It's Wednesday night, half past seven, which means the Retro Lounge — the smallest of the three stages at Knuckleheads Saloon, on the far east end of the building — is transforming into the Gospel Lounge. The crowd that comes for the Gospel Lounge looks about the same as the usual Knuckleheads crowd, but a few clues suggest something is askew: the coffee machine near the door; a sea of hands clutching white Styrofoam cups, the words I was blessed repeating in the chorus of the song on the overhead speakers.
Carl Butler, known as "Pastor Carl" in the Gospel Lounge and at his church, the New Song Christian Fellowship, takes the stage in a black Western button-up, with an oxblood Gibson Les Paul slung across his torso. He thanks his Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and then, backed by the four members of his band, slides into a smooth, bluesy, instrumental version of Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe."
The Gospel Lounge, which Butler has presided over every Wednesday night for the past three and a half years, has a simple format. Butler performs five or six songs with his regular band, then invites special guests to join him for the second half of the show. In between, he delivers what he calls his "message." The message is essentially a five- or 10-minute sermon folded inside a circular groove the band is laying down. When the beat comes back around, Butler closes his eyes, does a bluesman's wince, wails a few high guitar notes, and then returns to his story. Tonight, the message involves a trip to his guitar shop to buy new strings; it ends with an observation: "The Lord has a plan for your life. You don't have to be afraid of changing."
Apart from an occasional Christian jam, that's about as churchy as the Gospel Lounge gets, which is a big part of its appeal. "A lot of the people who come here just aren't interested in being a part of a church setting," Butler says. "Either they've had a bad experience with the church in the past or they've been hurt or they've just drifted. I see the Gospel Lounge as an opportunity to connect with those people. I say a lot of the same things I do in church, but it's only five minutes, and I couch the message inside music and this different atmosphere. And people seem to plug into that. And I especially love it because when I preach here, the crowd actually applauds!"
"I had a friend who was dying of cancer and I went with him up to this church up north, and it turned out to be Carl's church," says Frank Hicks, owner of Knuckleheads. "I really liked what he was doing: no pressure, no passing the hat around. I've been a Christian most of my life, but I've never liked it when people try to force it down your throat. Carl is very down-to-earth about it. Even with his messages, he talks about faith and church, but it's always something everyday people can use and relate to. It's never 'You're going to hell if you don't believe.' "
Butler was raised a Christian in Kansas City and started playing music full time as a teenager in the early 1970s, at long-gone honky-tonk joints like the Chouteau Inn, Club Royal and the Silver Spur. He lived fast and strayed from the church "but came back to my relationship with God as an adult. And soon I felt a call to the ministry, which felt foreign to me, to an ordinary guy like me. But I went to my pastor, and he said, 'Yeah, I can see that.'... I came into the ministry thinking that my style of being and the way that I am would have to change. But I think God allowed me to see I could be myself and still reach people. And that's sort of how it happened that people started calling me the 'honky-tonk preacher.' "
After serving as an associate pastor in a different church for a decade, Butler and his wife, Sharon, who also is a pastor, founded the New Song Christian Fellowship in 2002. "I'd met so many good people playing music over the years that were disconnected from God but really had no problem with God, and I thought, Honky-tonk folks, that's my harvest field," Butler says. "I understand them and I know they have divorces and cancer and life issues just like everyone else, and many of them don't have anyone to discuss those things with. I just saw our church as an opportunity to love on some people who might need it."
The Gospel Lounge functions as a sort of advertisement for the brand of Christianity that Butler espouses at his church. "There've been people who were regulars at the Gospel Lounge, who really enjoyed the messages, who asked if there was anywhere I speak longer, and I said, 'Sure, Sunday afternoon at three,' " Butler says. "And they've come out to the church and found what they needed there, and now they're regulars at church and not so regular at the Gospel Lounge."
Dan Doran, whose Dan Doran Band has been an occasional special guest at the Gospel Lounge (other acts that have sat in include Trampled Under Foot, Smokin' Joe Kubek, Ray Bonneville, and the Fabulous Torque's), has known Butler since the Chouteau Inn days. "I'm not really into organized religion," he says. "But I believe in God and have a relationship with God. When I first started coming to the Gospel Lounge, I was going through a divorce and taking a stress leave from my job. I found a lot of consolation just by showing up there and seeing some old friends. There's a spiritual message there, but it's not strict. It's very accepting, and I think people are drawn to that."
The music, though, is the main draw of the Gospel Lounge. Butler grew up with a well-balanced diet of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, and the variety is evident in the set lists, which are as likely to include Motown covers as blues standards.
"Carl is really an amazing player, and he brings a lot of different styles and slants to the performance," Doran says. "My favorite thing is that he plays a style — I would maybe call it country jazz or something — that's kind of a lost art, that very few people can play around here anymore. It goes back to the honky-tonk days."
Since the inception of the Gospel Lounge, the room has been renovated and expanded four times (it holds only about 50 comfortably). "It used to be a storage room," Hicks says. "We tore some walls out and built the stage. We put mirrors in so the audience could see easier. But people were still crowding in, so we tore out another wall. I don't know how much more we can do to that room."
"It's slowly become this great little venue. It's not even something we set out to do. It just happened," Butler says, his wide, sunken eyes gleaming in wonder at such a blessing.