Birmingham’s Eclectic Beat

By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Alabama Department of Tourism

It’s not unusual to see a music legend’s stretch limo parked next to a battered bicycle owned by a legend-in-training around Birmingham’s music venues.

Crossing not one, but two railroad tracks, literally onto what many would consider the wrong side of the tracks, you might question your decision to spend an evening hearing blues — as authentic as they come. The featured act promises to deliver, from a young man so brain-damaged as a child, that he can only see music in color. He draws the crowds with his rollicking blues and Jimi Hendrix guitar moves, even though he can’t read music, or anything else for that matter.
When you pop up on the ramshackle house where the music plays, and see people unloading coolers and lawn chairs, you have arrived at Gip’s Place, one of the last, great juke joints. For sixty-plus years, Henry “Gip” Gipson has worked as a gravedigger by day and bluesman by night.
The driveway leads to a back yard with industrial spools and picnic tables squatting outside of a tin shack, seemingly held together by old music posters and Christmas tree tinsel. On an old cast-iron stove, one of Gip’s sons is turning burgers and ribs, filling the spectacle with scents of a southern summer. The sounds of beer tabs pop like redneck champagne.
At 7 pm, Gip plays his guitar with hands that look as large as his gravedigger’s shovel. At 9 pm, the official show begins, after a prayer. And the rules: no drugs, no cussing and no saggy pants — Gip hates droopy drawers and it is his place. What ensues is the best party you’ve ever been to, even if you didn’t know a soul when you arrived.
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 voice that carries.

Named the best live music venue last year, Iron City seats 1,200 in its main room, a restored former auto dealer showroom. Dwight Yoakam and a Bee Gee’s reenactment group are on the current schedule. Willie Nelson and B.B. King have graced its stage.
In the summertime, the Oak Mountain Amphitheater brings in acts as varied as Blue Man Group and Bob Dylan. This open-air venue seats 10,000-plus beneath the shade of a state park.
For fancier digs, the beautifully restored Alabama Theater and Lyric Theater downtown provide the acoustics antique buildings specialize in. Lyle Lovett’s band employs so many local musicians, most of them stayed with their families when his tour hit the Alabama. Local greats – St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Alabama Shakes, Taylor Hicks and Eric Essix have embraced the pin-drop sound of the Lyric’s old vaudeville stage.
One of the founding members of the quirky Man or Astro-Man? band opened an equally quirky Indie music venue in the Avondale Entertainment District called, appropriately, Saturn. Across from Saturn, Avondale Brewing Company set up an outdoor amphitheater for live performances behind the brewery and in front of the outside bar.
To enjoy singer/songwriters in a good listening room, Moonlight on the Mountain sits atop Shades Crest Mountain. Arrive early to catch the sunset.
One of the oldest venues, Zydeco, straddles an old cable car turnaround in Five Points, an entertainment district filled with song. For true aficionados, go upstairs into Charlemagne Record Exchange. Ask for Jimmy, he is faster than Google as a vinyl/recording artist reference.
Boomers are drawn to Bar 31 where RazzMaTazz can make you shake your moneymaker with classic rock and Carolina shag tunes. This band has been together for more than 25 years and still lights up the night.
Walking along the musical strip in the Lakeview district, you can hear almost any genre played somewhere. Blaring from the Tin Roof, Innisfree, Nana Funks, Oasis, and even Slice, the pizza joint, take your pick of music. A good place to start is Lou’s Pub, where you can have a drink outside and hear what is playing nearby.
If you are still ready to rock, hit The Nick. Known for the coldest beer and hottest music, The Nick rocks out until 2 am on weeknights and 6 am on the weekends.

Birmingham’s unique sounds are recorded in places such as WorkPlay, founded by Alan Hunter in case you remember him as one of the original VJs for MTV. WorkPlay’s stage performances span from Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys to The Blind Boys of Alabama gospel and everything in between. A funky bar offers a good place to hear enough to know if you want to buy a ticket.
In the back, WorkPlay Studios stand ready to record any of the local, regional and national talent who play and stay for a recording session. With all of the talent – just start with the numerous local winners and placers from American Idol – and the legendary Muscle Shoals studios two hours north, Birmingham is a hotbed of recording artists, who never have to leave home for a good studio session.
Audiostate 55, Recording Studios and Entertainment Company, located in a transitional neighborhood, caters to music legends and legends in training. Here, it would not be odd to see a stretch limo with a battered bicycle parked next to it. The commitment to music includes filling the gap of music education for talented, underserved youth, and both are led by University of Alabama at Birmingham Music Chair and University Professor, Henry Panion, III.
When Stevie Wonder needs someone to conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra for a live album, he turns to Panion, his long-time orchestrator. Panion’s baton is no stranger to orchestras around the world, or to Wonder’s string of hits. While stars such as Carrie Underwood, the Neville Brothers, Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin have worked with Panion’s Audiostate 55 crew, the photo hanging on the wall is a kid who grew up in the program and now has a hit single and a heartthrob future. Huston Kendrick.
“So many young people want to go into the music industry, but don’t know how to be the next Beyonce or Jay Z. They also don’t know about the vast field with lucrative jobs for audio engineers, technicians and song writers,” said Panion.
Around 400 children and youth attend classes, summer camps or mentoring programs per year at Audiostate 55. Panion boasts more about the kid signed to his Warner record label, his three students with highly competitive Bill and Melinda Gates scholarships and all of his students attending Berklee College of Music, than 25 years with Stevie Wonder.
“We get them to see the world and its opportunities. It is our most important work,” said Panion.
Dedicated educators, like Panion, made Birmingham into a music mecca. From the tireless church choir directors to the famed Fess Whatley of Parker High School whose band became a minor league training ground for Count Basie and the jazz movement, the city is filled with world-class musicians. Come and hear them play in the cafes, restaurants, clubs and music halls found in expected, and unexpected, places all over town.
And Panion does say that Stevie Wonder is wonderful – “the nicest individual in the world.”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.