If Frank Hicks weren't a God-fearing man, you might wonder if he'd sold his soul to the devil to build Knuckleheads Saloon.
It's a sultry summer night in the East Bottoms. Guy Forsyth's lonesome harmonica echoes over sheet metal and evaporates into the neon glow that envelops Rochester Street. Old dudes with ponytails bring icy domestics to Birkenstock-shod women. Biker boots tap to the band's crusty blues riffs. Two women in homemade cancan skirts and bosom-boosting corsets undulate near the stage. Beer is flowing, and the crowd is warming up to the Austin act's bluesy Americana — and to one another.
A man waves across the crowd at the bustier of the corseted women. She waves back while her friend reaches over her shoulder and jiggles one of her breasts at him. He nods his head and beckons for her to come over. She shakes her head from side to side. He folds his arms and frowns back in mock disappointment.
Love is in the air at Knuckleheads.
Logically, Kansas City's award-winning blues venue shouldn't exist. It's buried in the industrial wasteland of the East Bottoms, in a 120-year-old former railroad boardinghouse alongside train tracks. The landscape is bleak. In the houses surrounding the bar, people snooze in the late afternoon on couches on sagging porches. Trucks rumble through dusty parking lots toward loading docks. Rusted cars and machinery wait to be towed from tufts of weeds.
Stumbling upon Knuckleheads' glow from the dark, winding streets of the surrounding neighborhood makes the venue seem like a mirage. Fiery guitar licks and juicy two-step twang howl from an open-air stage under the words "Play Place" emblazoned in neon letters. A triptych is painted on a wall overlooking the venue: Elvis, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hank Williams Sr. (roots rock's father, son and heartbroken troubadour, roughly).
Knuckleheads' feral, postindustrial beauty and whiskey-fueled music draw all kinds: mechanics in overalls, bikers with bandannas and cigars, rockabilly punks with slicked-back pompadours, hoary-headed intellectuals, and suburban women.
It's strange, then, that Hicks, Knuckleheads' owner and founder, can't play a lick of music.
"It pisses me off to see all these people jump up and play, and I can't play nothing," Hicks jokes. "I know what music is supposed to sound like, and I know what I like in music. I've been really seasoned — is that the word? Like a well-done steak, I been turned over so many times."
Hicks wasn't always a music man. First, Hicks was a biker and a businessman. He just wanted a place to work on trucks. In 1969, at age 21, Hicks moved his business, Mid-City Collision Repair, across the street from a line of rapidly aging buildings on Rochester. "I was up at Fifth and Troost, and it was kind of a residential area, and everyone kept complaining that they smelled paint," he says. "So I was looking for kind of an obscure place to put my business."
Obscure is an understatement.
Despite its vacant appearance today, though, the East Bottoms has a history as an urban entertainment center. In the late 19th century, the neighborhood bustled as the local home of Heim Brewing Co. In 1899, the Heims built Electric Park, which featured a beer garden and a then-novel Shoot-the-Chutes ride, on the block where Knuckleheads sits now. Rail cars shuttled customers back and forth from what is now the City Market. (One Electric Park patron would grow up to revolutionize the theme-park industry — Walt Disney.) The cars and rails required maintenance and workers, so a boardinghouse was erected alongside the train tracks in 1887.