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Music Tourism in the South | Blues at The Shack Up Inn

by Pablo Fuentes | Last Updated August 22, 2017
Music Tourism in the South | Blues at The Shack Up Inn

The Shack Up Inn embodies the intersection between music and cultural tourism.

A stay at one of their sharecropper shacks immediately immerses you in the history of plantation life while also immersing you in the live music scene at the birth place of the blues.

The Shack Up Inn started nearly 20 years ago as a single sharecropper shack on a plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Tourists interested in seeing what a plantation looked like started asking about renting the shack.

Fast forward to today, The Shack Up Inn has 19 shacks, can accommodate over 100 people, and has its own live music venue that has featured legends such as Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello.

In today's episode of Small Business War Stories, we spoke with Guy Malvezzi to learn how they got their start, why music tourism and much more.

Listen to the podcast:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Guy Malvezzi of The Shack Up Inn is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.


Tell me a little bit more about The Shack Up Inn, how did this get started? What was the original idea and why do this?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, we were coming out here and staying in my partner Bill's house over there. Where you've jammed when you have visited. And we were just sitting around, everyday, having a beer or whatever. These Europeans and Asians would come through just looking around because this plantation was significant in the fact that it is where the cotton picker was invented.

This is Hopson Plantation. It took International Harvester 17 years before the machine went into production. When it did, Mr. Hopson bought 13 of the first 16 off the assembly line. That in itself started the second wave of migration to the cities. People were out of work. A Cotton Picker could pick as much cotton as probably four, five, six, eight hundred people.

Pinetop Perkins, who was the keys player for Muddy Waters for a long time, he's from here, from Hopson right?

Guy Malvezzi: Pinetop is from a little town south of here called Itta Bena. The story is he got picked up by a bus in Itta Bena, in the late 30s or early 40s and he was asked, or told, "Could anybody drive a cotton picker?" And he got off the bus here and they had told him he was going to work for his Uncle Sam. Well he didn't realize that, he thought he had an Uncle Sam somewhere. Where, Uncle Sam was the government.

He was getting' picked up to be taken to the war. To be part of the war, probably as labor. So luckily he said, "I can drive a cotton picker" and that's how he got out of going to World War II.

Actually, in 2000 we found out, Ike Turner was on the grounds here and he wanted to see Pinetop and Ike over to see Pinetop. And we found out in a conversation between the two of them that Pinetop taught Ike how to play piano about a half a mile from here over on the Sunflower River, in a shack. Nobody really knew that until they hooked up and started bull shitting.

Yeah, so anyway, these Asians, back to how we started. Asians and Europeans were stopping by just looking at the plantation. And at the time, one shack had been moved onto the grounds. It was kind of like a little singer/songwriter shack. People started asking if they could rent it.

So you basically had the one big house and just one shack, and people wanted to stay there?

So, you know, one shack led to two shacks and two shacks led to four shacks. 1998 is when we started, so it’ll be 19 years this year. We've got 19 shacks today. And, then we've got the 10 rooms in the Cotton Gin. We've got 29 units over on this side of the track.

How was that progression, did you add them all at one time or was it like every year you add a new one?

Guy Malvezzi: No man, we didn't have any money. We just slowly, you know, we would add a shack or two when we got the money. And back in those days, shit, it'd just have to sit around 'til we scraped up enough money to renovate it.

So let's talk about that. How do you find a sharecropper shack, and how do you bring it here and how do you renovate it so that people will want to stay in it?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, I'm almost 62 years old. When I was a kid, I would pass, we're an hour from Memphis, so we would go by 10,000 shacks in between here and Memphis. But through the years, with the farm equipment getting larger in size, farmers did not need as much labor as they used to.

Then the shacks started disappearing. So people started calling us. Or, we would find a shack that was, you know, vacant and get in touch with the farmer. But most of them were people that would call us and say, hey you want this shack?

How do you even pick one of these up and move it? Do you have to disassemble it or do you just pick it up?

Guy Malvezzi: No, you just hire a moving company. They'll go in and they'll jack it up. Or they can get a trailer up under it and let it down on that trailer. Then they'll bring it in here.

That doesn't sound cheap. How much does it cost to move a shack?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, the last one that we moved by moving company was that shack down there, the Claremont Shack. It came from Claremont, Mississippi, which is six miles down the road.

We paid five grand to move it here. Which is a lot of money for us because my partner, Bill, who you know, was driving past it one day. And they had a backhoe out there and were tearing the front porch off of it and Bill stopped and said, you know, what are you all doing with it? And they say, oh we're tearing this thing down. He said, well hold on. So he came and got me. And we ran down there and went inside and basically you'd just jump around in the shack. If you don't fall through, then that means the floor's good. Then we got the moving company to move it here.

But the last couple of smaller shacks that we moved here were different. Just because it was so expensive to move that one. We got in touch with this guy who has a wrecker truck where the back will kind of slide, it'll tilt up and go slide down where they can get cars on it.

He can a move a small shack with it. And the last two that we moved here were like 600, 800 dollars. I mean, really cheap you know.  Beats the hell out of five grand.

Does that mean that from now on you're not going to add any more shacks? Or you just going to add, or are you still thinking about adding more shacks?

Guy Malvezzi: No, you know, like I said, I'm almost 62. Bill, he's about 65 or 66, it's like we're getting close to that, it's over stage, you know. With all the buildings, we could sleep over a hundred people on the grounds now. So, I mean how big do you want to get?

Unless somebody's listening to this, you know, little radio segment that just has a butt load of money they want to come buy a real cool operation. Then we're, then we'd be open to discussion.

I was unaware that the Shack Up Inn was for sale…

Guy Malvezzi: Anything's for sale at the right price, dude. You ought to know that. I tell you what, it's a recession-proof operation because in 2008 when the bottom fell out, our business went through the roof. And even with this last presidential election, kind of freakin' out over our international business, and you know, I've got a pretty good barometer as far as in the future, what's coming. My reservations tells me that Europeans and the Scandinavians and the Australians, they just saying screw Trump. We're coming to the Mississippi, the South. Yeah, no, it hasn't phased them.

Let's talk a little bit more about setting up the shacks. How do you balance keeping the authenticity and the awesomeness of the shack where you can go in there and stay and feel like you're having a authentic experience with the blues and Mississippi? And also, making it nice enough for people to stay?

Guy Malvezzi: Right, well yeah, you don't see sheet rock... We try to leave it as natural as possible. With the exception of we need running water in there. You need, you don't want an outhouse where people have to go outside to use the restrooms. We put restrooms and showers and that sort of stuff. Just your basic amenities. AC, heat, running water, shower, microwave, coffee maker, condiments, that sort of stuff.

That's amazing. So let's talk about the blues, man. You were born here in Mississippi, right?

Guy Malvezzi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

So you're from here. You've seen probably a lot of different stuff happen to the blues from, all the way from ... You know it used to be that nobody knew who Muddy Waters was. And then the Rolling Stones came here and asked: “How is that you guys don’t know who Muddy Waters is? We named our band after a Muddy Waters song.”

And then there's been a renewed interest in the blues and there's been kind of oscillations over the years. How do you see the interest in the region? And how do you see the history of people coming here to seek the roots of the blues?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, I found out about the blues through being a big album collector. I always bought LPs, even when 8-tracks and cassettes came out. I still bought, see and I kept my albums through the years. But in the late 60s, early 70s, they started putting credits on the backs of albums or on the labels.

So all of a sudden you start to see these names pop up. Fred McDowell on there. So it just started, and I was big into the Stones. All kids my age you know, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and loved early Fleetwood Mac.

Can you walk me through the last 20 years? Have you seen more people coming to Clarksdale seeking the roots of the blues? Have you seen fewer people?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, of course we see way more now because we've got something that draws them here. Whereas before, back in the mid-90s, my office was upstairs in a building downtown I could look down. And these people, we called them flip-floppers or tattooed, people. Lots of Europeans, lots of New York, LA people doing cross-country trips but they just didn't look like the local Delta people. They would come in and look around. And they would turn around and leave. And I'm sitting up there one day with a friend of mine and I just said, shit man we need something to sell these guys.

And he said, yeah. He said let's go meet with local tourism and the county administrator and talk to these guys. So, we take these suits out you know. Take them to a restaurant, feeding them, we're trying to talk about this blues market that's out here that's coming to Clarksdale. We're not promoting. We don't even know shit from Shinola about it, you know?

We don't know what to do. Except they're here, looking around, and they would buy something if we had something for them. So we're sitting at a restaurant there. We fed them, we're picking up the tab, talking to them about what we think needs to happen. And one of the guys looks down at his watch and he says, oh wow, it's a quarter til eight, we've got to go home and watch Dallas. Or one of these soap opera nightly soap opera shows that was running back in the 90s. And he looked at the other person that said yeah. And they start moving their chairs out andI said, “we're not finished.” He said, “oh yeah but we've got to go watch the show.” And I looked at my friend and I said, this fuckin' meeting is over. The bottom line is, if we want to do something, we're going to have to do it ourselves. We're going to have zero help from local or state on this deal. They don't see the big picture. And that's basically what we did.

Have you seen the attitude of local or state authorities change toward the Delta since music tourism has become more prevalent?

Guy Malvezzi: Yeah. You got some people that are never going to get it. That they don't like the blues, I don't know, it might be a black thing, might be the music they don't like. It's a whole devil thing, you know.

Well F 'em. That's the attitude we took. It's a lot easier to go talk to somebody who understands what you're talking about rather than trying to change somebody's mind. You're just wasting your time. And their time.

It's probably a good life lesson in general, right? Find your audience and the people who get your message…

Guy Malvezzi: Yeah, yeah, you can't change the world so yeah. They've changed. We used to walk into restaurants years ago and people would say, “you still got all those weird flip-flopper pony-tailed people staying with you?” But all of a sudden all these weird flip-flopper pony-tailed people started spending some money, eating with them. And they realized that these people are not a threat to anybody. They're just here to give us money. They want to have a good time and head back home and tell people about it. And that's our clientele.

I found out about this because of the blues guitar workshop but I presume most of your advertising, or most of your customers come from word of mouth? Do you do any advertising at all?

Guy Malvezzi: Very little. We'll advertise when we need to spend money. We're starting to advertise now but only in target markets. Like Living Blues magazine is going to do a Clarksdale Issue here in June/July, so we bought a three-month campaign there.

And then there's some blues festivals that we'll help out that will need some money. You can't help them all. Once you open that floodgate, they wear your ass out.

We're real cautious about where we put our name. We don't want our ads in a upper-end snooty-ass magazine that, you know, there are just some people that wouldn't like it here. And we don't want them here.

What's the percentage of people that are from abroad here versus America?

Guy Malvezzi: Forty percent international, about forty percent come from outside of a 400-mile radius still within the US and Canada. And the last twenty percent are local, regional…Memphis, Jackson, St. Louis, etc.

Let's talk a little bit about the superstitions associated with this place. This place has a magical feeling. You sit here and like we're about to hit the golden hour here where the lights are going to start hitting every piece of rust perfectly. So what are some of the superstitions and stories associated here with the Shack Up Inn and Hopson's Plantation?

Guy Malvezzi: Well, we have people that'll see visions of like, in their room at three in the morning…or this door closed and nobody was there. That kind of stuff.

They're telling us, you know, well this, I put this here when I went to sleep and I heard what sounded like footsteps and it was over in the other room the next morning so. My question to all of them, which always just shoots their sherry to shit, you know, to hell and back like…Was there any alcohol and/or drugs legal or illegal involved? And they always say, pretty much, yes. I don't pin them down as to which of those three things, so.

You got some people that they want to walk away from here and say, hey, place is haunted. In a cool way. No threatening ghosts here.

Tell me more about the Juke Joint Chapel, the live music venue you have here. Who are some of the folks that have come through here and played? I

Guy Malvezzi: Oh yeah, you know, you just never know from day to day who's going to pop in here. Charlie Musselwhite recorded a Grammy-nominated album live here. And it was kinda weird because Robert Plant made a comment to my partner Bill. Bill told him, he said, guys, guy wants to make a live recording room out of this. And Robert said, no way that's going to happen in this room, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, I got a sound engineer. I got a acoustic professor from the University of Mississippi, old hippie boy came over here. And he mic’ed it up and pinged the run while I was building it.

I explained to him, I said we don't have the money for sound panels and all that stuff and I don't want a sterile sound anyway. So he said, look man, put cypress up as high as you can here and ended up with a fantastic-sounding room.

The tin is corrugated so the less flat, hard, flat surfaces you have, the better you have, the better it is. And then I sprayed that ceiling. That really dampened the sound down so actually when the sound goes out, it never bounces straight back to you. That's where you run into your problem. It gets kicked over to the next wall. Which kicks it over and it's just a total mess.

So if people are interested in coming to the Mississippi Delta and recording, how would they go about doing that? Do they just contact you and you can set it up with them?

Guy Malvezzi: Yeah, they give us a call. We probably record one person out of 50. I mean these are people that want to come in and cut an album here. We're not in it for the money. We don't want to just say, oh well that was recorded at the Shack Up Inn. We want to make sure it's cool. And there's a lot of uncool bands out there. You know what I'm talking about?

We want the right sound, the right band. I mean, if it's a band that doesn't have their shit together, I don't care what kind of recording engineer and/or equipment or room you've got. You ain't, you're gonna sound like shit.

What would you say is your number one business lesson or piece of advice you would have for people thinking about starting a small business or people who are currently operating small businesses?

Guy Malvezzi: Well just like us. When we started this thing, we were renting the property. And I had a bunch of retail stores in the state of Mississippi. And one thing that I knew when our business got good, the landlord was going to go up on the rent. And at the time, the landlord was one of our partners.

So I kind of went to two other guys. We had five of us involved. I went to the two guys that I knew would agree with me and I said, we need to buy this property.

They were like, well we'll never pay it off. And I said, well, we'll never make any money unless we buy this property because all of our money's going to go to paying rent on the place. So what I'm telling people out there is, we had zero support from the town. None of the local banks would touch us and we were just always persistent. Every time I'd see the bankers downtown after the first initial presentation idea that the local banks when they said we can't help you. I'd just say, hey man, you better onboard. We ain't going to need you in a while.

And pretty much after about a year's time, now and then I'd see one of the local bankers. And I'd fuck with them, basically. Better get onboard, dude. Well anyway one of the bankers calls me out of the blue and he said, Guy, you know we had a board meeting this morning? We're going to loan you that money. And we were looking at probably 350,000 dollars to buy the property. I wanted to build the rooms over in the Cotton Gin, I wanted this, so this was substantial for us it was.

What I'm telling people is I had no local support in town. And after the first banker called me, ten minutes later the second local banker called me. The word had already gotten out. And he told me, he said, man I think I'm missing the boat. Like you just said. And I said, well you are missing the boat, Willis. And he said, can I have some of their note? And I said, look you work it out with them. I don't give a damn. Long as your interest rates are in line with theirs, you can have it.

So anyway, people tell you no, no, no, no, no. Then, maybe you need to go talk to somebody else. If you believe in your heart that it can work. It's just like when I told my mother that we were had this thing going and I was going to sell all my retail stores. She had a bad heart, she'd always would lay down and she sat up out there. Off the couch and looked at me. And she said, “you're on dope again, aren't you?” I said, you know I was never off of it Mom, but just believe me on this.

And a couple years later before she died, we'd started getting so much press. New York Times, Cox News Group which covers Atlanta, Detroit, LA. I mean, she was getting articles from all over her friends from all over the United States where I'm quoted in there.

You know, so she said, “I think you did right.” She died thinking I did right.

Where do you want to go in next 10 years? You talked about being happy with the capacity that you have right now. There continues to be a lot of new festivals and blues interest here. Where do you see this in 10 years?

Guy Malvezzi: Business has increased every year since we've had it. I just, I see it increasing. I just checked in a couple from London that was here four years ago. You know, it's still on their mind. This place stays with you.

Where can people find you? So it's ShackUpInn.com?

Guy Malvezzi: That's it, man. Type it in just right or you'll get a porn site. The words, Shack Up are trigger words for pornography.

You guys do any social media at all? Instagram or Facebook?

Guy Malvezzi: Half-assed, you know. Not really, we just ... When people leave here, they talk about their experience here. And they're the ones that do the face, Facebook, FaceTime, all that face stuff.

Well, Guy it's been an honor to have you on this show. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your small business war stories with us. And best of luck to you.

Guy Malvezzi: Man, good seeing you again.

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If you have any questions or comments about today's episode, please leave them below.

Topics: small business war stories, podcast

Pablo Fuentes

Written by Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes is the CEO of Proven. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and a blues guitar player and builder.

 

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