CLARKSDALE, Miss. (WMC) - When Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Morgan Freeman wants to slip away from it all, there is one place that has captured his heart: Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“I think this is sort of a sacred location,” he told WMC Action News 5’s Kontji Anthony in March from inside the Ground Zero Blues Club he co-owns with his best friend, former Clarksdale mayor and attorney Bill Luckett.
Clarksdale is a hamlet 75 miles south of Memphis, along the Mississippi Blues Trail with a population just under 15,000.
“This is literally, where the blues began. In these fields,” Freeman added as he pointed around.
Luckett met Freeman helping him sort out legal paperwork to build a home in Mississippi.
“We got to be fast friends and it’s been 25 years,” Luckett explained.
The two came up with a juke joint concept after talking with tourists who wanted to hear some blues while in town.
“So, he said, ‘We should put in a place,’ and I said, yeah,” Freeman smiled.
They then set out to transform a 100-year-old abandoned building along the train tracks at Delta Avenue into Ground Zero Blues Club.
“Here’s this internationally-known, Golden Globe, five-time nominated, one-time-winning Oscar guy in there with me and we’re shoveling debris,” said Luckett.
The club's grand opening came in May 2001.
“Morgan and I actually danced on that bar,” Luckett pointed out.
While Clarksdale strums out about double the number of annual music festivals than its 13-square miles, the juke joint is the town's crown jewel.
“We're the number one Blues Club in the nation, one of the top three live music venues in the world,” Luckett explained.
Freeman's connection to the club helped put it on the map, but the actor, dubbed by Hollywood as the "Voice of God,” may have been drawn to the location by other forces.
Legend has it that the birth of the blues came from musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49, a short distance from the club. A scenario that bears a question.
Kontji to Freeman: Do you see the irony, and the voice of God owns a juke joint, where a deal with the devil was made?
“Yeah. There is a certain irony here that I never noticed. You ever noticed that,” said Freeman as he looked at Luckett.
Freeman has long loved Delta music.
“Dancing. That was the thing to do, and it was the Lindy Hop. We got good,” he said.
Freeman is known to pop up at the club to cut a rug.
“He helped draw attention to the project and give it the star power, but it stands on its own. Everybody comes in,” said Luckett.
Outside the club, you’re greeted by furniture out of Luckett’s law firm, planters made from old tires and the occasional impromptu patio concert.
Inside, you’ll find a tapestry of checkered tablecloths, Christmas lights and beer signs.
Blues fans get down and dirty on the dance floor, dine on famed fried green tomato sandwiches and sign their name on pretty much anything.
Luckett says the John Hancocks range from Blondie to the late Mike Wallace, with so many signatures that many get covered up.
“We used to be kind of a best-kept secret," said Luckett. “Not anymore.”
Ground Zero Blues Club has been featured on nearly every travel network and food channel, and graced the pages of publications like National Geographic and the Washington Post.
”He’ll (pointing to Luckett) sometimes take headcounts," said Freeman. “You know, raise your hand. A group from Australia, some from Europe, from England. People are from all over the place.”
At its peak, the club booked 200 musicians a year and drew thousands of tourists to this small town, but that all changed in March, when the pandemic shuttered bars across the country.
The “Voice of God” turned to Twitter to bring us hope amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world is going through one of the most difficult times I’ve ever,” he said in a three-minute video.
"My friend Nelson Mandela once said, 'What counts in life is not the fact that we have lived, it is what difference we have made to the lives of others.' Even in this time of crisis, people are rising up and offering help,” he went on to say in the video.
The juke joint then pivoted to a virtual platform.
“We’re bringing you Ground Zero, Unplugged: The Quarantine Series,” Freeman said in a Ground Zero Blues Club YouTube video introducing Clarksdale native Cristone "Kingfish" Ingram.
Every week, Luckett brings in artists giving musicians the opportunity for income amid the pandemic. For now, you can tip them online at PayPal.me/GroundZeroBlues or GZBC_Clarksdale on Venmo, and dance in your living room like no one is watching, until Ground Zero Blues Club returns to its full Delta glory.
You can catch “Ground Zero, Unplugged: The Quarantine Series” every Thursday night here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZTW35VSwlm5gRscwfiVMvA.