If you could imagine the coolest blues club in the world it might be a little like The Bradfordville Blues Club. Out in the woods of Florida, away from the bright lights of Tallahassee, and down a dirt road, you’ll find an unassuming spot, nothing more than a shack really.
Ya it’s easy to get lost and miss it. It’s out in the sticks and hard to find, but when you get there the joint is jumpin with some of the best working-class blues musicians in the country. It’s like you died and went to blues heaven.
And the place only holds about 120 folks who have to get their tickets well in advance ($13-$17) if there’s a big name band coming. OK I’m not talking about the “top-shelf” players like a B.B. King or a Joe Bonamassa, but the type of band that is on the way up, or maybe has been a solid blues act for many, many years.
New young stars like Damon Fowler, Selwyn Birchwood or new super-group Southern Hospitality. Or vine-ripened stars like Kelly Richey or Big Al and the Heavyweights. You might also catch Bobby Rush or Jimmy Hall a couple of times a year.
But many of the greats have moved on. Tab Benoit, Chris Duarte, Sean Costello, Michael Burks, and James Cotton have all played here at one time or another. Now they are too big for the place. I mean how much money can you take in when you can only fit 120 souls.
Anyway, their ghosts are still here.
Lots of Old Blues Ghosts
In a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times, writer Ben Montgomery says the ghosts have been coming around for a long time. Since before 1964 when the shack was first built, they’ve been playing music out here. Sometimes blues, sometimes gospel, sometimes just work songs in the early days, but whatever it was it brought the people out to sit around the bonfire they light every weekend in the same spot… it’s been burnin’ for over 50 years.
Of course, Florida had lots of work for bluesmen at juke joints and back-roads bars and in entertainment centers like Pensacola, Jacksonville and Tampa. In the 1930s, a Chicago bandleader and newspaper columnist named Walter Barnes started developing a circuit for black musicians. During World War II, African-American venues in Florida began emerging on what was known as the “chitlin circuit.” This circuit had venues all through the south.
There was Pensacola’s Savoy Ballroom, Jacksonville’s Two Spot, Miami’s Harlem Square, Tampa’s Apollo Ballroom, Gainesville’s Cotton Club, and St. Petersburg’s Manhattan Casino. Tallahassee had the Red Bird Café, but it was in the city proper, so after last call, folks would migrate this way, where the law was harder to find around.
No one can prove it but they say B.B. King, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry all graced these halls. I’m sure there would be some great stories being shared if these walls could talk.
Current owners Gary Anton and his wife Kim have owned the place since about 2002. Before that it was owned by a Tallahassee man named Dave Claytor, after it had been closed down for many years (too much crack in the area). He reopened it in 1992. Gary used to fancy himself a musician so he would come out here to check out the musicians to see what he could learn. That’s when he fell in love with the place and when Claytor wanted to sell, Dave quit his job as a lawyer, took a big pay cut, and took over the place.
Before all that they say the Henry Family owned it. The story has the Henry family raising corn and potatoes, pigs and cows, and sugarcane, which they distilled to make a concoction called “buck,” like sweet moonshine. They drank some and sold the rest in town from a buggy with a false bottom.
Some tell of an old general store with an upright piano. Others remember burning a bonfire every evening and filling the night with field songs and blues and gospel. The fire still burns in the same spot every weekend now. Anyway, it turned into a blues club and actually was part of the chitlin circuit. No proof again, but who would be surprised.
So if you’re in the Tallahassee area and you want to catch some great blues , take a ride in the north east direction and look for The Bradfordville Blues Club. It’s probably as close as you’ll ever come to being in a real southern blues club. For more information visit their website here.