When the directions say “turn right at the cinder-block building with ‘Used Tires’ painted on the side,” you have to wonder where the dark and questionable route is leading you. But when you pop up on the road and see dozens of other people unloading coolers and lawn chairs, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Gip’s Place, one of the last, great juke joints.
For 60 years, Henry (Gip) Gipson has worked as a gravedigger by day and bluesman by night. Passing his ramshackle house, the end of the driveway transports you into a magical musical world. Christmas tree lights and tinsel illuminate the tin shack where the band plays. The soft glow grants mystical status even to the rusted-out lawn mower and dried-up paint cans. The smell of ribs and catfish infuse the grounds with the irresistible scents of a southern summer. And the crowd settling in at old industrial spools and picnic tables ranges from the family emerging from the Mercedes to the Harley riders to the neighbours, working-class African Americans who may still be wearing garage coveralls.
At 7 p.m., Gip plays his guitar with hands that look as large as his gravedigger’s shovel. At 9, the official show begins, after a prayer and a reminder about the rules: No drugs, no cussing and no saggy pants (Gip hates droopy drawers).
Bring your own libations and enjoy some of the nation’s top blues players in a setting that defines authentic. Like Gip’s Place, the music in Birmingham, Ala., is real. The roots of almost every modern music genre sprouted here: country, rock, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, hip hop and rap. Virtually every little bar in town offers a live band, a trio or at least a guitarist with a voice that carries.
Music is pervasive in the culture. In the song Sweet Home Alabama, the Swampers have “been known to pick a song or two.” At a recent dinner with Swamper Charles Rose, I asked him to name the most famous person he had ever played with. When pressed, he said, “Well, I’d have to pick between Elvis, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.” Just the most iconic musicians of their time. All of them have been in Alabama hunting for local pickers and, in the case of Charles, horns. Many recorded at local studios. Look for the Charles Rose Trio or Muscle Shoals Horns to hear them play.
Walking along the musical strip in the Lakeview district in the Southside area, you can hear almost any genre, live. You’ll hear it blaring from bars and music clubs: the Tin Roof, The Rare Martini, Innisfree, Nana Funks, Oasis, the Barking Kudu and even Slice, the pizza joint. Just take your pick. A good place to start is Lou’s Pub, where you can have a drink outside and hear what’s playing nearby.
Up the road a few blocks is WorkPlay, an Alan Hunter venue (remember him? he was one of the original MTV VJs). WorkPlay spans from Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys to the Blind Boys of Alabama gospel and everything in between. A funky bar outside the music hall offers a good place to hear enough to know if you want to buy a ticket.
Is indie music more your groove? For healthy living, you can get vegan chili, voted the best chili in town – some say that’s just wrong – and listen to indie rock at Bottletree.
But if it’s sexy love ballads you want, venture around to Ona’s behind Pepper Place, near Bottletree. Be sure to dress to the nines: Ona Watson is all about sensuality on Saturday nights; it’s no wonder the upscale black men bring their magnificently coifed ladies in full party regalia. Ona loves the ladies and welcomes all to his dance floor.
Up the hill, Five Points South turns up the volume. Start in the afternoon at the Garages, where chauffeurs once waited for the call to bring down the Model T. Now a semi-defunct collectibles place, you may sit in the relaxed enclosed courtyard next to a marble statue and a famed author or porcelain sink and a city council member. It has been listed as one of the best bars in the country.
A few blocks down the hill, Zydeco music hall hosts regional bands in its upstairs ballroom. And across the street in Cobb Lane, the Blue Monkey specializes in martinis and features a jazz pianist. Two more blocks down the hill, enter the Five Points South entertainment district where a walkable pentagram leads to restaurants and music. Clubs Crush and Envy offer high-energy dance floors for the younger crowd. Underground Jazz features Marion McKay, one of those singers who you wonder why she hasn’t gone national. For a disco experience, take all the room you need on the huge dance floor at Bacchus. (This sparkling room also provides the only ladies bathroom you can reliably feel good about.)
Boomers are drawn to Hogan’s Hideaway down Highway 280 where RazzMaTazz can make you shake your moneymaker with classic rock and Carolina shag tunes. It is a place for swingers, in both senses of the word – dance style and lifestyle. Birmingham, for all its Sunday Bible Belt, heats up Saturday night with a significant population of mate swappers. Just be careful where you leave your keys … as this is the signal. Seriously.
If, after all this, you are still ready to rock, hit the Nick. Hubcaps and the remnants of long-gone posters decorate the dark interior of this small and scruffy bar known for cold beer and hot music.
Starving by now? If you want great music and a great burger, Marty’s is the place. The grill is open until 5 a.m. and the band is still rocking, typically with blues or jazz.
That makes for one very full night. But pull yourself out of bed on Sunday morning to find out where everyone learned to sing – church. People from all over the world converge in tiny wooden churches to hear songs handed down through generations, sung in Sacred Harp style – an ancient English tradition of four-part harmony, preserved here in Alabama (fasola.org).
Or pop into the famed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, site of a civil rights-era bombing. At 10:30 a.m., four African-American women in white suits, who together take up the whole front of the church, sing a cappella gospel that could put the spirit in the devil himself. In this open-arms church, visitors often get invitations to a potluck dinner after services.
Or you could join one of the many jazz brunches. Browse the Birmingham Museum of Art for free and listen to Cleve Eaton, a former Count Basie bassist. Or brunch at the Veranda on Highland near Five Points South. To get your cholesterol levels up to proper Southern scores, eat some fried chicken, collard greens and banana pudding at one of the many meat-and-threes (three veggies, that is) like Niki’s West.
Once your senses are fully engaged in the Alabama soul experience, your spirits will be lifted to new heights and your heart filled with a musical gift of love granted by musicians for whom art is life.
Jazz great Count Basie understood the talent coming out of Parker High School – then a segregated black school with the best music teacher in the South. Several former Count Basie players retired back home and still play in clubs around Birmingham. Cleve Eaton, considered by some as the best jazz bass player in the world, frequents clubs around town. Sometimes he plays with Duke Ellington alum Frank Adams, who runs the Jazz Hall of Fame. The best place to see the jazz icons is Old Car Heaven (oldcarheaven.com) – a bar filled with an amazing antique car collection. Sometimes they gather at the Old Carver Theater (jazzhall.com), which houses the jazz museum, to recapture the old big band sound.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch Three on a String playing in town. Leader Bobby Horton is widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on Civil War-era music, and their performances are filled with stirring jigs, lonesome ballads and gentle humour, along with classic Southern storytelling. threeonastring.com
Where to stay
The historic Hotel Highland in Five Points South towers over the entertainment district with chic rooms and reasonable rates. It provides a location one can stroll in and out of between meals and clubs. thehotelhighland.com
The Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is Birmingham’s highest-rated, four-star hotel. The luxury resort features a Robert Trent Jones golf course and full service spa. marriott.com
Special to The Globe and Mail