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Friday, March 18, 2016

Smoot's Grocery -- Bringing the Blues Back Home

Story by Elodie Pritchartt
Photos by Dub Rogers and Elodie Pritchartt

When tourists visiting Steampunk Coffee Roasters would ask owner Dub Rogers where to go for live blues music in Natchez, he often had to disappoint them. For years, the music scene in Natchez was mostly country & western and a little rock and roll, and that was hit or miss. “Every now and then there was a cover band at one of the other bars, but no place where you could go on certain nights and know there was music.” 
So the coffee entrepreneur decided to expand to fill that niche. He found a place next door to Steampunk:  the old Smoot’s Grocery, a small store that had operated on the bluff at the corner of High and Broadway streets for many years.  
The little tin building with the covered porch, which had been owned and operated by George Henry Smoot and his wife Gertrude, still held its charm, although it had fallen into disrepair after closing in the 1970s. “I could’ve done this anywhere,” Dub said, “… but I thought it was the most perfectly set, perfect location anywhere.”  
Smoot’s sits on Natchez’ famous bluff, directly across from the old train station with the river rolling by two hundred feet below. Barges and steamboats chug slowly past, carrying America’s cargo and tourists. Looking across the river at the flat Louisiana Delta, the past reverberates with the gospel music and slave songs from which the blues ultimately sprang. “We’ve had probably twelve acts come through, and all of them commented about the feeling they get when they come here,” Rogers said.

The renovation took a year and a half. During that time other clubs in Natchez— Rolling River Bistro, Under-the-Hill-Saloon, Andrew’s Tavern, Bowie’s Tavern, and others—started booking music more regularly, including the blues. Featuring several markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail, Natchez now finds that its reputation as an antebellum attraction has expanded to include its position as a music destination in its own right.
Cities and towns along Highways 61 and 49 that played an historic role in the development of the genre have been able to maintain or reestablish their connection to the blues. Across the river in Ferriday, Haney’s Big House had been a feature attraction for years on the Chitlin’ Circuit, hosting such notable African American entertainers as B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Ray Charles, and Bobby Bland, until it burned in 1966. At one point, it had seemed like Natchez could be as well known for its African American music as its neighbors along the Blues Highway. But the 1940 tragedy at Natchez’ The Rhythm Club may have been responsible for halting the African American music scene there. Two hundred nine people were killed when the overcrowded club, a dance hall that catered to the black community, burned. It is still the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history and is responsible for many of the fire codes that exist today, such as doors that open out instead of in, requirements for the number of exits, occupancy limitations, and interior finish standards. Having occurred in the Bible Belt, where dancing was often considered a sin, many people believed the tragedy was an assignment of God’s judgment. Along with scores of lives, April 23, 1940, was also the night the music died in Natchez. Until now.
Sitting in the bar with Dub (pictured left), there was a flurry of activity as workers prepared for the evening’s entertainment: Bud “Dr. Who” Carson and Mark Du ‘Velle Doyle. It was going to be an evening of blues music extraordinaire. Dub proudly pointed out the workmanship and materials that went into the renovation. “Every piece of wood in this place has a story,” he said. “Either it’s come from somewhere, or I took it apart. I’ve been collecting wood for a number of years. This is reclaimed wood that came from the old Natchez Landing Restaurant under the hill. We used the rafters to make the bar.”
He pointed to another spot, “This wood came from the Masonic Lodge over in St. Joe, Louisiana. Buddy Chauvin gave me these lights that came out of the Herold & Miller Coffee Company. We’ve got the Pasternack sign that was over in Haney’s juke joint in Ferriday. There’s a lot of historical stuff here. That white wood there came from Smoot’s; the colored wood over there came from a house over on Garden Street.”
Dub recalled his first memories of Smoot’s: “My first experience over here was with the Natchez Pecan Company [located just a few feet down the street] because that’s where I made my very first dollar on my own. It was back in 1963 or ’64, and I’d been picking pecans from Halloween to, like, the last week before Christmas. I was about ten years old.
“We had several big coffee sacks and got the yardman to load them up in my grandmother’s Cadillac. She took us over here, and I got about $40. That was a lot of money back then. We never had cash. If we went to the grocery store, we put it on a ticket. So right after that, we came down to Smoot’s, and I bought banana planks and Moonpies.
For those who were teenagers in the 1960s and 70s, memories of Smoot’s consisted of strolling into the store with a fake I.D. and false bravado to try to score a six pack of beer or malt liquor. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. “I remember one of my friends went in there once,” said Tommy Polk, who, like Rogers, also grew up in Vidalia. “… and tried to buy some beer. Mr. Smoot looked at her I.D. and said, ‘This isn’t you.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘No, it’s not.’ 
‘How can you tell?’
‘Because your earrings have different initials than the name on this I.D.’”
A trip to the Historic Natchez Foundation reveals that the area where Smoot’s is located was once the red-light district. Poring over old city maps, Foundation Director Mimi Miller remarked, “On the site in 1892, there’s a long rectangular building labeled ‘Negro Tenement.’ No porch, no nothing.”
She explained that the late Elizabeth Britton Conner had a scrapbook of the houses facing Broadway all along this block. “I’m not quite sure what she meant by it, but she wrote on it, ‘Where the white slaves lived.’ And whether that’s a reference to them having worked in textile factories or being prostitutes, I’ve never been sure of, because many of them worked in the textile mills, which were also located on Broadway,” said Miller.
Between 1897 and 1901, a two-story building appears on the map labeled “Armour Packing Co.” Then, between 1925 and 1939, the lot is empty. No building. But between 1939 and 1941, the building we know as Smoot’s appears, labeled “Grocery Store of George H. Smoot,” with a telephone number of 1246.

The building sat vacant. For Dub, though, who’d moved away for thirty-plus years, the little building was a persistent memory. “This was the epitome of Natchez for me,” he said. “I thought this building, in particular, because each time I’d come to Natchez, I’d drive around. Even forty-something years ago when I got out of high school, I’d always thought if I had a bar it would be right there.”
His vision has materialized. Dub said he’ll book primarily blues and Americana music. At the moment, Smoot’s specializes in craft beers but will have a full bar as soon as the liquor license comes through. For the time being, if you don’t want beer, you can bring your own liquor and Smoot’s will provide glasses, ice, and mixers for a small fee.
Smoot’s Grocery held a soft opening the weekend of the Balloon Festival in October, finally opening for real a few weeks before Christmas. By early January, he’d already hosted several top blues acts: Grady Champion, Kern Pratt, Mississippi Bigfoot, Will Kimbrough, Brint Anderson, and the Runnin’ Pardners, with many more to come.
“We’re part of the Americana [Music] Trail,” he noted, adding that Aubrey Preston, who spearheaded the music tourism website, told him he thought it was one of the best things that could’ve happened for Natchez. The blues bug has spread throughout the area. And that’s a good thing.
Smoot’s Grocery 
319 North Broadway Street
Natchez, Miss. 
(601) 870-6882 
To hear a bona fide blues musician sing about the Rhythm Club fire, listen to Howlin’ Wolf sing “The Natchez Burning” at