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.
When Electric Park moved to 47th Street and the Paseo in 1908, Frank and Minnie Hobien bought the Rochester building and turned it into a boardinghouse. The three east rooms of the house — now Knuckleheads' upper floor — were rented to a doctor.
"This lady named Marie Holien lived there, and the doctor [had] delivered her," Hicks says. "Marie and her mother lived there until her mother died, and Frank Hobien let Marie stay the rest of her life."
Hicks knows the story because he had moved his business into the building across from Holien's home. "This," Hicks gestures, indicating Knuckleheads' block-long sprawl, "was a bunch of old houses. They were really old and run-down and needed to be done something with, anyway. So I slowly bought the houses, one by one."
Hicks demolished the houses in favor of a parking lot. Eventually, he acquired the future heart of Knuckleheads — Holien's old railroad boardinghouse — from the bank, after Holien told him that she was moving, at age 71, into a nursing home.
"Nobody wanted it," he says. "I mean, it didn't look nothing like it does now. It wasn't in bad shape. It just wasn't great-looking. But who the hell's gonna buy it? Who the hell's gonna buy a house down here?"
Hicks, for one. After using the Holien house as storage, he turned it into a showroom in 1997 for his new venture: rehabilitating motorcycles. "I owned a body shop, so it was a no-brainer. I'd buy an old motorcycle and fix it up. One day, my wife opened the garage door, and there were six Harleys sitting there in the garage, and she's like, 'You need to do something. I can't get my car in.' Pretty soon, it had really become a business, and I didn't want it to be. I'm like, 'What the hell?' It just happened like that."
He called it F.O.G. Cycles. "You know what it stood for?" Hicks asks, smiling. He leans over the table conspiratorially and lowers his voice. "Fucking old guys." He laughs.
But Hicks had to confront an obvious question: how to lure people down to the East Bottoms. The answer came in the form of a flatbed trailer, some kegs and a couple of blues riffs. Hicks began to put together street parties on the stretch of road between F.O.G. Cycles and Mid-City Collision Repair. "The neighbors wasn't complaining because I was the neighbors," he says. "The first band I ever put out there called itself Fresh Brew. It's Danielle [Schnebelen] from Trampled Under Foot. She was 17 years old and played out there on the flatbed."
There were more than just bands. Hicks' parties were a mini Sturgis in KC, with bike contests, games and vendors. Most important, Hicks offered free beer.
It wasn't long before Hicks had ushered F.O.G. Cycles out of its East Bottoms obscurity and onto Kansas City's radar. "By that time, we were giving so much beer away that, hell, I had to be open six days a week to pay for the beer," Hicks says. "So we got a liquor license."
Hicks opened a tiny bar in 2001 and, in a nod to the Three Stooges, called it Knuckleheads. "We were only open on Saturdays, from noon to six," he says. "Well, six became seven, seven became eight, eight became nine, and so on. Knuckleheads kept growing, so we added tables and chairs and such, and the bike side kept getting smaller and smaller. We thought, What are we going to do with these bikes?"
The transition of the building's use augured another change. "The motorcycle business started becoming ... not real lucrative," Hicks says. He decided to close F.O.G. Cycles in 2004 after it lost money two years in a row. "I sold $80,000 worth of parts [in the shop] for $15,000, just because I was done," he says. But the F.O.G. street parties lived on through Knuckleheads: Laughter and local music echoed down Rochester almost every night.
Also in 2004, the dingy club known as the Grand Emporium changed hands. Its new owners slapped glitter on the blues institution and sold it as a sleek martini bar. Purists cried foul, and booking agents began to seek a new place to lure KC's loyal blues contingent.
That summer, Hicks received his first phone call from an agent pitching a touring act — a performer already close to Hicks' heart. "My first concert that I ever went to was Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge and Billy Preston at Municipal Auditorium," he says. "I really, to this day, don't know how they picked me out, but I got a phone call from Leon Russell's agent."
Hicks' approach to booking was the same as how he approached his other business: luck and a bit of common sense. To him, the formula seemed simple. "It might be crazy, but I felt like I was doing the same thing if I'd buy a Harley-Davidson to work on. If I buy talent — that person's act — and put it down here, then all I gotta do is say, How many people could I fit in here?"
There were still a couple of kinks to work out, though. Hicks realized this when he opened The Pitch several weeks later and saw an ad for Leon Russell's gig — at the Madrid Theatre on the same date that Russell was supposed to play Knuckleheads.
"I called the agent and I said, 'What's the deal with Leon playing the Madrid?' And he said, 'Well, they offered $500 more than you did,'" Hicks says.
Russell played the Madrid on July 10, 2004. But Hicks' phone began to ring. The Grand Emporium's blues bookings had continued to plummet after the bar's slick makeover. "Within a week or two, I started getting all the people that used to book [at the Grand Emporium] calling me," Hicks says. "And I still don't know why. I don't know how I got on their radar."
Knuckleheads was in the right place at the right time. The venue's first touring show was a blues-act triple-header: Kenny Neal, Little Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Anthony Gomes. "I started learning real quick how to deal with agents," Hicks says. "That was November 2004. And it just started going wild after that."
Even though Knuckleheads is Hicks' creation, many people don't know his face. That's fine with him.
"I like to say I took credit for this, that this was all magic land, but it wasn't," Hicks says. If you ask him, he'll tell you that Knuckleheads exists not because of him but because it's what people around here needed. "If it needed to be a bar, it's a bar. If it needed to be a stage, it's a stage," he says. "You roll with what you need."
And some people are finding that they need something unexpected from Knuckleheads: the Word.
Every Wednesday night beginning in 2008, the bar's Gospel Lounge, a weekly Christian service and music jam led by Pastor Carl Butler and his band, has taken over Knuckleheads' back room. "We might play some Christian music, but we might play Merle Haggard or James Brown," Butler says. As the band plays, Butler strums his guitar, speaking about a principle from the Bible over the music.
Sometimes, crowd members don't even realize that they're in church. "They'll be sitting in there for, like, an hour and realize, Oh, they're playing Christian music," Hicks says, laughing. Some of them leave after that. Others stay — and so the Gospel Lounge is growing.
Hicks says it's because his is a honky-tonk church. Beer isn't just allowed; it's encouraged. Butler adds, "Frank said, 'What are you going to do if a guy comes to see a show and gets a cocktail or a beer and comes over to the Gospel Lounge?' I said, 'Get a coaster?'"
"A lot of people have a hard time comprehending that," Hicks says. "But a lot of people don't."
After all, the Gospel Lounge stems from a very simple belief: "I've always thought that God should not be taken out of bars," he says. "I really don't think that God cares what's in your hand. I think he cares what's in your heart."
Butler shares the same belief, whether it's at his church, New Song Christian Fellowship in Gladstone, or on a dance floor. "I was playing at a club one night and I stepped off the stage, and this lady said, 'You're that honky-tonk preacher.' And she began crying. She said, 'My daughter's 15, and I haven't seen her for five or six months. Would you pray for my kid?' And I said, 'Can we pray right now?' She said, 'Absolutely.'" Music, prayer and beer: solace at Knuckleheads.
"A bulk of our people come from the music community and the service community: bikers, waitresses, folks like that," Butler says "I've had a heart for people who are in a party atmosphere because I've met so many people over the years who didn't have a problem with God. They had a problem with organized religion." Butler, who used to make a living as a musician, is a recovering drug and alcohol addict.
"Nothing scares me," he says. "I started looking at the life of Jesus. He didn't hang around the synagogue and say, Y'all come. He showed up at the party. And he loved people where they were."
A metal ichthus is nailed next to Knuckleheads' door, but the Jesus fish is the only religious icon in the venue, apart from the neon cross that glows in the front window of the Gospel Lounge. "I don't say nothing about my beliefs or my religion unless somebody asks me," Hicks says.
But that doesn't mean that Hicks is shy about the Gospel Lounge. "The Gospel Lounge is as much a dream of mine as Knuckleheads was," he says. "It's something that's deep down in my heart that I want to see happen."
Hicks opened his e-mail one winter day in 2008 to find a message notifying him that he'd been nominated for a KBA. "First of all, I was like, What the hell's the KBA?" Hicks says. KBA stands for Keeping the Blues Alive. The KBA is an award given to one venue each year by the International Blues Foundation. At a ceremony in Memphis later that winter, Knuckleheads won the KBA for Blues Club.
Recognition was never Hicks' intention. "I wasn't doing this to win an award," Hicks says. "I was doing this because it was my lifetime dream to own a place like this and bring in talent that I love, and see how many other people love the same thing I did."
Hicks had a dream but he also had excellent taste. From the start, Knuckleheads has benefited from his knack for wrangling artists in one-of-a-kind lineups. There was, for one, the night this past spring when he brought together iconic country crooner Ray Price, legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, Bakersfield two-stepper Dale Watson, and outlaw country DJ and artist Dallas Wayne.
Price was at Knuckleheads in July 2009, but that night didn't go particularly well. "The pricing I did kept people away," Hicks says. "We were sitting out there, getting shitfaced drunk, dividing how much money each song cost by how much I was losing." He laughs. "I thought, I'm going to work my ass off, but I'm having a good night tonight. Screw it. Ray Price is in the house, you know?"
This time around, Hicks reconsidered his pricing and set out with a much more ambitious goal. "I thought Ray [Price] would fill the house by himself. But if I bring all these other acts and make one of the best damn country shows that had ever happened, then I'd have to beat people off with a club, you know?"
That simple approach to the music business is surprisingly rare, especially from a musician's standpoint. Pete Anderson, a producer and artist who was Dwight Yoakam's guitarist for nearly 20 years, has made tour stops at Knuckleheads since 2005. "I've traveled all over the world, and there's a handful of guys out there like Frank," Anderson says. "Most places are very gentrified. They're very corporate. You know how you go to the mall, and every mall has a Foot Locker and a cookie shop, and they're all the same, no matter what city you're in?" Knuckleheads is the opposite of that, he says, with an idiosyncratic charm that's inherent in the architecture and also embodied in Hicks' attitude toward music. "He does the right thing for the right reason," Anderson says. "The boss loves music. It's certainly not common in the new world."
Besides the rarity of Hicks' personal touch, Knuckleheads owes much of its success to its location. "For the most part, the neighborhood is older folks that have lived here a long time," Hicks says. "Some of them have told me they like the music. Not very many of them come down here. Mostly I don't think they go out much."
It's a quiet neighborhood, other than the Union Pacific trains clattering mere feet away. "The train is part of it. I wouldn't trade it for the world," Hicks says. He didn't always feel that way. "It used to irritate the hell out of me. It seems that they always come by and honk the horn in the middle of a ballad or something." Hicks no longer worries, though, about pissing off artists. "I finally got to the attitude of, If it irritates 'em, the hell with 'em."
The train's howl shakes walls and rattles doors. It's also frequently responsible for eerie, magical moments that can happen only at Knuckleheads. "Joe Ely was playing here one time, and he does a song called 'Boxcar.' And he said that he waited 20 years for a train to come by at the perfect timing," Hicks says. Ely usually relies on an accordion to supply the song's train howl. "That night, he didn't have to. The train came by at the exact time it was supposed to."
Tonight, though, Guy Forsyth is winding into a grungy, psychedelic blues jam as the night wanes. The corseted woman's arms are wrapped around her man's shoulders. Perched on one of Knuckleheads' rooftops overlooking the train tracks, a shopping cart full of PBR empties glints, reflecting light from the stage.
A train engineer's flashlight bobs along the tracks. The engineer kicks a lever into place to shift the tracks. He waves on the train car, watching the wheels groan into motion. The strain of Forsyth's harmonica drifts over the walls of the venue, and the engineer turns his head and listens.