Words by Ashley Locke
It was 1996 when Morgan Freeman decided to slip away from city life and make his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. “You can live anywhere you want! Why do you want to live in Mississippi?” Morgan had been asked that question more times than he could count, but his answer was always the same: “Because I can live anywhere I want. I was really attracted to Clarksdale. It made me wonder what I could do here.”
Local contractor Bill Luckett helped Morgan build his house on his ranch, settled just outside of Clarksdale. Over the course of the three years it took to finish the house, the two became close friends. Often times they were inseparable.
Good things come from gathering around the dinner table, and neither Bill nor Morgan could resist a good meal. “I’d say ‘Hey, do you want to go to Memphis for dinner?’ and we’d get in the car and go,” says Bill. “I remember one night we were heading to KC’s in Cleveland. That Macy Gray song came on the radio, and we were hollering that song driving down the highway together.”
It wasn’t too long before eating at restaurants together turned into owning a restaurant together. The two opened Madidi in 2001, bringing an “Americanized French” cuisine to Clarksdale. The upscale restaurant was closely followed by Ground Zero Blues Club, their second and grittier business venture.
“For a long time, people came to the Delta looking for the blues, but they didn’t know where to find it,” says Morgan. “I wanted Ground Zero to be where people come.”
People did come––people from the Delta, but also people from Chicago and New York. As word spread about the great musicians you could hear, people started coming from Iceland and Sweden. Morgan’s favorite part of it all? “Dancing all night long.”
The club completely revitalized the area, creating a tourist destination so popular that the entire downtown came to life. What used to be a row of quiet buildings, desolate after 5pm, turned into thriving coffee shops and restaurants. Clarksdale went from being a part of flyover country to being a go-to spot on the map. Sometimes it’s hard to find a parking spot. “Morgan has just been really promoting the area,” says Bill.
Morgan isn’t the only person helping create a Mississippi renaissance, but he was at the front of the movement. He’s known for being fiercely loyal to his friends, and the same can be said for his state. Mississippi has had a years-long out-migration problem, but Morgan wanted to show people that you don’t have to leave the state to live a good life––you just have to be willing to put in the effort to rebuild it. “Home is where the heart is, I’ve always found,” he says. “When I went back home to Mississippi, that was my comfort zone.”