At the close of the work week, when the stars come out and the Christmas lights twinkle on and the headlights start to race through the pines and past the KEEP OUT signs, you'll find Gary Anton in his pop-bottle glasses and hippy hair-halo rushing around the Bradfordville Blues Club like a monk on Adderall.
This is his place. His and his wife's.
Miss Kim is around here somewhere, too, taking drags off her e-cigarette and telling folks that No, if they don't have a reservation they're not getting in because the joint is sold out, because Rick Lollar, the local boy done good, the white kid with a Cadillac voice and Chevrolet fingers, will be in the hot lights soon and he's going to make the girls swoon and he might just shake the speakers off the milk crates.
Gary and Kim could be Rick's mom and dad, they've known him so long.
He grew up here, pretty much, a boy raised in a blues bar. When Rick's big brother introduced him to Stevie Ray Vaughan and he discovered a sound inside him that had to come out, he started sitting in with the regulars from what's left of the circuit, folks like Chick Willis and the King Cotton band. They'd heard about the prodigy from Tallahassee, the kid trained by the legendary "Missippy" James. That sound from the Mississippi Delta started spilling out of this little boy on Saturday nights, over and over, for about 50 shows, if he had to guess.
Now the world has Rick, keeping the blues alive at 26, in Atlanta, with his skinny tie and his own record and a bag of originals. But this is where it started, at the Bradfordville Blues Club, one of a handful of spots on the Mississippi Blues Trail outside the state of Mississippi, the only one in Florida.
"It's a magical spot," Lollar says before the show. "There are definitely a few ghosts hanging around."
And if you can believe that a roughed-up one-room building can give birth to a young guy like Rick Lollar, you have to believe it can also save the life of an old guy like Gary Anton.
The history, first, because that might explain the ghosts.
Freed slaves came to own a couple hundred acres in the woods some 10 miles northeast of downtown Tallahassee about a hundred years ago. Nobody's exactly sure how they got it or when, because nobody kept any records. Most of the history here is folklore, passed down by word of mouth, relayed now by Gary and Kim.
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.
Florida, of course, provided work for lots of 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": 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 loose.
"They'd close up in the city and come out here," Gary says.
The party moved indoors when the Henry family built the little concrete-block building in 1964 and opened it as a community center and after-hours gathering spot. Don't ask Gary to prove it, but he has heard from the old-timers that the doorway of this little club has been graced by B.B. King, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.
The place rocked for 25 years, but the blues were no match for crack in the late '80s. The Henrys shuttered their little club.
In 1992, a Tallahassee man named Dave Claytor reopened the place as Dave's C.C., the C.C. coming from the C.C. Saints, a black baseball team that used to play a stone's throw from the front door.
That's where Gary Anton comes in.
In his youth, Gary fancied himself a musician, but law school and life sucked the dream away and he slowly quit picking up his guitar. When Dave was reopening the club, Gary heard about it and jumped in his car and went cruising dirt roads until he found the foreboding bunker on the hill, under giant oaks and Spanish moss.
You should see his eyes when he talks about that initial pilgrimage. Every tabletop bore the painted image of a blues musician who had played at the club. Pinetop Perkins. Floyd Miles. Tab Benoit. Johnny Marshall. Nitro Bozeman. Eddie Kirkland. The corner stage was magical. The place breathed history. It gave him something he'd never had. Anyway, he kept coming, again and again.
Gary had been making good money as a lawyer, but he wasn't happy. In 1999, he was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis. It was so serious they summoned his family. He held on, weeks in the hospital, a slow recovery. He started to understand how life was fragile. He saw room to shuffle priorities.
Dave, meanwhile, was living out of state and trying to keep the club alive. When he was about to let it go, in 2002, Gary knew what he needed to do.
September 2005, a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I was driving back from Louisiana, where I'd spent two weeks talking to people who would never be the same. It felt wrong going home with so much devastation in the rearview. I worked for the Tampa Tribune at the time, and my colleague Baird Helgeson talked us into stopping for the night in Tallahassee. We showered at a La Quinta off I-10 and Baird said he had something to show us, a backwoods place that wasn't easy to find.
We piled into the rental as the sun fell. Baird tooled down a country two-lane called Bradfordville Road, then turned onto a dirt road called Sam's Lane, then drove past what seemed like a dozen NO TRESPASSING signs. We turned onto a narrower dirt road called Moses Lane. When we parked in a grass lot and started toward a low-slung building, it struck me plainly that this was the most genuine, organic thing I'd ever seen in Florida, void of pretense or synthetics. The rough edges weren't on purpose.
The timing was right, too. I can't remember who played that night, but I cried until I laughed, which is what good blues can do. I remember girls dancing to the music, and it wasn't this sort of look-at-me dancing you see in the clubs in Ybor City. They danced with abandon, like a Pentecostal revival.
I found a dog the next morning in the classifieds of the Tallahassee Democrat. He was the most beautiful little ball of life I'd seen. I named him Honey Island Swamp Monster and often, over the years, when I looked at him, he reminded me of that night at the Bradfordville Blues Club.
‘I was making a lot of money," Gary says on the second night of our most recent visit, before the living legend Joey Gilmore takes the stage. "Now I'm not making a tenth of what I was. But I'm happier. Every damn weekend I get to sit here and listen to the best blues music in the world."
It's been a joint effort, this club, like a nonprofit, since Gary bought Dave's assets, changed the name and started running it. Peggy makes the tables. Walter runs the website and records the shows. Rea brings food for the bands.
"It's just a large family," says Gary. "It's disjointed, disjunctive, but it's just people who want to have a good time."
The bonfire is raging outside and a crowd has congregated. The women in the little shack nearby are frying up catfish and mullet in a giant pot over propane. The tables inside are packed.
And I wonder what it is.
"It's like a hole in the wall," says Ernest Henry, 74, who lives on the property and keeps the fire going. "But everybody likes it for some reason."
"This place is incredible," says Vita Bakker, 31, a social services administrator here for her bachelorette party. "Between the fish fry and the dancing and the drinking, there's magic."
"I've been everywhere on earth and there's no place like this," says Mike Jolly, 61, who has been here almost every weekend for 15 straight years. "You'll see every walk of life, every standard of living, but we are all one."
"The a--holes don't know how to find their way out here," Mike says.
That can't be it, I tell him. This is the Age of Nowhere to Hide, I tell him, and everybody has GPS. A--holes found Asheville.
"The music then," he says. "This is the only music that ties us all together. This is American roots. It creates a wonderful spirit. Everybody that comes through those doors, they sense that. I don't know how to explain it better."
Joey Gilmore is lighting it up.
"Listen here," he says. "This here's not a concert. This here's a good time."
The women are dancing, and a mentally disabled man is, too. He's making erratic motions, but they somehow seem coordinated, like the music is speaking through him.
Gary is on a stool by the stage, nodding his head and occasionally twisting knobs on the sound board.
"When my husband comes here, you see his face light up," Kim says. "I think it keeps him alive."
Out by the fire, a woman has fallen in the weeds. Folks are concerned at first, but they let her lie there for 30 minutes or so. When she recovers, she says she's ready to go home and her friends help her to a pickup.
Joey Gilmore is done. The crowd has cleared. It's early morning now.
"This is the best blues club on the circuit," says Gilmore, who has been touring 50 years, as he zips his guitar case.
"The people," he says.
The man who sat in on drums with Gilmore says the Bradfordville Blues Club has been on his bucket list since he started playing the blues. He heard about it when he was 20 or 21. Held the same place in his mind as Robert Johnson's crossroads.
"This is a life-changing experience for me," he says.
"This place is legendary," he says.
"You haven't played the blues until you've played here," he says.
Gary is smiling nearby.
"We're perpetuating the blues," Gary says.
I walk out into the field, a few hundred yards away from the club. The stars are a million pinpricks of light in a black blanket, and the lights from the club shine through the oak branches and moss. I decide I don't want to tell anybody about this place. We'd spent two nights trying to figure out the draw, but it feels out here like a secret I want to keep. I hope you never find it. I hope you do.
Times staff writer Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.