Authors: Ken Wells
What began small is nowadays an eleven-day performance event featuring a wide spectrum of music genres and spread over sixteen venues including the Bama, usually starting the first Thursday in November. It typically draws about 200 songwriters and features songwriting workshops put on by the likes of Larry Butler, Kenny Rogers's producer, and a hit songwriter himself. One result is that Gilchrist and the Bama have earned serious and respected places in American roots music circles. It's also true that the festival attracts thousands of music-loving (and beer-loving) fans to the Bama and other nearby venues at a time when lots of places around here used to roll up the sidewalks and wait for spring. In fact, the whole thing came about because Gilchrist (again) had a knack for listening to the quasi-commercial instincts of his employees. The festival is named in honor of a lovably cantankerous African-American who, well past his ninety-first birthday, was the Bama's night watchman. Mr. Frank, as he was called, died at age ninety-five a few years back. But for years, he patrolled the bar after hours with two six-guns slung low on his hips; he never had to use them because people seemed to know Brown wasn't a man to mess with. All he usually had to do to prevent fights was to tell the would-be perpetrators: “Now, you boys don't have to be like that. What would your mommas say?”
Looking around the Bama one incorrigibly slow November night, Brown decided the bar didn't have to be like that (i.e., empty) either. An enthusiastic fan of live music, he came up with the notion that a slow-month festival featuring local songwriters could be fun
help pay the bills by attracting crowds. Gilchrist defines the Bama's ethic as “doing well while doing good.” This was right up his alley. It's also turned out to be a key building block in constructing a legendary beer joint.
If you spend any time with Joe you realize he could talk this stuffâmusic, songwriting, and songwritersâall day long. He's basically obsessed. He's such a Mickey Newbury fanatic that he convinces me to drop by the Bama's gift shop and buy the complete Mickey Newbury seven-CD collection, with the promise that if I don't like every single song he'll send me my money back. (He doesn't tell me it's $110, plus tax.)
Gilchrist can also discourse on a variety of other subjectsâhistory, art, politics, and sportsâwith the ease and practiced manner of the high school history teacher he used to be back in Pensacola forty-five minutes away. He quit teaching because it just seemed too passive for a man of his inclinations; he wanted to be in on the action somehow. For a while he thought the action might be in selling booze wholesale, so he signed on with the Lewis Bear Co., an old-line beer and liquor distributor owned for generations by the family of a Pensacola high school chum, Lewis Bear Jr. Gilchrist, by his own reckoning, just wasn't very good at jaw-jawing on the phone or cold-calling on bar owners or the managers of package stores set in their liquor- and beer-buying ways. So his liquor-selling tenure ended abruptly when “they kind of fired me,” he recalls. Still, he worked at it long enough to become charmed and familiar with the bar business. Well, true, he had some previous experience. “Having spent much of my misspent youth hanging out in various and sundry barrooms,” he says, “owning a bar seemed a natural fit.”
And twenty-four years later, guess what? The Lewis Bear Co. sells about seven million cases of Budweiser and other Anheuser-Busch products a year and the Flora-Bama is its biggest bar accountâastonishing since there are beachfront beer joints in nearby Pensacola and Panama City that dwarf the Bama in size. Gilchrist tells that story (which the Lewis Bear people confirm) with the same kind of understated relish that Bill Gates probably feels when he gets to mention that he never finished college.
Gilchrist's employees will tell you that beyond his business savvy and gift of gab, his other notable trait is a wry, sometimes anarchic sense of humor. One example: rumors that the Bama is for sale sweep the beaches from time to time, a legacy perhaps of the fact that the bar originally sat on four sandy acres until Gilchrist and partners a few years ago sold off a goodly chunk on the Alabama side to a developer. A high-rise condo called the Phoenix 10 and its parking garage now cast long afternoon shadows on the Bama, and Gilchrist still catches some flak from regulars who liked the joint shadow-free. (His real regret, Gilchrist says, is that under pressure from some of his early investors, “we sold the property too soon.”)
The episode left some of the faithful worried about Gilchrist's long-term commitment, since practically nobody believes the bar would be the same without him. A couple of years ago, with sales rumors more rampant than ever, he shocked everybody by announcing that he
sold the place to a syndicate of Montana rodeo cowboys. He called a press conference to introduce the new owners. A press mob showed up, as did some deeply concerned beer drinkers, as did one of the cowboy buyers dressed in full cowboy kit. Plans for a radically revised Bama were unfurled and given out, and it was only when the press folk flipped the plans over did they see “April Fool's!” scrawled on the back.
The joke backfired somewhat when it was later discovered that the rent-a-cowboy Gilchrist had used turned out to be wanted by the law in another state; Joe hadn't thought his prop, who had become a recent Bama patron, needed a background check. Still, Gilchrist's role as a kind of Merry Prankster serves him well as a saloon-keeper; this was just another brick in the Bama's wall of lore.
I caught up with Gilchrist for the first time on an exploratory trip to the Flora-Bama two weeks before the eighteenth annual Mullet Toss. He'd warned me that he'd be kind of hard pressed to sit still very long during what he called the “insanity of Mullet Week,” where his duties veer between mule skinner and parade marshal. The Toss turns out to be the beer-soaked climax to an eight-day series of events that is equal parts revelry, promotion, and public service. There's the Mullet Man Triathlon (including a Mullet Woman division) the weekend before the Toss; the Mullet Swing Golf Tournament midweek; and in many years, depending on timing, the Mullet Week Easter Egg Hunt. All of these Mullet-badged events attract crowds (more than 500 people race in the triathlon and another 175 or so participate in the golf tournament) and keep the Bama very much in the public eye. Mullet Week, in fact, has become an evergreen for the local and regional press; the Toss, as you might imagine, makes a couple of minutes of pretty good local television.
The events also all have a charity component (duly noted in event literature and on the Bama's Web site). A portion of the golf tournament's $175 entry fee goes to a cancer foundation. The 711 people who will enter the Mullet Toss this year will pay $15 each to enter; the fee gets them an official Mullet Toss T-shirt but some of it goes each year to area youth groups. Altogether, the Bama gives away about $20,000 a year to various charities, most of that Mullet Week money. Of course, most revelers pay a $5-a-day cover charge to get into the Bama on Toss weekend, and the bar mandates that all who congregate on the beach within proximityâeven the public beachâpay the cover charge and buy their beer and booze from the Bama. So, again, doing good clearly doesn't interfere with doing well.
I'd driven to the Bama from New Orleans with a friend named Dell Long, who, as coincidence would have it, had been hired as a publicist by Gilchrist on a couple of Flora-Bama projects. One was a Bama-organized effort, in the months just after 9/11, that made 400 beach-area rental condos, plus free air or train travel, available to the families of New York City firemen and policemen killed in the terror attacks. Gilchrist had also led a group of 100 Panhandle businesspeople and ten homegrown musicians to Manhattan to spend some money in the wounded city to try to help pump up its economy, and try to entertain them, too. Long, a red-haired steel magnolia in her late fifties, had for years been the publicist for the legendary radio DJ Wolfman Jack and is one of those people who could charm a rabid dog. Gilchrist had hired her to, among other things, organize a tribute party to cops, firemen, and rescue workers; she'd coaxed Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel into donating a lavish space and letting the Gulf Coasters bring in their home-cooked seafood.
I was down in New Orleans for this book, trying unsuccessfully to get a Budweiser distributor to let me ride through the French Quarter on a beer truck, when I ran into her. When she heard I was interested in the Bama, she told me about her dealings with Gilchrist, including a story about a funny moment that had transpired during the Waldorf soiree. It seems that one of the tag-along Bama musicians, not exactly living up to Waldorf dress codes or table manners, was mistaken for an intruding bum as he pawed shrimp, unencumbered by toothpick or napkin, from a silver platter. He was about to be bounced when Long intervened. Anyway, she volunteered to introduce me to Gilchrist. I acceptedâin fact it was a deal closer.
Face it: there are almost 295,000 licensed “on premise” places in America that serve beer; even after subtracting hotels, restaurants, sports venues, and bowling alleys, that leaves a lot of beer joints. Quite a few hold annual events equivalent to the Mullet Toss. I could go watch one anywhere. But I was leaning toward the Bama precisely because it
an obscure dive resisting its popularity like some Mississippi juke joint that only locals could guide you to. It seemed a paradox: a bar that had managed to capture something of that very mystique by assiduously managing its dive-bar image. It was a beer joint that, according to its Web site, had a special-events coordinator. From the Web site you could also learn that the Bama had been written up, in the same “you-gotta-check-out-this-crazy-place” way, in a lot of national publications,
among them; it was even featured in John Grisham's evil-law-firm thriller
. And I'd not yet met many saloon keepers who hire publicists. In light of all that, the Bama being named one of
magazine's greatest American dive bars seemed about as accidental as Microsoft's becoming a software juggernaut.
I did wonder, though: would it feel like the real deal, or would it feel like a biker bar set in Disney World?
I admit this question was only peripheral to my mission, but I am fond of bars and I like to think I can tell a pure one from a phony. Like Joe Gilchrist, I'd spent a fair amount of my youth exploring them. I'd learned a lot as a cub reporter on my weekly hometown paper back in Houma, Louisiana, by deconstructing school board stories and cop features with pals over $2 pitchers of Miller Genuine Draft at Curley's Lounge, a dark and dingy downtown hole-in-the-wall. It was run by a crusty (and bald) retired air force sergeant whom everybody called Curley and whose real name nobody ever seemed to know. Curley liked it that way. I was on as good terms with Curley as anybody but he kicked me out one night for kissing my girlfriend at the dark table way at the back of the bar, even though we were about the only people there. When the next night I asked him why, he told me it was the way we were kissing that bugged him, not the kissing itselfâimplying that I had a lot to learn in the kissing department. From that moment on I knew Curley was a keen observer of the human condition. (I also developed a keen desire, as yet unrequited, to be a bartender one day.)
As a journalist who has traveled widely across the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, I have found bars to be perennially reliable oases in strange towns and foreign countries, not just places where you can get a beer and take the sting out of the day but places where you can get the real dope about a place, plus pick up story ideas. We scribes call this Reporting from the Mahogany Ridge. Anyway, I collect bars, metaphorically at least, the way some people collect beer cans, or shampoo bottles from motel rooms. I was plenty curious about the Bama.
I liked the place as soon as I darkened the door. It was a Friday night about 9:00
, and we joined a line of people waiting to pay the $5 cover. Dell Long being Dell barged up ahead into the crowd before I could stop her to announce that a journalist writing a beer book was coming through and to convince the door person to waive the cover since Gilchrist was expecting us. I figured it was easier to go along than hold up the line in a discussion about journalistic ethics, and why it was necessary for me to pay my own way into the bar. I would just catch the doorman later. This did have the effect, though, of having an attractive woman at the door buttonhole me as I squeezed by to say, “You oughta go interview my husband. He knows everything about beer or at least everything about drinking it. In fact, we're getting divorced over beer.”
She laughed when she said it, so I felt I should laugh, too.
The Bama, I would learn, is a bit of a maze, and as we pushed through a small outer bar into the first bar with a bandstand, people were thick as schooling snapper. A group called Jezebel's Chill'n was onstage, playing stuff that sounded like a cross between rockabilly and blues. They were loud, people were clapping and swaying along, and some people were even trying to dance, though, as far as I could tell, there was not an official dance floor (not that that ever stopped a beer-enthused, dance-minded person in any bar I'd been in). I later learned that many of the dancers were elementary school teachers in town on one of those seminar boondogglesâthey were certainly dancing like they didn't have school in the morning. Pitchers of beer stood on every table and the beleaguered servers behind the bar, where every stool was taken, were bobbing about and jabbing at beer taps like harried prizefighters. And this room, with maybe a couple of hundred people crammed in it, turned out to be the smallest part of the action.