The United States of Mississippi
Roger Stolle’s journey from corporate America to Cathead, Inc., Clarksdale’s treasure trove of Delta blues history
Story & Photos by Casey Hilder
Arts | August 2015
“As a longtime blues fan, it suddenly occurred to me ‘Well, I should go see where it came from’,” he says. “So I was really on kind of a dead man blues tour. I had planned to see grave sites and that was it. There was one museum back then and it was small.”
Stolle’s 1995 road trip took place more than a decade before the Blues Trail existed, and very little information existed on acts like Big Walter Horton, Furry Lewis and Skip James. Moreover, Stolle would soon discover that many of the headstones and graves that held some of the older bluesmen were unmarked or eroded. With a patchwork history of the Delta in mind and several years from the advent of widespread Internet, he decided to look below the surface at a juke joint in the hill country of Chulahoma, Mississippi. It was at Jr.’s Place, a juke joint owned by bluesman Junior Kimbrough, where Stolle would have his first up-close encounter with the living blues. Surrounded by glossy folk art murals and juke joint décor of Christmas lights and scratched wood, this event was what Stolle describes as his “Alan Lomax moment.” “It was the beginning of being conscious of the fact that this was the place I wanted to spend a lot more time,” he says. “Junior sold the beers and performed, R.L. Burnside was there that night, along with all their kids and grandkids.”
Junior died in 1997 and his place burned to the ground soon after, but that chance encounter had changed the then-30-year-old marketing consultant’s outlook on life. He eventually honed in on Clarksdale as a base of operations, a place he decided had all the right ingredients for a blues lover to settle down: the infrastructure, the players and the history. “There was just something about Clarksdale,” he says.
Stolle soon left his job in St. Louis with a rough goal in mind. “When I moved down here it, was not to open a retail store — which is what I did – it was to organize and promote from within,” he says. Stolle’s mission — which he would also accomplish over the years — was to celebrate and document the Delta blues through film, writing, radio shows, recordings, booking and discovering new talent. He produced several documentary-style films about life in the Delta, including the recent We Juke Up in Here, which explores Mississippi’s surviving juke joint scene and heavily features local bluesman Big George Brock. Stolle had previously worked alongside Brock with his record label, Cathead Presents, which Stolle says was initially geared toward raising the aging bluesman out of obscurity. “Jeff Konkel is a friend of mine and we both have little record labels that we’ve recorded blues guys on,” he says. “We started collaborating on film projects like M for Mississippi, which is probably our best-known documentary.”
Following their initial mission to engage people in the Delta, Stolle and Konkel produced a road-trip style narrative, presenting an approachable concept for visitors packed with interviews and live performances. Showings of the film have been held as far as Geneva and Norway.
And with so much history, Stolle and company eventually needed a place to house the recordings that had piled up over the years, as well generate some much-needed income. “I needed a way to bring in cash flow,” he says. “But I also wanted to pull people in, get the public interested. That’s the kind of thing that can turn a two-hour visitor to Clarksdale into an overnight visitor.”
The unairconditioned interior of Cathead, Inc. boasts wall-to-wall folk art and the faint, musty smell that only a plethora of old records can produce. Presiding over the organized clutter is Roger Stolle, a hardcore blues fan and native of Dayton, Ohio. While Ohio isn’t the best place to develop an appreciation of the blues, the music struck a chord with Stolle, who took a fateful trip in the mid-nineties to discover the roots of its uniquely Mississippi sound.