When it comes to aspirations for the future of downtown Pine Bluff’s Arts District, Jimmy “Catfish” Cunningham and Alderman Rev. Lloyd Holcomb Jr. are like a couple of kids on Christmas morning.
And their excitement is catching.
Asked where the nickname “Catfish” comes from, Cunningham said, smiling, “Because I love it so much. The one most delectable thing on this earth is catfish. Nothing is better or finer. I grew up two blocks from the lake here in Pine Bluff, and fishing was our way of life.”
Cunningham is the founder of a new organization titled the “Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance.”
He explained the DRBA and their vision for a tourism triumvirate between Pine Bluff, Greeneville, Mississippi, and Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“We’re a non-profit working to develop a travel corridor to highlight the cultural and geographical distinctions in what has been designated by Arkansas and Mississippi as the ‘Delta Rhythm and Bayous Highway’ along U.S. 65 S. and 82,” he said.
“I’ve written three books regarding Delta Blues, art and the African-American history of this area. I’ve found that the arts are most expansive in three counties across the Delta. They are Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is located, Washington County, where Greeneville is, and our own Jefferson County.
“Coahoma has developed its interpretation and infrastructure with numerous venues such as Ground Zero nightclub and Hobson Plantation, along with various music fests. In a recent poll, Clarksdale was rated in the top 10 music destinations outside of Nashville. With a population equivalent to Pine Bluff, it has managed to develop an incredible tourist magnet. What we want to do is pull together the strength of our similar narratives to empower tourism and cultural development for all three communities. Clarksdale is already well on its way. We want to bring Greeneville and Pine Bluff along as part of the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ legacy to serve as anchors for regional tourism.”
Referencing his associate, Cunningham further said, “As a Pine Bluff alderman, Brother Holcomb here helped usher through the City Council an initiative to create the Pine Bluff Arts District in the blocks stretching from Second to Fourth (avenues) running north/south and Walnut to Alabama running east/west. Part of the vision for this project includes public exhibits and wall murals, more art and history museums, along with enhancement of our existing museums. We want to shine the light on so much of the under-reported talent from here that holds such power all across every genre of the arts.”
To drive home his point, Cunningham said, “Pine Bluff has all these entertainers and artists, from gospel, blues, country, film and television who got their start here. For instance, the man who brought sound to motion pictures, Freeman Harrison Owens came from Pine Bluff. Uncle Billy Anderson invented the traditional film motif that was recreated in every western movie across the decades. Big Bill Broonsy brought blues music to Britain and set the stage in the 1950’s for the English blues explosion of the 60’s. And Chester Hines was the first African-American mystery writer. They all came from right here.”
With growing enthusiasm, he added, “Miles Davis’ grandfather had a farm on Noble Lake in Jefferson County that Davis came to visit every summer. Miles said his earliest musical influence came from the gospel music he heard wafting out of the dirt road country church at Noble Lake. He based his L.P., ‘Kind of Blue,’ which is the most popular selling Jazz record in history, on music inspired by his Jefferson County experience. We are a cultural Mecca that remains largely unknown to the public.
“The pivot plan we’re trying to make for our local arts district is to evolve from a single city working to share its incredible story to a regional narrative in the heart of the Delta and how all these places are connected in so many ways. We’re looking into the DNA of the blues and the social issues that led to its birth in the Delta.
“As we knit together a regional master plan, we’ll be able to draw in more tourism by putting together a package between sister cities.”
Cunningham continued: “We’ve gotten a combined grant from the Foundation for the Mid-South, Rockefeller Foundation, Southern Bank Corp and Hope Credit Union to help the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance research and establish a travel corridor between Pine Bluff and Greenville. We’ll use the funds for a series of meetings to develop the regional plan with specific goals and actions working in sync to compliment each other. We’re going to tell each other’s stories and send folks up and down the road from town to town.
“We’re looking at ways businesses can connect with businesses from city to city to enhance the overall club, museum, dining and lodging experiences of the region. Package deals, guided tours, float trips and much more will become a tremendous attraction for music fans both domestic and foreign. When it’s said and done, we hope to have complimentary Delta Rhythm and Bayous districts in each city.
“We’re holding an event at the Convention Center on Friday, Nov. 30 in a push to establish our credentials and honor a great native son, Bobby Rush. He is part of the legacy representing the rich history coming out of this place. At age 85, he’s one of the last great blues performers still out there touring the world. When I was a kid, before I ever saw Bobby Rush, I’d see these colorful posters put up around town advertising different acts like Little Milton, Johnny Taylor, Tyrone Davis and Denise LaSalle. Bobby Rush would be on every bill. They all wanted to play with him.”
Holcomb said that “half the people in this town are either related to, went to school with or are friends of Bobby’s family. I grew up on Third (Avenue) and all I ever heard as a kid was ‘Bobby Rush.’ He made such an impression on my early years that if I hadn’t become a preacher, I’d probably be a blues singer.”
Cunningham added, “When he was just a kid, Bobby played his first professional gig right here on Third (Avenue). He was paid in chitlins, hamburgers and seventy-five cents cash. He said he ate the chitlins, sold the hamburgers and saved the seventy-five cents. We are going to have a big party in the Convention Center (Friday) with fried catfish, spaghetti and peach cobbler, along with 50 art pieces on exhibit from 5-7 p.m. to help teach people what’s coming right out of our backyard.
“The art show will be followed with entertainment from Lady Di, the Brian Austin Band, Laron Macadoo and Marcus ‘Mookie’ Cartwright, among others. Bobby will cap off the evening recounting his iconic story and playing harmonica before we present him with renaming a section of Third Street to ‘Bobby Rush Way.’ It’ll be an evening of art, song, food, fun and dance.”
Catching his breath, Cunningham concluded with his infectious smile, “We want to begin to recognize the accomplishments of our fellow citizens and bring the kind of money and respect to our community it so well deserves.”
To pre-purchase $20.00 tickets for the event, visit Father and Son Clothiers or Novel T’s in Pine Bluff.