Way back in the fall of 1986, on the recommendation of friend and legendary songwriter Hank Cochran, I made my first trip to the gulf coast of northern Florida, unknown territory for me at the time. The "Redneck Riviera," as it was called by some, is a very special territory indeed. But I'm speaking of another kind of special. I'm speaking of a man who upon meeting me was telling me of his little dream to have Mickey Newbury come and perform at his beach bar which sits on the state line, just before you enter Alabama. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?
The first time I pulled up to the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package on that foggy fall night, I still remember thinking, "Hank, what have you gotten me into?" Red Lane had exalted the praises of the place as well, back in Nashville; the beach house right on the gulf; the club no more than a hundred yards from the beach house; Jimmy Buffett's rumored stop-ins, etc. I was so built with anticipation by the time I got down there, I drove right past the place. Unassuming and somewhat nondescript, it looked like a roadhouse you might just as well pass and keep moving.
It was around midnight and I was road-weary from the eight-hour drive. I found my way around the package liquor counter in the front and walked into the long, smoky, dimly-lit bar. Sitting on a stool on the tiny stage, a man with a guitar and grayish hair was singing a very soulful country song. The crowd was thin. In front of the stage a handful of people listened closely. A round-faced man directly in front of the singer was totally into it. Somehow I knew this was Joe Gilchrist.
After introducing myself to Joe, I was immediately introduced to Ken Lambert, the man who had been singing. I was then thrust upon the stage (coaxed into remission) to do a couple of songs, in spite of my protests and road fatigue. I quickly recovered as the room responded in total appreciation.
I came to find out on that first visit and the following one that this was the Flora-Bama way. I can also say now, a little over eight years later, that the Flora-Bama is more than a place. It is a state of mind. It has become a favorite spot for anyone who wants to gear down from whatever it is that makes them uptight the rest of the time. Joe, along with co-owner and manager Pat McClellan, has created a most unique and fun experience which has simultaneously played host to locals, tourists, bikers, college students, servicemen and -women, movie stars, sports celebrities, and a long, long list of singers, songwriters, musicians and characters, famous or not.
But "famous" is not the point! The point is music, original music. There are, in my estimation, four things in the world that really mean anything to Joe Gilchrist. The songwriter is definitely one of them.
Joe's little package liquor store, which once had only a tiny bar with few tables in the back, is today a sprawling structure on Florida Hwy. 292 (or Perdido Key Drive) that includes a parking lot that takes in parts of Alabama. The "club" itself now has four bars, three inside and one out on the deck, which is about a hundred feet long. There is also a billiard and game room, an oyster bar and a plethora of Flora-Bama merchandise, as well as musical product by past performers up at the front counter. The walls are lined with photos and press clippings and an endless array of rustic and not-so-rustic articles and memorabilia. There are at least five major "events" a year now, including the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival (the only time the main bar is packed and also totally quiet for the performers). The other events are "people on the beach and all over the place" type things with the crowds screaming and the cash registers ringing along with the live music.
Mickey Newbury, one of Joe's biggest writing heroes, did eventually come and play and sing, along with many others we'll talk about.
In the last ten years or so, the word has definitely been spreading. Mentions in Playboy magazine; Jimmy Buffett's best-selling Tales From Margaritaville; in a song of Buffett's as well, "Rag Top Day" on an earlier album; mentions in other publications about the gulf coast; and good ol' word-of-mouth. Joe and company have released two multi-cassette collections of live songwriter festival performances. (To purchase live recordings write: Flora-Bama "Songwriters Tapes," 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, FL 32507, or phone: 904-492-0611 or 205-981-8555.) The music industry now takes part in the annual songwriter festival. And giving their general business a boost since 1988 has been their Florida lottery ticket handling.
But it wasn't always that way. Though it's kept intact its funky comfortable feel, the Flora-Bama has lost that great "hideaway" atmosphere it once had. But you can't stop progress, as they say. It has, however, created immense interest and appreciation for original music from not only the immediate area, but nationally, with mentions on The Nashville Network and a filmed special that is being shopped to several major networks. And to Joe and Pat I give great credit for that!
Next month, a few highlights from my visits to Flora-Bama land. Until then, I'll see you at The Rudyard Kipling on Feb. 11.
Alan Rhody is an award-winning songwriter and a touring performer. He is available for concerts, workshops and seminars. Inquiries: P.O. Box 121231, Nashville, TN 37212; phone 615-322-5363 (Double J Music Group).