countries.

Yet, he readily admits, he’s still to write that “one great book.”

And Iles is perfectly fine with that.

 “I’ve tried to walk the line between entertaining people and really saying some things that really help people. Maybe the day will come where I write that one. Maybe not. But as long as you can sleep at night, it’s good enough,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m alright where I’m at right now.”

And where Liles is at right now is on the cusp of another appearance on the best-sellers list as his newest novel — “Cemetery Road” – was released March 5, 2019. Liles was in Clarksdale, Ms., on Friday, March 8, 2019, for an appearance and book signing at the Cutrer Mansion as part of the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Book Talks lecture series.

Iles attributes his success to the ability to “mine your own experiences and touch people.”

And that’s something he’s been doing since his first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” was released in 1993.

Yet, the path to success has been filled with long hours spent away from family and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2011, Iles was seriously injured in a car wreck on Highway 61 near Natchez, MS. He sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured aorta. He was put into an induced coma for eight days, and lost his right leg below the knee.

 It was during his three-year recovery when he wrote the Penn Cage trilogy — “Natchez Burning,” “The Bone Tree” and “Mississippi Blood.” The series follows the life of a fictional Mississippi prosecutor turned author.

He said while everyone is on “pins and needles” wondering where “Cemetery Road” is going to debut on the New York Times best-seller list, he’s fine with his station in life.

“On one hand, do I care? Yes, I do, as it certainly affects my future career. On the other hand? No, man, nothing. None of that matters.

“What matters? Are you still vertical, are you healthy, are your kids OK? And nothing else, nothing else, matters,” he said. “You got to get a little bit old to figure that out. Sadly.”

Author Greg Iles. (Photograph by Michael Banks)

One of the hardest things in writing “Cemetery Road,” according to Iles, was having to write about a character who had a terrible relationship with his dad. That wasn’t the case with Iles and his father, Jerry, who was a well-respected physician for nearly 50 years in Natchez, where Iles grew up.

“My dad was Tom Cage. I didn’t have to make anything up,” he said of the character from his books who is Penn’s father and a revered physician in Natchez.

“Cemetery Road” has been described as an electrifying tale of friendship, betrayal and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

A review by the Washington Post said the book is “an ambitious stand-alone thriller that is both an absorbing crime story and an in-depth exploration of grief, betrayal and corruption. Iles’ latest calls to mind the late, great Southern novelist Pat Conroy. Like Conroy, Iles writes with passion, intensity and absolute commitment.”

Iles believes the second book he wrote, “Black Cross,” which was set in World War II, was the best book he’s written.

“I wrote that book in three frantic months… I’m really proud of that one,” said Iles, who was born in 1960 in Germany as his father ran the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic at the height of the Cold War.

The book, which is his only work to not reach the New York Times best- seller list, did provide the author some personal satisfaction.

“My father called me and said his partner from Washington, D.C., had called him and said, ‘There’s a bookstore in the United States where they sell you and they don’t sell John Grisham,’” Liles told the large group, which burst out in laughter.

It was at the museum book store at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“That was a really high bar for me to make, in terms of research and writing and things like that,” Liles said. “Those are those small moments you get that you never forget. So, that book is special to me.”

The two books he wrote from a female perspective – “Blood Memory” and “Dead Sleep” – are also among his favorites.

But with all his books, Liles said, “I just don’t write those books. I live those books, every one of them.”

The act of researching and writing a book is “an intense experience,” he said. But once he’s written and completed the book, he’s on to the next one.

“I’ll go as long as I can without writing a single word,” Iles said of his writing process. “For me, the writing is the easy part. It’s the drudgery, the slavery. It’s just something I could always do. It’s the story, the working out the emotion, the psychology and the facts and the research is something else.

“When I start, it’s just bursting to get out. I say, ‘It’s like a pregnant woman when her water breaks.’ This story’s coming,” he said to a roomful of laughs.

At that point, Iles races to his recliner and starts the process, working about 12 hours a day. That moves up to about 16 hours per day and, near the end, he’ll stay up 24 hours, 30 hours until he’s finished.

“I don’t sit there on page one and agonize. I’m going on instinct the whole time,” he said. “I’m living the story with characters. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I’ve found that I’m sitting in the chair and my face is covered with tears because I’m going through it.”

Yet, to have that success, Iles admits a price has to be paid.

“That writing process is not good for your health, not good for your family life. It’s putting work above all things and working 18 hours a day, month after month after month after month,” said Liles, who admits to not having a vacation in 10 years. “You get successful, but you pay a high price.”

Iles lives in Natchez with his wife and three children.

“You just blink and your whole life’s gone. That’s just the way it happens,” he said. “You figure out where you get to where I am now, none of this matters.”

As far as television and movies, Iles had one of his books, “24 Hours,” made into a movie, “Trapped,” which was released in 2002.

With his success, the author now has the luxury of handpicking his future television projects.

“I’m successful enough now, where I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting a TV show.’ At this point, I don’t want to have just a TV show. I want to have ‘the’ TV show… or at least I want it to be what it should be,” he said. “I’ll just sit tight, be cool.”

Let me tell you a story …

Words have always been a constant in my life — from my days of growing up among the corn fields and coal mines of western Kentucky to various newspapers around the South.

Growing up amidst the corn fields and coal mines of rural western Kentucky in the 1970s and early 1980s, my mind was oftentimes 1,000 miles away.

You see, I’ve always had quite the imagination — something that comes in quite handy when growing up “out in the country” where playmates were limited and trips “to town” were considered a luxury.

Often, I could be found roaming the woods and creeks that lined our property. Imaginary playmates have often been by my side, whether we were doing battle against “those damn Yankees” in Civil War times or I was on the mound of Game 7 of the World Series, pitching for my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers against, once again, “those damn Yankees.”

The Banks family in the mid 1970s. I am shown with my mother, Linda, and my sister, Stacie, on our way to somewhere important, I’m guessing, judging by our special Sunday church clothes. (Photo courtesy of the Banks family)

That imagination, I imagine, was fueled by the numerous books I read via bookmobile or those times I got to go “to town” and spend an afternoon in the Morganfield Public Library. My grandparents got the Evansville (Ind.) Courier-Press each day and I’d read columnist Joe Aaron and scour the sports pages. And when the dad of my neighborhood buddies — the Woodrings — allowed me to read all of his old copies of The Sporting News, that was the greatest thing ever — boxscores of every major league baseball game, even the West Coast teams?

All that reading and love of sports led me to work on the newspaper and yearbook staff at Union County High School and eventually on to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where I learned plenty of life lessons and lots of journalism.

My first job was in January 1990 when I was hired as the sports editor of a small weekly newspaper, the McLean County News, in Calhoun, Ky., on the banks of the Green River. That was followed by two stints as the editor of my hometown paper, the Union County Advocate, sandwiched around a term at the daily Murray (Ky.) Ledger and Times.

In October 1999, I made the leap to a much-bigger newspaper and town when I put everything in a Ryder moving van and came to North Carolina to work at the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia. For 19 years, I worked as part of an award-winning team of journalists in putting out one of the state’s finest daily newspapers.

A victim of staff cutbacks in September 2018, I flirted with the idea of becoming a court reporter and even began training for the work until I was offered the chance to get back into newspapers in March 2019 as the publisher/editor of the Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

For a little over a year, I learned a lot about publishing a weekly community newspaper in the Mississippi Delta and also rediscovered my love of writing and photography. I was pleased with our work as the newspaper was recognized by the state press association with a General Excellence award in the Better Newspaper Contest.

My wife, Danette, and I on our wedding day, Sept. 22, 2017, at Kure Beach, NC.

Today, my wife, Danette, and I have returned back to our beloved home on Woodbend in Belmont, NC, where I continue to write on a freelance basis for a number of clients.

My story is one that is being written and rewritten with each passing day.

— Michael Banks

July 17, 2019

All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.


“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”

Best Feature Photo

This photo was recognized with a first-place award in the 2018 Better Newspaper Contest conducted by the Mississippi Press Association.

In the photo, 2-year-old Camden Aderholt, center, and 3-year-olds Harper Powell and Anna Margaret Marley were fascinated by the bubbles drifting in the air, thanks to the efforts of Anna Sims Wills, 12, at left, Thursday night at the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale. The children were more fascinated with the bubbles while their parents enjoyed the sounds of the Blackwater Trio during the annual fundraising event that featured more than 100 people enjoying the music and picnic on the lawn of the mansion.

The awards were handed out Saturday, June 22, 2019, at the MPA’s summer convention held in Biloxi, Ms. Judging was done by members of the Kansas Press Association and the comment on this photo was “Love it!”

Best little newspaper in Mississippi

A short time after beginning my time as publisher/editor of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register, I picked up a single second-place award given out by the Mississippi Press Association for work done by the newspaper in 2017.

At that time, in June 2018, I silently set a goal in my mind that we’d exceed that number – that lone second-place award – with our work in 2018.

Exceed it, we did.

On Saturday, during a gathering of the state’s journalists in Biloxi at the summer convention of the Mississippi Press Association, the Clarksdale Press Register was honored with 26 awards in the association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including a General Excellence, marking it as the top newspaper in its class.

The awards were a culmination of a nine-month period, from our arrival in mid-March to the end of the contest period in December, in which the newspaper staff and contributors took on the challenge of making it one of Mississippi’s best newspapers and one that the community would be glad to call its own.

There were longer hours, more work asked of everyone and a call to do things a different way.

In the end, those efforts were recognized by members of the Kansas Press Association, which judged the annual contest, as well as the community with an increase in our readership and circulation numbers.

According to judges, the Press Register had, in addition to the overall General Excellence award, the best Lifestyles section and Magazine/Periodical (Coahoma Living) in its category, consisting of other weekly newspapers across Mississippi. The paper also received second-place awards for its design and Editorial Page, while our Women in Business special section received a third-place honor.

Staff writer Josh Troy received five awards, including a first-place award for best magazine story with his feature on Roger Stolle, owner of the Cathead music store in Clarksdale.

My talented wife – and unpaid volunteer writer – Danette Banks received a third-place award in the Feature Story category with her profile on local musician John Mohead. And the two of us combined to win the entry for Best News/Feature Package with her story and my photos and layout of a profile on another Clarksdale musician, LaLa Craig.

I was lucky enough to beat out some talented journalists and receive 15 awards. Included in that number were four first-place awards: the before-mentioned News/Feature Package; best Business Story with a profile on Mary Williams and what prompted her to start an urgent-care medical facility in Clarksdale; top Commentary Column with my entry of three columns addressing such things as crime and apathy in Clarksdale; and first place in Feature Photo with the photo linked to this post that shows children enjoying a concert on the lawn of the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale.

I knew that we had done good work during our time in Clarksdale and Coahoma County, but was still surprised by the sheer number of honors thrown our way. Secretly, I was hoping we’d win six to seven awards and then reach middle figures the next year and continue to build on our success.

These awards and turnaround in a very short time only reinforce the effort and talents of the limited number of folks who were able to put out an award-winning product in the Mississippi Delta and show what can be accomplished with initiative, hard work, talent and a bit of sacrifice.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who played a part in The Press Register’s success.

Moon Lake magic and Tennessee Williams

Many of the characters and locations that turn up in the timeless works of playwright Tennessee Williams — including scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Orpheus Descending” — originated from a small town on the flat open land known as the Mississippi Delta and an oxbow body of water named Moon Lake.

By Michael Banks

So many of the characters and scenes that have been shared on a world stage through the words of Tennessee Williams can be traced back to the time the famous playwright called Clarksdale, Miss., and Coahoma County his home.

An assortment of Blanches and Stellas have whispered the words Moon Lake while audiences sit transfixed, deep within their own visions of characters and scenes drawn from Williams’ Deep South and life in the Mississippi Delta.

And it is still now, some 35 years after Williams’ death at the age of 71, in which this area is still celebrating and creating new ways to showcase its small part in all that was Tennessee Williams.

For Clarksdale and Coahoma County is very much a part of what Tennessee Williams was and Tennessee Williams is very much a part of what Clarksdale and Coahoma County is and can become.

‘Home is where you hang your childhood’

It is believed that Edwina Dakin Williams and her two children moved in with her parents in a church rectory on DeSoto Avenue in Clarksdale sometime during the late spring or early summer of 1917.

Tom, as Tennessee was known then, would have been six years old at the time when he and his mother and older sister, Rose, moved in with his grandparents, the Rev. Walter E. and Rosina Otte Dankin, who lived in Clarksdale from 1917-’32 while the Rev. Dakin was the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church.

Tom and his mother and sister would live in Clarksdale for about 16 months with Tom attending Eliza Clark School until the trio moved to St. Louis in 1918 to join his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, who had been a traveling salesman for most of Tom’s early life before he finally landed a desk job.

Still, Tom and his sister would make frequent trips to Clarksdale to visit their grandparents, who by this time had moved into the new rectory located on Sharkey Avenue beside St. George’s Episcopal Church.

And Tom and Rose would live with the Dakins in Clarksdale at different times due to their mother’s poor health following the birth of their brother, Dakin. Tom lived in the Sharkey rectory for 16 months in 1920-21 and completed fourth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School.

He would then visit the Dakins most summers until graduating high school in 1929.

Panny Mayfield, a Clarksdale journalist who has done a number of stories on Williams through the years, believes the days and nights Williams spent in Clarksdale and Coahoma County was “an idyllic, quiet time.”

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life.”

— Panny Mayfield, Clarksdale (Miss.) journalist

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life,” she said.

Acting coach and documentary filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas agrees, pointing to a popular quote attributed to Williams: “Home is where you hang your childhood.”

Gold buckle of the cotton belt

She says the Clarksdale of Williams’ time in the 1920s is very much different than it is now. At the time, Clarksdale was called “Little New York,” Kohlhaas said, as there were as many millionaires per capita here as there were in New York City.

“It was known as the gold buckle of the cotton belt. It was one of the richest small towns in America because of the cotton boom,” she said of the planters who were getting up to $1 per pound of cotton at the time.

But those heady days wouldn’t last as the cotton futures market crashed and the price of a pound of cotton sunk to a nickel as many lost fortunes.

“People lost everything,” Kohlhaas said. “But still, they continued on. It was the gambler mentality. That whole rise and fall with how good of a crop you were going to get.”

And it would be these people, that mentality, that would serve as characters in many of Williams’ future plays.

“These are the people he is writing about,” said Kohlhaas, who makes her home in New York City and has been working on her documentary of Williams for the past eight years.

“Up here in the North, people tend to paint the South with one brush. But the Delta is so incredibly different from the Old South, like Virginia. It was sort of like the Wild West as opposed to Gone With the Wind.

“I did not understand it at all until I started working on this project. As I learned a lot more about the Delta and Delta personalities, I began to see and understand how that is embedded in his plays.”

The people who gave his stories life

Kohlhaas believes the story of Williams is not so much the tale of “this little boy remembering his time here” but rather “it was a constant association with the place through his grandfather.”

She also believes Williams was “deeply sensitive” and pulled from his experience of “being both inside and outside the society of Clarksdale.”

Being the grandson of the town’s beloved Episcopalian priest gave the family social status, but Kohlhaas says “at the same time, he did not fit in with a lot of the kids in town.”

This could help explain Williams’ fondness for “compassion and understanding for people on the edges of society,” Kohlhaas said.

“He would spend his time writing and alone. He wasn’t the typical Delta boy who wanted to go out and fish and hunt. He and his sister both had big imaginations and were very creative.”

Mayfield said she has heard the tale that the character Brick Pollitt from Williams’ play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof was based on a boy who lived right down the street from the rectory and had apparently beaten up Tom on one occasion.

She said that a family member of Brick’s relayed to her on a later occasion that “they thought that Tennessee Williams got even” with his portrayal as Brick as an alcoholic, aging former high school football star who is in a strained marriage.

Williams drew on memories from his Clarksdale childhood as material in his plays. Names such as Blanche, Stella, Brick, Laura, Wingfield, Cutrer and Baby Doll became namesakes for famous Williams characters. He also referenced local stores, towns and landmarks such as Moon Lake and the stone angel in Grange cemetery.

Shown is a marker noting the property beside Moon Lake that has become a destination of Tennessee Williams fans as the “Moon Lake Casino” that was featured in many of his Williams’ plays was located at the site. (Photo by Michael Banks)

She said Williams didn’t like the time he spent in St. Louis.

“He loved the people, the wit, the humor, the style of people like the Cutrers,” Kohlhaas said.

“He hated it and didn’t take to it at all,” Kohlhaas said. “He wanted to come back to Clarksdale.”

Williams would continue to have a strong relationship with his grandparents through their remaining years. His grandmother would send him money until he finally achieved commercial success with “The Glass Menagerie.”

“She truly believed in him,” Mayfield said.

His grandfather, who lived to be 95, would visit Williams after he became famous and his grandson would always ask about the residents of Clarksdale as Mayfield said he kept up with the Cutrers and the Clarks and their stories.

Kohlhaas said the last documented visit by Williams to the Mississippi Delta, that she can find, is his trip to Beloit in December 1955 when he visited for the filming of “Baby Doll.”

A ‘research center’ for actors

With its history and the preservation of several landmarks mentioned in Williams’ plays, this area has attracted both professional actors and common tourists seeking the Tennessee Williams experience.

Mayfield says Clarksdale has become a sort of “research center” for actors and actresses portraying characters from Williams’ many works. She has served as host for many, including Ruth Wilson who portrayed Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire during a London run and also the famous English actress Lia Williams, who was recognized for her role as Blanche du Bois in a production of Streetcar in Dublin, Ireland.

Recently, accomplished actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited the county as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum. In addition to many film and TV roles, Robins has portrayed the character of Blanche from “Streetcar” on many occasions and one of her first leading roles was in the role of Alma Winemiller in the Williams play “Summer and Smoke.”

Actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited Coahma County as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum in Clarksdale. (photo by Michael Banks)

“In my imagination, I had often wondered who Alma was and who she is. All actors want to do research and see what inspired the character they are portraying,” Robins said. “What he writes of is in all of our DNAs. It captures us as human beings.”

Kohlhaas was able to take the Cuccioli and Robins to many of the notable areas in the county mentioned in Williams’ work. One moment that sticks with her was watching Robins as she visited Uncle Henry’s, the site of one of Williams’ most riveting scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“She stood there, exactly where the Moon Lake Casino was, and looked out toward Moon Lake, walking the steps that Blanche would have taken. She, literally, began to cry as it was that moving to her,” Kohlhaas said.

Clarksdale is Shakespeare’s house

There is something special about coming to this area, Kohlhaas said.

“Clarksdale is a huge American theatre history location. It’s like Shakespeare’s house. I just hope to bring more and more awareness to it.”

One thing she is doing is serving as curator for the soon-to-open Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum at 106 Sharkey Ave. in Clarksdale. Plans are for the museum to open Oct. 12 during the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival.

The museum will document Williams’ childhood in Clarksdale and his family history, as well as the local people, places and history that Williams featured most in his famous plays. Kohlhaas said it’s “been like decorating a giant doll house.”

The mission of the museum is to educate visitors about Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta history as they appear in Williams’ work.

Not far from the rectory is a Tennessee Williams Park that was dedicated in October 1994. Other popular spots to visit are the former Moon Lake Casino and the Cutrer Mansion, which dates back to 1916.

Jen Waller, who is director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center/Cutrer Mansion, said they see a steady stream of people wanting to see the home of the family mentioned so often in Williams’ works.

Clarksdale’s founding father, John Clark, had nine sons and one daughter and her name was Blanche Clark Cutrer. She married John W. Cutrer in a ceremony that was presided over by the Rev. Dakin and was considered to be one of the most lavish events of its time.

“We don’t have as much traffic as I wish we did, but I do love it when tourists stop by and I get to tell them about the Cutrers. It’s almost always because they’ve seen the house connected to Tennessee Williams,” she said. “We do have a small tourist traffic, but not tons. Maybe it will increase with the rectory museum.”

The main event tied to Williams here is the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, which is now in its 26th year. This year’s festival will run from Thursday, Oct. 11 through Saturday, Oct. 13.

There will be a kickoff dinner and dancing, historic tours and a panel on the Cutrer family and Clarksdale history. Saturday’s events include a monologue and scene competition for students from all over the state, followed by an afternoon of plays performed on porches on homes located in the city’s historic district.

One of the leading organizers of the event is Mayfield, who was involved with the first festival in 1992.

“She’s really been legendary over the years,” Waller said of Mayfield. “She’s been carrying this torch for Tennessee Williams and the blues even before anyone else was really doing it.”

Appreciation only grows

Mayfield said Williams’ stories persevere as he was “very courageous” in his writing.

“They still have meaning… he wrote of difficulties in relationships,” Mayfield said.

Kohllaas, who originally wanted to finish her documentary two years ago, said it’s been “quite a process” of putting together the film with the working title “Tennessee Williams and the Mississippi Delta.”

She said, “There’s just so much material and I want to make sure it’s correct. It’s been like making a giant quilt.”

Still, Kohlaas has learned much about Williams during the process and it has only enhanced her appreciation of his talents.

“He is the Shakespeare and the Chekhov of America. He used lyricism and poetry in his writing like Shakespeare, but like Checkhov, he wrote of a decaying society and an aristocracy that was steadily descending.”

She adds that those hundreds of hours spent in the Carnegie Public Library researching Williams and the countless visits she’s made here have also revealed “just how much the Delta actually influenced him, especially early in his career, which are considered some of his greatest pieces of work.”

Waller has spent most of her life in Coahoma County and admits it wasn’t until 1996 when she first became aware of Williams’ association with Clarksdale. As part of the Williams Festival that year, there was a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the former Larry Thompson Center at the old movie theatre on Yazoo Avenue.

“It was excellent. I remember going to that and thought it was amazing,” said Waller, who admits her favorite Williams play is “The Glass Menagerie.”

But the worldwide impact hit her even more when she and Clarksdale resident Eva Connell visited New Orleans for that town’s Williams Festival two years ago.

“We were at this one place and they did a reading of a one-act play. I’d never heard of it before, but it was all about Friars Point and Moon Lake. This was in New Orleans in front of people from all over the world. That was eye-opening. The ones that really didn’t get much play, he used these same landmarks in these shorter plays.”

Waller said, “It’s become such a valuable piece of our history and it’s really become known worldwide.”

These words written by Williams are now being spoken in many dialects. There’s Baby Doll in German. Blanche in a thick Irish brogue. Or Stella on a South African stage.

Williams and his wonderful scenes and these stories of the people and places of Clarksdale and Coahoma County continue on.

As Kohlhaas says, “This little boy who lived in Clarksdale ended up reaching the entire world.”

Author Hank Burdine is definitely Delta

Author Hank Burdine’s latest book is a collection of his stories about the people, places and things that make up the Delta.

And Burdine is the perfect person to share those stories with his Southern drawl and storytelling ease that leaves one craving a sip of whiskey as they sit along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Burdine was in Clarksdale on Thursday, reading passages from his new book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The event, held at the Cutrer Mansion, was part of the Community Book Talks lecture series that is sponsored by the Carnegie Public Library in partnership with the Coahoma County Higher Education Center.

The book is a collection of stories Burdine has shared in the monthly Delta magazine. He has been writing for Delta magazine since its inception in 2003. His first column was titled “Why Mississippi Will Always Be My Home.”

“That was 67 issues ago,” Burdine said.

During Thursday’s event, Burdine read the introduction in his latest book, as well as the story “The Night I Lost My Pants at a Debutante Ball.”

He is proud of the work and thankful for contributions by “two dear, dear friends of mine”– authors Julia Reed, from Greenville, and Richard Grant, who wrote “Dispatches From Pluto.” Reed wrote the foreword, while Grant wrote the epilogue.

“I’m honored those two cats wanted to put something in the book,” Burdine said.

In an article, Grant wrote, “Hank Burdine is a writer, raconteur and bon vivant, a big-hearted, loud-drawling, whiskey-loving son of Greenville, Mississippi.”

Burdine said he hasn’t received many compliments in his life, but one of the greatest compliments he ever received was when he was described “as a Rule from Ruleville.”

The introduction to his book reflects on the Delta and memories of his mother.

“So, it is my belief, in agreement with my momma, that while the people of the Delta are what makes it so unique, it is the fact that in most cases, it was our grandparents and great-grandparents that were the true pioneers of this region.

“And it was that pioneering spirit and blood and guts and tears and sweat that beat the Mississippi River back, felled the trees and began to plow and mold the richest land imaginable in order to give us, today, the Mississippi Delta.”

Burdine said Clarksdale and its surrounding area “has got a real, deep part in my heart” and is a special place for him. He talked of Coahoma County’s Robert E. Bobo and his exploits as a bear hunter.

Burdine, who is also a commissioner on the Mississippi Levee Board, spoke of the twists and turns of the Sunflower River as it makes its way through the county and eventually heads to Ruleville and the rest of the lower Delta.

“We’re all so connected and it’s such an integral part of everything as this Delta is. It’s the uniqueness of this Delta, not only to us that live here and have been here, but to folks who want to know about it,” he said.

“The Delta is very special right now. It’s very hot right now,” said Burdine, who recently hosted the second annual Hank Burdine Blues and Greens Festival at the Shack Up Inn near Clarksdale. He pointed out that 80 percent of the inn’s clientele are visitors from Europe.

That’s an example, Burdine said, of the people learning about the Delta and wanting to know more about it.

“It’s not the high glitz and neon glory, but it’s the old stuff, the way we know it. It’s the Delta stuff,” Burdine said. “It’s the deep stuff. It’s the stuff in our guts. This is what we got. This is who we are.”

He said when people ask where he’s from, the answer is simple.

“I’m not from Clarksdale. I’m not from Greenville. I’m from the Delta.”

He said that simple statement covers a lot of people, a lot of races and a lot of creeds and nationalities.

“But, it’s us and it’s our Delta.”

Want a copy?

Hank Burdine’s book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy,” is sold exclusively through Delta magazine and authorized dealers. Call 662-843-2700 or go online to to order a copy.

(This article first appeared in the Dec. 12, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale Press Register.)

Grace under fire

One winter morning earlier this year, Bernadine Reed suddenly found herself in a life-and-death situation, trying to calm and corral 40 panicked first – through fifth-graders as smoke filled Darlington Public School Bus No. 3071.

Photo by Milton Morris.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

By Michael Banks

Two years ago, Bernadine Reed, who grew up in tiny Dovesville, S.C., left the noise and chaos of Baltimore, Md., to return to the piece and quiet of small-town life in rural South Carolina.

But on one winter morning earlier this year, Reed suddenly found herself in a life-and-death situation, trying to calm and corral 40 panicked first – through fifth-graders as smoke filled Darlington Public School Bus No. 3071.

“I told everybody, ‘We have to get off this bus now,’” Reed recalls.

A vehicle had slammed into the back of the bus after Reed had stopped before a railroad crossing on Jan. 22 at about 6:30 a.m. The only adult on the bus, Reed was able to guide the children, who were all crying and upset, out of the bus and to a nearby field. While flames consumed the vehicle, Reed was able to reach her supervisor and then called each child’s parents to let them know they were safe.

“Everybody looks at this as me being a hero. I tell them, ‘I’m just a mother that got 40 kids off a bus. That’s all.'”

— Bernadine Reed, bus driver in Darlington, S.C.

Reed, who had never driven a bus before, attributes the intensive training she had undergone in December for staying calm under fire. She had only been a driver for 45 days prior to the accident.

“I’ve been around children all my life,” said Reed, who had been a special needs educator and also ran her own daycare in Maryland.

Reed says she has a passion for her “babies,” which is what she calls the children who ride her bus.

“All my kids love me. They call me ‘Miss BeeBee,’” she says. “I think kids are just drawn to me. I’m like a magnet for kids and they listen to me. They know they’re on Miss BeeBee’s bus and Miss BeeBee don’t play. We are on this bus to get to school and home, safe and sound.”

Bernadine Reed

Age: 49

Home turf: Darlington

In the family: Reed’s 27-year-old daughter, Shantee Jacobs, recently moved from Maryland to Darlington and also became a school bus driver. She believes her entire family, which includes four children and three grandsons, will eventually move to South Carolina.

Accolades: While the parents of the children she rescued rewarded her with flowers and candy, Reed was also honored by the local school system and received a key to the city of Darlington.

“I told them, ‘Y’all don’t have to do this. This is my job. This is what I do,’” Reed says.

If a movie’s made, who plays the role of Bernadine Reed? “Queen Latifah,” she says with a laugh.

Did you know? Reed admits to being “a little bit adventurous.” She wants to go bungee jumping and says she likes to climb trees and “I want to jump out of an airplane, at least one time.”