An oversized truck hauling asphalt rolls past the deck of B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ on a clear, quiet afternoon.
"That's actually a street, believe it or not," Jo Shannon says, pointing to the route. It leads to a production plant built in the 1930s, which is located just east of the nationally recognized blues-and-barbecue operation that she runs with her husband, Lindsay Shannon.
The landscape isn't pretty. But the dust and the rumble are in keeping with the no-frills, down-home ambience at B.B.'s. "We're celebrating our 20th anniversary all year long," Lindsay says. He's a grandfatherly man whose voice carries an underlying edge of authority. "Our theme? Not renovated." He adds, "under old management."
The blues have always been in Lindsay's blood. He was a founding member of the Kansas City Blues Society in 1980, along with local scene stalwarts Roger Naber and Chuck Haddix. In a 25-year career in radio, with regular excursions to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he cultivated an ear for the finest acts.
"I knew this building had been here and that at one time it had been a barbecue," Lindsay says. "When I finally found out who the landlord was, he said it had been empty for a year and a half. It was kind of a strange turquoise color."
B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ, which stands about 150 feet away from the curb at 85th Street, was constructed in true roadhouse fashion in 1950, just south of what then were the city limits. "If you were 150 feet outside the city limit, you didn't have to abide by any city regulations," Shannon says. The building's intended purpose was a barbecue joint, so it included an old-school granite pit. "It's a real pit, as opposed to a steel contraption. It's old-fashioned and uses all hickory wood, no pellets or gas," he says.
Before sealing the deal, Shannon did a little investigating. "I had an old barbecue man, that used to have Harris' BBQ at 24th and Brooklyn, come out and take a look at the pit and the place," he says. The Shannons signed the lease in the summer of 1990. They opened the doors four months later, on October 15. "That's where I started from, with the idea that I would do live music later on."
B.B.'s didn't always have a full parking lot or the standing-room-only crowd, both of which are now standard a few times a week. Restaurant and nightclub ownership came naturally to Lindsay, but building a following for his and his wife's venture was an exercise in patience, flexibility and experimentation. As with any new business, bumps arose — for example, the massive two-year road-widening project on 85th Street five years ago, which turned the area into a crater and forced out neighboring fried-chicken institution Stroud's.
Still, the Shannons' classic combination of blues and barbecue has withstood. In its 20 years, B.B.'s has shone several times in the national spotlight, including a mention in The New York Times' "36 Hours in Kansas City" in 2003. There also was a 2008 appearance on NBC's Today show, in which Lindsay's ribs faced off against Michael Rodriguez's brisket, from Texas' Salt Lick Bar-B-Que.
As good as the food is, the music is the top-selling point at B.B.'s. Local favorites — Trampled Under Foot, Diane "Mama" Ray, Samantha Fish, Kansas Music Hall of Famer and harmonica player Lee McBee, boogie piano player Mike Sedovic ("Shinetop Jr.") — keep the calendar full and keep the crowds flowing in steadily.
"My blues career started the first night I stepped into B.B.'s as a listener, and I've been hooked ever since," Sedovic says.
"It's the real deal," Fish says. "People come specifically for the blues."
Besides tenor saxophonist and former Muddy Waters sideman Eddie Shaw, who plays the venue's 20th-anniversary show with his group the Wolf Gang, Shannon has booked Paul Geremia, whom he calls one of the top-five acoustic blues guitar players in the world. Also on the calendar in October: Dustin Arbuckle, the harmonica-playing third of rootsy Wichita blues trio Moreland & Arbuckle.
"You might notice that we are very harmonica-heavy because that's one of Lindsay's favorites. He can't play a note, but ..." Jo says, trailing off.
"Wait a minute!" Lindsay objects, with a laugh.
"But he knows it when he hears it," Jo says. She smiles.
"Now that we've been here quite a while," Lindsay says, "I never want people to walk out of here and say, That was a crappy band that I had to pay $4 for at B.B.'s."
The restaurant is empty on this afternoon except for server Donna Gibbons, who has worked for the Shannons since day one. It's a welcome break before the room, which is pasted with old show posters, gets its foot-stomping harp blues from regular act John Paul's Flying Circus.
Lindsay shows off his copy of Ardie Davis and Paul Kirk's America's Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America's Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants. B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ is featured for its gumbo and rib tips. The article says: "There is something magical about picking up a hickory-smoked rib cooked in a historic pit and savoring each bite as you listen to the blues."
"It's a combo deal," Jo says. "It's what Kansas City is all about."