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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."