Cover: The former Como, Mississippi Stuckey’s where “Mississippi” Fred McDowell used to pump gas even after he became famous. Image courtesy Mid-South Retail Blog via flickr.

It’s amazing sometimes how cross-country road trips often lead to some great stories — tales that let us know how much the history of Stuckey’s is interwoven with the history of our country, its culture, and its people.  

Take, for example, the story of Fred McDowell.

Make a Stuckey’s Stop

As the legend goes, a young blues historian by the name of George Mitchell was driving around the hill country of Mississippi in the late summer of 1967, looking to photograph and record a seminal blues singer who lived somewhere around the city of Como. Unable to find exactly where the entertainer lived, Mitchell pulled into the local Stuckey’s to get some gas and ask about the bluesman’s whereabouts.

Another view of the former Stuckey’s located in Como, Mississippi. This one is courtesy of Retail Retell via flickr.

When the attendant came out to pump the historian’s gas, George asked him, “Do you know a man by the name of Fred McDowell?”

“I sure do,” the attendant replied. “You’re looking at him.”

After explaining to Fred why he was looking for him, McDowell invited him over to his house that night and Mitchell got his photos and recordings.

The Father of the Hill Country Blues

Though often billed as “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, he was actually born and raised in Rossville, TN, sometime in 1906 or 1907 (McDowell never really knew the date himself). His music often reflects the sounds he heard growing up there — a blend of northern Mississippi’s energetic juke-joint riffs and the tough-as-old-boots blues he picked up during the many years he spent in the Mississippi Delta.

Today, Hattiesburg Mississippi’s Stuckey’s still thrives just a few miles away.
Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey

McDowell first learned to play slide guitar from watching a relative play his guitar using a polished beef bone. However, it would be Eli Green, a long-time neighbor and friend, who would teach McDowell how to really play. They met each other near Hudsonville, MS, on a farm that McDowell sharecropped. They became fast friends, often traveling around the Delta and playing the blues in towns like Cleveland and Rosedale. In fact, later on in his life, McDowell would adopt Greene’s Write Me a Few of Your Lines as one of his signature songs, in homage to his tutor and friend.

George Mitchell wasn’t the first music historian to go to Como, MS looking for McDowell. Eight years earlier folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him, and the depth and originality of McDowell’s music brought him worldwide acclaim. He is often referred to as the “father of the Hill Country Blues.”

“I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll”

Even though he played the electric guitar, he would be sure to let his audiences know, “I do not play no rock n’ roll.” Along with the blues, he played spirituals like You Gotta Move. McDowell recorded it in 1965, but it became more popular after a little group of musicians from England by the name of the Rolling Stones covered it for their 1971 album Sticky Fingers.

The only reason for “Sticky Fingers” these days is because you’re eating a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll from our Hattiesburg, Mississippi Stuckey’s location.
Image: Stuckey’s Corp. / Stephanie Stuckey

Though McDowell was able to support himself on what he made from music, he never gave up his job pumping gas at Stuckey’s. Indeed, Stuckey’s was like his second home — he hung out there, had an office there, received his mail there, and took phone calls there from agents who would book him to play at folk and blues clubs all over the country.

“Mississippi” Fred McDowell passed away at Baptist Hospital in 1972. He is buried at Hammond Hill M. B. Church cemetery north of Como wearing a silver lamè suit given to him by the Rolling Stones. Over his head is a marker purchased by Bonnie Raitt, a longtime admirer of McDowell’s, through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.

Incidentally, the familiar-looking building of the former Stuckey’s location is still there on the corner of I-55 north and Mississippi 310, and now houses an auction business.

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