When it rains, it pours. The devil is in Mississippi this summer, flooding the lowlands with a shimmery, soulful air that people like to call the blues. He’s at the corner of Yazoo and 3rd Street, spitting into his palm, shaking hands with Lala Craig. The deal is done. It’s been sizzling in her veins since 1962.
That deal made Lala Craig a blueswoman. And really, Lala Craig is as “blues” as she is “woman,” as “woman” as she is “blues.” Gruff, lush, and willfully soul-stirring, her vocals have the bluesy friction of Janis Joplin, had she smoked cigars and made it past 60. When she sings, her voice batters the crowd like baseball-sized hail. No one is safe. It slaps you, it grills you, and it rock-a-bye-babies you. It grabs you by the collar and rattles you up and down. It’s unrelenting. When it rains, it pours.
Lala Craig has sung the blues all over the world, but I caught her at the Bluesberry Café in Clarksdale, Miss., on a dwarfed, oak stool smoking a cigarette before her set. As a girl, she toured with her family’s country band in California. But she looks more Southern than West Coast, more river than ocean – she’s kept around only the on-the-nose parts of the Haight-Ashbury look, like a pair of peace-sign earrings studded with rainbow jewels.
When she climbed on stage, she exclaimed, “Wow, everyone’s here today!” I counted a total of twelve people in the audience. One of the café’s patrons, a man in cargo shorts and a striped polo, twiddled with the Fender as Lala Craig barked orders. It was her backup guitarist. He made an earnest attempt to come on stage too, but she squashed that fast enough with a snappy, “I’d like to start this one alone.” The drummer was just as meek. After every set, he’d scurry off stage to fetch a paper towel and a water bottle for Lala Craig, so she could wipe the sweat from her brow.
Blues is not the jumpy kind of stuff you’ll get in a coffee shop. It’s no background music. It’s a serious affair in the Mississippi Delta, as real as God or rain, and just as demanding too. And it’s ritualistic. When Lala Craig sings the blues, she throws off her flip-flops, and her toes grab the bottom rung of the keyboard. A sip of what she described as “the hops—beer in a respectable Solo cup” greases her lips before every track, so she can really shoot you in the chest with that first yelp.
And Lala Craig is a masterful songwriter, as long as you’re there for the whole set. She’ll come out with an aching ballad about a love affair gone wrong, enough to make your heart twist. Then she’ll top it off with a song about dogs. “I sing about unrequited love and dogs, because that’s what I know” she explains. “And blues is about singing what you know.”
I was under her spell—but my plate was empty, and the fedora-wearing waitress was giving me a sour look. I passed Lala Craig on my way to the car. She was plopped on the same oak stool, smoking another cigarette. “You heading out?” she asked, her chin raised slightly. At eighteen, I like to think I have the lipstick and credit cards to make me a bona fide adult, but hell—I felt like a goggle-eyed newborn next to Lala Craig. How could I go on about feminism and Wicca and orgasms with a woman like this walking around? “Y-yes,” I stammered. She chuckled. It was no use.
I drove past the corner of Yazoo and 3rd, hoping I could spot a deal-making devil for myself. But this was Mississippi. I was hopelessly out-of-my-element, out-of-touch and out-of-tune, and no blueswoman has scrawny calves. Oh well. The rain started. It poured. I sped straight out of town.