By Fran Thompson
It’s impossible for me to write about The Flora-Bama without it getting personal.
I met my wife there in 1997.
I sang short acapella sets of Irish folk songs on the inside stage an easy 400 times. Much to owner Joe Gilchrist’s chagrin, I all but considered myself a possible/probable. I may be the only person that Joe bribed with free drinks to not get on stage and sing.
My first cover as a local newspaper publisher was a picture of Kenny Stabler rearing back to toss the first fish at the Spring of 1990 Mullet Toss. Bama’s food faire back then was Kent Sanderson and Bob-A-Louie selling sausage sandwiches out of trailers in the parking lot. George Ridder, our Funny Bones columnist, would soon follow with his Picker’s Grill.
Just after Bill Taylor opened Live Bait, he asked me how much the front cover cost. I told him we don’t sell the cover. “Are you saying that this picture of Joe, Pat and Trader Jon is not an advertisement?’’ he asked. I sold four covers to Bill that day and have been selling that page ever since.
I was still playing ball on the Baton Rouge to Ft. Walton rugby circuit in 1990. Rugby mates were constantly visiting me just to go to the ‘Bama, and I bet they all get a little misty eyed recalling those good times. During a recent interview, Pat McClellan said Sandy Ford and Brad Patterson both did the same when he gave them a a grand re-opening tour. “That’s when I knew we did it right,’’ McClellan said. “The Flora-Bama has always been a place, not just a space. We know that it means to people.’’
The first time I took my New Orleans pal Robert Lebreton there, bartender Mark Courier, as casual as could be, said “Hi Robert.’’ Mark’s dad had delivered Robert and just about every other kid born in Plaquemine, Louisiana in the 1950’s. I wasn’t even surprised. It’s that kind of place.
New majority owner John McGinnes, who both Pat and Joe said was even more passionate about creating the old Flora-Bama feeling than they were, was proud to point out that there were already a dozen or so bras hanging from the inside bar rafters a thousand signatures on the walls just 10 days into what will be 30 days of grand re-opening festivities at the Lounge on the Line. John gets what the Flora-Bama means to people. He’s been partying there ever since he was of age. “Probably before,’’ he said.
Rick Carter told me that Telluride was the first rock ‘n roll band that Joe (who was allergic to drums) ever booked in the ‘Bama courtyard and it wasn’t an easy sell. But the ‘Bama didn’t get any better than Telluride’s Kevin Derryberry singing my hometown Philly soul and slamming the Hammond B-3, unless it was when his Telluride mates Carter, Stan Foster and Barry Waldrep started coming in a couple days early and playing as the still very much alive and kickin’ Rollin’ In The Hay.
Unless it was Rusty McHugh’s comic genius or Jezebel’s Chillin’s try-not-to-dance sets or LeaAnn Creswell channeling Patsy Cline. Unless it was Nick Branch and Gove Scrivenor trading sets every Monday night, with Lillian’s own Guthrie Trapp playing guitar for both.
Unless it was watching a thousand kids screaming “dead armadillo” to a J Hawkins backbeat or the synchronicity of John Joiner, Larry T. Wilson and Rick Whaley playing together as one.
The Flora-Bama always packed them in during the tourist seasons. But the crowds seemed to grow exponentially summer after summer soon after Garth Brooks and Hank Jr. made country cool on SEC campuses, Playboy deemed it America’s best roadhouse and Sports Illustrated wrote a story about the Mullet Toss.
I grew up in a neighborhood full of taprooms where everybody knows your name, your dad’s name and your grandfather’s name. I spent six years exploring Big Easy bars in search of great music and fun times. More recently, I was lucky enough to sit inside LuLu’s and listen to the late Gatemouth Brown, the better-than-ever Will Kimbrough and the late Honeyboy Edwards while my children played outside. I rode my bicycle to see Paul Simon at the The Hangout last year and will do the same to see Wilco next month. My lucky life included a 13 year pre-Ivan stint living up the road from the ‘Bama on sand that Dr. Beach ranked the third best in the country. And I absolutely put its proximity to the Flora-Bama right up there with that beach on my quality-of-life index.
Heck Yeah, the Flora-Bama is personal to me. And a lot of others as well.