A few years ago I was sitting at a local honkytonk joint called the Thirsty Beaver here in Charlotte, NC, where I live. This is an iconic bar in Charlotte, and proudly sells the most Jim Beam in the entire state. The bar is run by two fabulous brothers who created the idea for this place before the Plaza Midwood neighborhood was as cool and in demand as it is now. They had no idea if anyone would come to a bar playing Hank Williams, not Blake Shelton, and Tammy Wynette, not Miranda Lambert.
There’s a velvet Kenny Rogers poster on the storage room door and a Charlie Pride hologram on the wall. Black Sharpie signatures from all the storied talent that has graced this dive bar decorate the walls. Discarded bras hang on bull horns above the front door, and reruns of Hee Haw play on cube televisions mounted above the bar. Motorcycles line the front patio whenever a big band comes through and everyone is welcome there, even if most people are too timid to enter. (I tried to capture the charm of this place in my novel. The Thirsty Baboon Saloon is an homage to this place.)
So I was sitting on a barstool at the Thirsty Beaver, drinking a whiskey neat, and waiting for J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices to start playing. I’d seen J.P. play once before in Galax, Virginia, on a snowy evening where couples came out for a twostep. He plays a contemporary version of honkytonk music, but he has plenty of slow songs too. He promised me his show at the Thirsty Beaver would be a lot more raucous. And he was right, of course.
I remember sitting on that bar stool, watching him perform with his sleeves of tattoos on display and his big black beard grown out (long before other men were embracing this style) and I remember his passion for the roots of country music, for playing covers by the greats like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. Here was man who, based on appearances, seemed like a rebellious musician, but when he spoke, all his respect and passion for the tradition of country music became evident. That tension between rulebreaker and traditionalist and between the performance persona and the interior life really struck me.
I thought, What if I guy like this could become really famous in Nashville? And that question sparked the beginning of The Whole Way Home. The book doesn’t follow the exact trajectory of that question, but I’m glad to report that J.P. Harris is well on his way to turning that “what if” into reality. Now he’s so busy touring that the guys at the Thirsty Beaver can’t book him anymore! We’re all proud of him, and we’re even happier that an audience continues to grow for the kind of music J.P. Harris creates.
The entire time I wrote this book I hoped his profile would grow. Likewise, I continued to hope good things for the Thirsty Beaver, a place committed to nurturing young talent like J.P. The Plaza Midwood is the most artistic and desirable neighborhood in Charlotte, and as I write this, more condo and apartment buildings are filling the skyline all around the Thirsty Beaver.
Developers have been trying to buy the tiny lot of land where the Beaver stands, but the owner who leases the building refuses to sell. Millions upon millions in offers. No sale. When you stand outside the Thirsty Beaver, you can reach your arm out and touch what will be the first-floor window of a two-bedroom apartment soon. Very soon. They’ve built the condos around the tiny, stand alone, pimento colored building that will remain in the Plaza if the owner of the land holds out. But if he sells (or when he sells) I have no doubt the Beaver will be bulldozed.
Corporate versus individual interests was a major theme established in my first novel Season of the Dragonflies and continues into The Whole Way Home where songwriters clash with CEOs and the Thirsty Baboon Saloon pushes back against a possible takeover. So much of this subplot mirrors what’s happening here in Charlotte, but when I started writing this novel, rumors circulated about the possibility of the Thirsty Beaver being bulldozed but no one believed them. However, over the course of writing this book, I’ve seen that threat manifest into cranes and bulldozers. But the Beaver still stands. I hope it always will.