NASHVILLE, Tn—The meat and three experience is as unique to Nashville, Tn. as the wigs on Dolly Parton. Despite upscale growth, the metropoliatan area embraces at least a half dozen traditional meat and threes, ranging from Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Wendell Smith’s (no relation to the late African American baseball journalist.)

Meat and threes are exactly that: meat (baked ham, baked or fried chicken, fried pork chop) with a choice of three vegetables such as cole slaw, fresh turnip greens, fried corn, squash, candied yams, snap peas, pinto beans, okra and more.

The meat and three is the country cousin of the blue plate special, where compartments on a china plate divided meat from  vegetables.
The meat and three is crossing over and out of Nashville. This fall New York chef Harold Moore (of the late Commerce) is slated to open Harold’s Meat and Three in SoHo, the first meat and three in the Big Apple.
“Meat and three, soul food and country cooking is bascially the same thing,” said Benji Cook, owner of Wendell Smith’s, 5300 Charlotte Ave. on the west side of town. “I’m a country boy, I have a soul food cook and we’re serving meat and threes.” A meat and three at Wendell Smith’s runs $8.07. Folks can order a meat and two, but it is only 50 cents less than a meat and three.

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

The stamped brick restaurant opened in 1952 on the site of a former open air farmer’s market . Wendell Smith’s was popular in the blue collar neighborhood where many residents worked at the nearby Ford Glass Plant.

“They also built a state prison (Riverbend Maximum Security Institution) down here,” said Cook, whose father and retired owner Benji Cook is Smith’s son-in-law. “That’s how West Nashville started. Now its transitioning into these hipsters. They’re tearing
down these little $60,000 houses.”
It’s okay to slip across the street for dessert at Bobbie’s Dairy
Dip, a vintage mid-century ice cream stand and sandwich shop. Don’t miss the ice cream cone with chocolate dip and rainbow sprinkles.

“Bobbie’s was originally Harper’s Dairy Dip,” Cook said. “My grandmother was good friends with the Harpers. They ran boats on the Cumberland River together. Claire (Mullally) was an attorney who did all this research and got the best ice cream, the best angus beef and it became the ultimate dairy dip. Then she sold it and it is still doing well.”
Meat and three is a big deal all over Nashville. Arnold’s Country Kitchen, 605 Eighth Ave. South is within walking distance from Jack White’s studio, Swett’s, 2725 Clifton Ave. is on the north side of
town and is popular with nearby Fisk University students and the Kleer-Vu Lunchnoette is the go-to spot in Murfreesboro 30 miles outside of Nashville.

“It’s the way we eat here,” Cook said. “There’s the Bible Belt so maybe we have the meat and three belt.” Due in great part to its industrial heritage Birmingham, Ala. has a modest meat and three scene and Cook pointed out, “Cracker Barrell is a meat and three but I’m not a food critic.”


Wendell Smith’s batting order

Wendell Smith’s holds about 110 people including 13 at counter stools. A hand scrawled sign at the front door declares “No Saggy  Pants, Thanks Management.” An adjacent liquor store sells Tootsie’s
apple pie moonshine. Steve Smith, co-owner of the historic Tootsie’s honky tonk is good friends with Cook. “He says he’s going to open a meat and four and put me out of business,” Cook said with a laugh.
Wendell Smith’s is a favorite stop of former Chicago songwriters John Prine and his brother Billy. In the late 1960s Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner would adjourn in the rear of the restaurant after
doing their WSM television show. Benji Cook was a golfing partner of Wagoner’s. Parton still orders out for the turnip greens.
The menu changes daily at Wendell Smith’s. Roast beef, baked ham and pit bar-b-que are served daily. “Roast beef is our number one seller,” said Cook, 50. “We serve it hot open face over white bread, wheat bread whatever. We make our own cole slaw. We sell a lot of turnip greens. We peel 10 to 12 five gallon buckets of potatoes by hand every day.”

What is not be part of a meat and three?
“Jello,” he answered. “We make it ourselves. We put fresh canned fruit in it. We sell a lot of it.”
Wendell Smith’s also makes its own cheese sauce for some killer macaroni and cheese. “We take 20 pounds of smooth melt (American) cheese, put four gallons of milk in it, put it in a double bowl and melt it down,” Cook explained. “We pour a little roux in, put it inthe cooler and pour it over the cold pasta. Then we bake it oven as needed.

With the name ‘Cook’ on the table, was taking over the family business inevitable for Cook?

“I was working on big boats and probably wasn’t going to do that the rest of my life,” he answered. “I was a deckhand on a private yacht. I was in Europe and the Caribbean. It’s a good time when you’re young.” He returned to the restaurant in 1994.

His cook Dolleene London started at Wendell Smith’s when she was 24 years old. She has been at the meat and three for 27 years. She learned how to cook from her grandmother.

Dolleene London

Dolleene London

“A meat and three is based on the cooking you would get at home,” said London, who was born and raised in Nashville. “Southern baked chicken with home grown turnip greens. You can get the cabbage, a good old home southern soul food meal. I cook with care and pride. I would want everybody to eat the way I eat. I care about my job.

” Everybody loves my baked chicken. Now, I’m not going to give you my recipe, but I don’t skin it. I season it well and bake it off. I have a dressing I put on top of it when its ready. It is my personal
touch, gravy and all.”
And the personal touch is the fourth ingredient of the beloved meat and three.
Wendell Smith’s is open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, (615) 383-7114; breakfast served all day.



All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The walls of the main dining room at Niki’s West feature assorted anchors and life preservers. A white silhouette carving depicts a fisherman casting a wide net.

The nautical decor does an enchanting job of transporting customers to a far away place.

But where is this place?

Niki’s West was opened in 1957 by Greek immigrant Gus P. Hontzas. It is in an industrial park across the street from the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, which accounts for Niki’s spot-on-fresh vegetables. 

The long cafeteria -buffet style line is a landmark destination for Birmingham’s working class. The line moves fast in a place that has been slow on change.  Every weekday afternoon about half of the customers in the 420-seat restaurant are African-Americans, who because of segregation laws, would not have been allowed to eat at Niki’s West in 1957.

In the fall of 1957 the Civil Rights Act was passed, giving every American the right to vote. About 20 per cent of African-Americans could vote in 1957 and the Civil Rights Act was the first major civil rights legislation passed by congress since 1875.

Niki’s West also invites the debate between the southern “Meat and Three” and “Soul Food.” The restaurant serves 10 entrees and 40 vegetables every day. The “Meat and Three” generally consists of a meat accompanied by three vegetable and/or potato items. But most local African-American customers say Niki’s West has the best soul food in Birmingham. Niki’s is known for its lemon icebox pie, colllared greens and fried orka.

Niki’s is owned and operated by Pete and Teddy Hontzas, the sons of Gus. They are straight shooters. Once that is understood, everything is cool at Niki’s. Just a few years ago Niki’s West had house rules like “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” During a May, 2014 visit a sign in the kitchen read “When you’re on the clock you’re off the phone.”

Pete was dialed in during a lively conversation in Niki’s kitchen. 

“More blacks call this soul food,” he said. “More white people call it meet and three.  In the country they all call it soul food. There’s no racial thing. Soul food is like good music. It sticks to you.

“It conquers your soul.”

Pete Hontzas (center)

Pete Hontzas (center)

Amy C. Evans is the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of he Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Meat and Three is absoultely soul food,” she said. “Meat and Three might be more generally associated with a white establishment, but it is just the way people ate. When you need to feed the body to do the work you had to eat a good amount of nutrient rich and energy providing food.”

Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” because of it’s rapid growth between 1880 and 1920. There is no more magical place in Birmingham to witness the fluid exchange between the city’s past and present than at Niki’s West.

Niki’s West is named after Gus’s daughter Nicoletta. In 1951 Pete and Teddy’s great aunt (his Grandpa’s sister) and great uncle started Niki’s downtown on 2nd Avenue. It was challenging to get the Hontzas brothers to sit down during a visit to Niki’s West. Teddy was slicing steaks in the kitchen and Pete was dealing food for the cafeteria line.

Restaurant manager Diane Simmons was running interference and directing traffic. She started working at Niki’s 1994, seven years before Gus’s death. “Gus was agile,” she declared before seating a couple out of the buffet line. “He was good hearted. He expected you to do what you were hired to do. Both the sons do what it takes to do what keeps the wheels going. It’s busy. On a good day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner I will seat between 900 and 1,200 people.”

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Around two in the afternoon Pete sat down in a small corner to the side of the crowded kitchen.

This seemed to be his place in the world.

“My Dad and his three first cousins came over from Greece in 1951,” Hontzas said. They lived in a small primitive dirt road village where they grew up under the lights of lanterns at night. “My Dad first went to Jackson (Ms.) to stay with my Grandmother’s brother,” Hontzas said. “He learned how to cook, just like the other cousins did. He actually started here in ‘59. My great aunt and great uncle gave him an opportunity from a country that was in a civil war.”

Common threads run through this port of call in the deep American south.

“They basically got pushed out of Greece,” he continued. “The restaurant gave them a chance to excel . So they paid rent to the great aunt and great uncle for running the two places. That’s how it got started. That’s the true story, not some internet thing.”

During their embryonic years Niki’s West and the Niki’s downtown also had lounges with go-go dancers. The present day Niki’s West kitchen is where the lounge used to be. “That’s what they were known for, really,” Hontzas said as he began chain-smoking Winston Lights into my face. 

“In those days go-go dancing was very popular. You had good music back then.  How are you going to have go-go-dancers with this sorry ass music today? Do you classify music as art or just noise? I classify it as noise and thensome downward. In 1984 we got rid of the lounge. The lounge was bigger than the (original)  kitchen, that tells you something.”

Typical mid-1960s go-go dancers-- not at Nikki's West. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

    ’60s go-go dancers– not at Nikki’s. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

The large back dining room was added in 1991 at Niki’s West. Gus was pointing towards the future. “Dad always depended on my brother and I,” Hontzas said. “He would have not built that last addition if we were not going into the business. I think he was ready to sell it or deal with what he had. It still is not for me. I look about 60, don’t I? ”

Pete Hontzas was born in 1966. He started working at the restaurant on summer shifts in 1974. He made $5 a day washing dishes and bussing tables. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “But I hated school. I’ve learned everything at this place.”

Only recently did Pete and Teddy remove their cigarette machine that was by the front door. A sign said “Smoking is not encouraged but accepted.” Pete rapidly explained, “It’s true. You have to visualize that line you went through today is not like it was. We had a jukebox. A cigarette machine. It was a hole-in-the-wall. I told Dad the cigarette machine looked tacky in here. But he said, ‘That damn machine makes $400 a month.’ So that’s why that sign was there. It became an icon. It’s a colorful place. Are you Polish, German or what?

“They call Chicago, New Orleans the melting pot. We are the melting pot of Birmingham. We have blue collar workers, white collar workers, lawyers, politicians, couples and families who can save a lot more money by eating here. The dynamics of the city have changed. The city is spread out. There’s growth south of the city. People are going to Hoover (pop. 82,000, the largest suburb of Birmingham)

“A lot of municipalities have their own places to eat. We’re kind of a destination point. They probably come here for the entertainment, but I want them to come for the food first. That’s soul food. I  can eat more black than a white man can. I can eat more white than a white man can. I can eat more Greek than a Greek man can. I love good food.”

Auburn University baseball-football legend Bo Jackson has visited Niki’s West several times. Actor-comedian Chris Rock stopped at Niki’s West in when he was in town. The Rolling Stones launched their 1989 tour in Birmingham and two of the Stones ate at Niki’s West. 

Hontzas cannot remember which ones they were. “Why don’t they come get my autograph?,” he asked. “If a hot shot lawyer comes in here do you think I’m going to bow down to him? I think not. Humility is the bottom line.”

Niki’s West is north of downtown Birmingham.

Over time Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor emerged as one of the most menacing faces of the civil rights era. In May, 1963 he green-lighted the Birmingham police and fire department use of firehoses and police dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children and high school students. The violence was televised and forced  viewers to look at civil rights with a more sympathetic eye. 

The speed of change began to accelerate. The Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination was passed in 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln.” Today, a cold steel life-size statue of a generic Birmingham policeman and a barking dog confronting a member of the non-violent “Children’s Crusade” stands with other civil rights era statues in downtown Kelly Ingram Park. Connor confronted the demonstrators in this park, named after the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I.


Hontzas was not born During Connor’s reign of terror in 1963.

“I’m full blooded Greek,” he said. “If you act right and judge content by your character, I don’t have any problem. If you act like a fool, white, black, whatever, you’re getting your ass out the door. 

I don’t look at people through color. I was brought up that if you do right, right will follow. We are gracious people. We want people to be happy.”

Willis Huggins, Sr. started eating at Niki’s West in the early 1970s. 

He was an African-American salesman across the street at Alabama Paper & Metal Works. On a busy afternoon in May, 2014 he was enjoying beef liver, cabbage and rice with his wife Hattie, son Willis, Jr. and brother-in-law Henry Jackson of Salisbury, N.C.

Huggins looked around the room and said, “About 40 years ago where we could only stick our heads in the door and get our orders to go. We were not allowed to be seated here.” Huggins was semi-retired and presiding elder at the A.M.E. African Episcopal Church. He oversees 21 churches in west Birmingham and four in Greensboro, Ala.

“I hear about people buying meat and threes here, but I’ve never had it,’ said Huggins, who was born in 1943.  “I call this soul food–down home country cooking. You have to have some neck bones.”

Stephanie Powell is a stay at home Mom who gets out of the house twice a week and drives 17 miles one way from her home in Hoover to Niki’s. “This is soul food and any vegetable you can name,” said Powell, who was born in 1968. “And their vegetables are fresh. Some places you go to you can tell the vegetables are out of the can. I’m a cook, I’m a caterer. They probably got these turnip greens across the street at the farmer’s market. This place has stood the test of time. It made it through our bad economy. We had so many restaurants close down in Birmingham.”

Her friend Kenyatta Strait has been coming to Niki’s since 1999. 

Strait said, “Today I had turnip greens, fried corn, I loved the sweet tea and Greek chicken.” Strait had doggie bags for her Red Velvet Cake and Greek Chicken. “Greek chicken is popular (four days a week),” Hontzas said. “Blackened tialpia, veal cutlet very popular and served every day. Yesterday we had rib-eye steaks. You can’t beat that. Six ounce rib-eye medium rare? That’s beautiful. We had barbecue chicken yesterday, we didn’t have Greek chicken. Pork chops tomorrow, turkey and dressing tomorrow. We have a fresh salmon we do Creole style.”

Willis Huggins, Sr, wife Hattie (far right) and family

Pete Hontzas is not shy about dishing out soul food philosophy.

“People used to love fried chicken with a bone in it,” he said. “Now adults want chicken fingers. What does that tell you where we are going? We used to serve whole flounders. The younger generation doesn’t know what a whole fish tastes like. It is two times better with the bone in it than it is filleted. I won’t eat filleted fish hardly. I have an old soul and my customers love that. I was brought up to like good. food. period.

“You have to something out there you can make money on, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. In this politically correct society they don’t classify macaroni and cheese as a vegetable. We do. Starch and protein? We don’t do all that fancy bullshit. Every day we just write the 10 entrees and 40 vegetables. We include the salad bar as a vegetable.”

The Alabama Farmer’s Market opened in 1956 on 49 acres of land. The membership is now more than 200 growers, and all members must be from the State of Alabama. Niki’s West makes regular visits to the market. 

“That’s why they put this place here,” Hontzas said. “There’s no delivery fee for us. It was so huge back then. Even up to the mid-1990s there was a lot going on there. It’s not as big as it once was.”

Hontzas said he staffs 84 people at Niki’s West. Pete’s cousin John contributes Niki’s secret slaw dressing. And in 2012 another cousin Tim Hontzas opened his own Johnny’s Restaurant, serving black-eyed peas and fried catfish in downtown Homewood, about five miles outside of Birmingham. Tim was born in 1972 and grew up in Jackson, Ms. He named his restaurant after his grandfather Johnny Constantine Hontzopolous who ran his own Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson from the 1950s through the 1980s.

16th Street Baptist Church, downtown Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 “This topic you’re writing about gives me chill bumps,” Tim Hontzas said in a separate interview. My grandfather’s logo was ‘We prepare food for the body but good food to feed the soul.’ When I started my thing it was Southern ingredients with Greek influences. We are meat and three with a face lift. It all relates to soul food, it is how it is perceived. Niki’s West is soul food. It doesn’t have to be hog jaws and chitlin’s stereotypes to be soul food.

“I remember coming to Niki’s and seeing my Uncle Gus. I was the only boy and I had three sisters. He doted me as one of his own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing the way he raised those boys stern, stern, stern (laughs). I remember the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the clattering of the pans.”

Tim Hontzas graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Misssippi in 1995 and for 15 years worked on and off for James Beard-winning chef John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Ms.  Hontzas moved to the Birmingham area because his wife Elizabeth Dreiling was a staff photographer for Southern Living magazine.

When he opened his own 85-seat Johnny’s Restaurant in 2012 he used his grandfather’s logo and his 1950s and 1960s menus hang on the walls. “What you have to remember about Niki’s is that it was the shit in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “They were the first place serving snapper throats. They were the first place driving down to the Gulf of Mexico and bringing back fresh grouper and flounder and hand cutting steaks. And that was the night menu. It’s still the old school way of an 18, 24 ounce rib eye on a wooden platter with a knife stuck up under it and onion rings on top. That’s their damn garnish. There’s no edible flowers or hype. I come from a fine dining background so I know about it.”

Niki’s West also has a modest breakfast menu with grits and hash browns. A bold sign by the front door reminds guests of this fact: “Wake Up! To a Southern Breakfast. Niki’s West.”

“We create our own potatoes,” Pete Hontzas said proudly. “We make everything from scratch. We’re here though, so we do it. My brother and I will always be (behind) the (cafeteria) line. We’re opposites. He’s the younger brother and it becomes very interesting.”

Pete and Teddy trade off shifts. One shift launches at 4:30 a.m. and winds down around 2 p.m. The “night man” comes in around 9:30 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 p.m. “Next week he’lll do it and I’ll be on the other shift,” said Hontzas, who is married with three daughters and a son “Do you know how that effects your sleeping? We’re stupid though. We make no sense.

“But if you did everything by sense you wouldn’t have America.”

FinalMINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Albin “Al”  Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.

Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.

Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.”  (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)

Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.

How do you keep the music playing?

Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.  

“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.


Phil Barker with a Polish beer at Nye’s

Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.

Barker is a direct connection with Nye.  He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.

 “Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened  in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“

 Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”

 “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday.  The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.

Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”

But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths. 

The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.

In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained.  “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”

And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.

Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around  Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at  the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”

“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?

Where will these stories go?

Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café.  “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.


When I was working on The Supper Club Book  a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.

“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are  popular again, especially  the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.

Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.

Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said.  “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.

Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer.  You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.

 “I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin  had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”

But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.




Davenport, Iowa, June 29,  2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

Davenport, Iowa, June 29, 2015 (Dave Hoekstra photos)

DAVENPORT, Ia.—Sometimes you reset the odometer.

I buried my parents in  April and late May and in early June my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire stopped running at the toll booth on a trip from Naperville to Chicago, a journey I had been making weekly over the last 18 months. Finis. The car was as loyal as an old mare and left only after it had done its job. I’ve spent 30 years writing road stories of small towns and gentle intentions and never had to call a tow truck.

I needed a lift.

When it came time to drive to the Quad Cities for my Midwest League baseball column I deployed my parents 2006 Hyuandi Sonata. You learn a new car, you learn a new way of life. I had used the four-door Sonata for all of my parents doctors appointments. My Pontiac only had two doors and a back seat full of half read Sunday New York Times.

The measured cadence of baseball lends itself well to being in the moment. Keep your eye on the ball. Embrace every blade of green grass of a Midwest League field because soon it will be winter for all of us. But on the drive out to the great Mississippi River I could not deflect recent moments, especially on my mother’s final visits to the Naperville Cemetery.

I would remove her black Drive wheelchair from the trunk of the Sonata. The caregiver and I helped my mom out of the passenger side of the car and into the wheel chair. I would wheel mom over the grass to my father’s grave. My parents are buried around stories much sadder than theirs.  Mom  got as quiet as a broken radio. Sometimes I looked away. She never wanted to stay long but she always wanted to arrive. Mom and Dad were married 65 years.

Rivers have a timeless nature which is why I wanted to see the Quad Cities River Bandits after all that I had been through. Rivers are always going somewhere and I feel a greater sense of history in Mississippi River towns than I do when I am along the ocean in Key West and Myrtle Beach -although Coney Island is an exception.

I drove alone to Davenport, at least in a physical sense. I brought along a river mix CD I made in 2012:  “Kern River” by the great Merle Haggard, “River Bends” by Tim  O’Regan,” “Get Down River” by the Bottle Rockets, and “Moon River” by Andy Williams, a song my parents liked.

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

River Scene on the Mississippi Davenport, IA

The first thing I did when I got to downtown Davenport was visit the Quad Cities Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Union Station, 102 S. Harrison St. The center features souvenir books, locally made food and drink, postcards and bike rentals that are perfect for the riverfront.

I found the River Music Experience (RME) museum and performing arts center thriving at 129 N. Main St. in downtown Davenport. The two-floor RME is in the former Von Maur department store in the  Redstone building, erected in 1872. I first visited RME right after it opened in 2004 and it continues to amaze me Davenport can feature such a fine music museum while Chicago cannot get its act together to honor its important music heritage. In fact, RME is expanding to honor coronetist-composer, Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in  Davenport. (Sun Ra sideman Pat Patrick was from East Moline, Ill.)

RME presents an all-ages and free “Live @ 5” series on the museum courtyard; Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey play today, followed by Fickle Filly and the Haymakers on Aug. 7, Wicked Liz & the Belly Swirls on Aug, 14 and the Ellis Kell Band on Aug, 21 (Kell is also a long-time museum staffer.)

I walked along the Mississippi River.

I had been to the former John  O’ Donnell Stadium several times but I had never found the time to  carry my thoughts along the river and Le Claire Park. I made discoveries. I saw a plaque that commemorated Aug. 22, 1963 when the  Catholic Interracial Council and other area organizations held Iowa’s  largest civil rights rally at the 400-acre park. Nearly 2,000 marchers listened to speakers like John Howard Griffin, author of “Black Like Me,” who spoke in the park’s since-refurbished band shell.

The march was a warm-up to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (D.C.) which drew more than 250,000 people to hear Dr. Martin Luther King and others.IMG_0954

Finally, everyone can enjoy a nice picnic in the park and walk to what is now  called Modern Woodmen Park. The fraternal financial services company  scored naming rights in a 20-year deal worth $4.5 million. The 84- year-old “Modern Woody” often makes national news for getting flooded  out. Home plate is 400 feet from “The Big Muddy.”

The stadium was doing fine in June. A removable flood wall was created in June 2013 with a removable bridge that provides pedestrian access from the floodwater to the stadium. It is one of the three longest installations of its type in North America and the wall can be installed by six people in less than 24 hours.

June was the wettest month in Illinois history with 8.9 inches of rain, a fact not lost on my blue mood. I sat through an 86-minute rain delay before the game was suspended after four innings  with Quad Cities (Astros) leading Beloit (Oakland)  1-0 (Quad Cities  won 2-1 the next day.)

Earlier this year Modern Woodmen Park was voted “Best of the Ballparks” in Class A baseball by fans and readers of Ballpark Digest, which conducted a bracketed online voting competition of all Class A venues.

Modern Woodmen is the oldest stadium used continuously by a current minor league baseball team for more than 50 years. Davenport’s baseball history is one of the most storied in America, going back to 1879 when Davenport was a member of The Northwestern League that included Rockford, Ill. Dubuque, Ia. and Omaha, Ne. Northwestern is acknowledged as the first league west of the Mississippi River.


My brother recently gave me the 2013 John Sexton book “Baseball as a Road to God (Seeing Beyond the Game)” which cites a 1956 poem John Updike wrote for the New Yorker while sitting in the Yankee Stadium bleachers:  “Distance brings proportion…From here the populated tiers as much as players seem part of the show…..”

Sexton wrote how Updike saw unity in time and place within the framework of baseball.

I last visited the riverside park in 2004 when the team was known as the “Swing of the Quad Cities,” which always sounded like some kind of private kinky club. The improvements are impressive and memorable.

In May, 2014 a new 110-foot tall $1 million Ferris wheel was erected beyond  the left field fence. The wheel was shut down during lightning and thunder, but it is easy to see that you can see views of the Mississippi River and the humble Davenport skyline. Why didn’t Tom Ricketts think of this as part of his left field renovation? The Cubs have been spinning wheels for generations. There is a $5 charge to ride the wheel.

A children’s amusement area is being built in the right field corner, bringing a bit of the wonderful Brooklyn Cyclones-by Coney Island experience to Iowa.

The latest addition for this season is a tiny cornfield in the left field corner beyond the bullpen. Bumper cars will be added in the right field corner before the season is over.

It is clear that River Bandits owner Dave Heller is all ears for just about anything. He realizes the shortened attention spans of today’s younger baseball audience.


This is Iowa baseball.

“When I get five or six innings out of my kids I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” Heller said from Connecticut where he was tending to his ill father. “If we’re in someone else’s park and they’re tired, we can leave. But when it’s Quad Cities and I’m in charge, leaving is not an alternative. Part of it is understanding first hand the struggles parents have to carve out affordable family friendly entertainment for themselves and their families. We wanted to do things that hadn’t been done before in minor league baseball to provide enough other attractions to keep them there for nine innings.”

Heller is a life long Democratic political media consultant. He attended Yale University where he completed his Master’s thesis and taught an undergraduate seminar on 20th Century American Politics.

“I’ve worked for 25 different members of congress,” said Heller, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m working on a number of campaigns include Congressman Alan Grayson who is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. I still love politics. But I joke that I’ve spent my entire life selling something nobody wants to buy and now I get a chance to sell something people really enjoy—baseball.” And sometimes, something people really need.




Dave Hoekstra photo,  June 9, 2015

Dave Hoekstra photo, June 9, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–If you look hard enough you see history in the misty shadows of bright neon.

As Asheville grows as a tourist destination many people stop to take photos of the Mountaineer Inn neon-lit sign on the near east side of Tunnel Road. The 1960s era sign features a hillbilly with a rifle resting against his right leg.

The iconic sign is purposely spelled with backwards N’s and E’s to attract roadside attention, but it attracts its own desires at night when it is lit up in cherry red and evergreen outlines.

Asheville is now filled with trendy motels and boutique hotels, so the Mountaineer Inn is left for extended stay residents, day laborers and the occasional prostitute. On a lazy June afternoon I sat by the pool (closed for remodeling) reading the biography of North Carolina born writer Joseph Mitchell. I saw that a few families were attracted to the Mountaineer Inn. The families asked proprietor Chris Moutos to see a room and then left for greener pastures.

And they were witness to the kind of room I stayed in: a saggy bed, a 1970s era Zenith television set jerry-rigged to cable TV and an air conditioning system run through the front office. I paid $59 for a Monday night stay. As one family drove away a middle-aged man with a walking cane left his room. He startled the mockingbird perched on the roof of his unit. His dago tee shirt wasn’t doing any favors for his ample belly. The man asked me how far the Waffle House was. It is two blocks west, not far from where the sun sets on Asheville.

Dave Hoekstra photo

Dave Hoekstra photo

The Mountaineer Court was built in 1939 as a 19-unit motel. Moutos added another 44 units in 1973. “Some of the biggest rooms in the state, 14 by 28 (feet),” Moutos crowed. The Mountaineer now consists of 76 units and the spectacular neon of the barefooted mountain man with his corncob pipe and rifle.

John Turk, Vice-President of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and Professor Emeritus Youngstown State University told me, “Asheville was founded in the 1790s and has had up and down times. The civil war certainly a down time.

“When the railroad got here in 1880 the place started to boom. You could get to Asheville from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A lot of people came to the mountains to get away from the heat and humidity. It built up until 1920 and the stock market crashed.Asheville went into the dark ages until the 1960s when tourist trade started to jump again. That’s when all these motels were built on the three main roads that led into Asheville. Themes varied from hillbilly to Florida chic to Colonial Revival and that was the time period before Howard Johnson’s where they all looked the same. There was a certain amount of character to the Mountaineer.”

Turk leads walking tours and bus tours of downtown Asheville through History At Hand. He has lived in Asheville for 10 years.

He admits he has never stayed at the Mountaineer.

“It is wonderful this motel is still in operation,” he said. “It prides itself in this huge sign. And if you live in Asheville everybody knows where it is. You are either in the camp that thinks its a horrible filthy thing that we need to get rid of or an iconic statement about what was happening in Asheville in the 1950s and 60s.”

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

 The 5’2” Moutos shuffled about his front office which features a vintage sofa and a front desk where he registers visitors by pen and paper. On a good day Moutos will tell visitors about studying Byzantine music as a young man. A Greek Orthodox, Moutos wanted to be a priest when he was young.

Here is a portion of our interview that we aired on the July 18 edition of Nocturnal Journal on WGN-AM 720 in Chicago.

“I will be 92 in one month,” he said. “And I work from seven in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. If we have a storm, we get big problems with the neon. It cost money to operate. It is hard to get parts. I fight and fight to keep the sign. The city has made it a historic sign. People from Europe and all over take pictures of that sign. Several people have tried to buy the motel. It is not for sale. What do I do if I stay home? Keep working. That’s all I can do. I love to meet people. I meet good people.

“Remember ‘Horse’ on ‘Bonanza”?

Actually it was ‘Hoss.’

“I wanted to give him (Dan Blocker) the room free,” Moutos continued. “He would not take the free room. He went across the street and ate feta cheese and bread just like he was in Athens, Greece. He came here in September, 1964.”

Blocker was one of Moutos’ first celebrity guests. Moutos was an Asheville restauranteur on June 10, 1964 when he visited the motel to sell a chamber of commerce membership. “I bought the motel in less than three minutes without knowing what I do,” Moutos said in a broken Greek accent.

Moutos was born in Greece and grew up in Athens. He was a messenger in World War II and came to America in 1951. Moutos lived with his aunt and uncle in Augusta, Ga. for 18 months before relocating to Greenville, S.C. to work in a restaurant. He next moved to Asheville to open his restaurants. He liked Asheville because the cool climate reminded him of the Mediterranean. At one time Moutos operated four diners in Asheville.

But Moutos found his calling in the Mountaineer.

His first restaurant, Cosmos, was across the highway from the Mountaineer.

“One of the most nice and high reputation in the state,  the best part of the city,” he said. Moutos is married to a high school classmate from Athens but they didn’t get hitched until April, 1977. It was not a shotgun wedding. “I was 53,” he said. “I went back to Greece to get married. She is 17 years younger than I am.” Barbara and Chris have sons ages 34 and 36. The oldest son John is involved with the motel and lives in Raleigh, N.C. Nick lives in Asheville.

Portions of the 1988 hit baseball film “Bull Durham” were filmed in  Asheville and the nearby McCormick Field is a minor league baseball treasure. McCormick is situated in a slope on the fringe of the downtown area. I’ve visited McCormick Field the past two summers.

The tiny brick framed ballpark (4,000 capacity) opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1959. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Willie Stargell are among those who have played at McCormick where the right field wall is a mere 297 feet from home plate. The Asheville Tourists are a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.


Waiting for the gates to open (Dave Hoekstra photo)

McCormick is baseball’s oldest minor league stadium still in use. The vintage scoreboard reads “Visitors” in the guest slot and “Tourists” underneath in the home slot. In “Bull Durham” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) ends his career with the Tourists after being released by the Durham Bulls.

 “Bull Durham make shot,” Moutos said. “It was all right. I gave them the room free because it was good work for the city. But they took off the screen doors and never put them back. They were rough people. I’m glad they did the scene with no clothes on at another hotel in Greensboro (S.C.)

Moutos had a better experience with the acclaimed 2003 indy film “All The Real Girls” that starred Zooey Deschnael and Paul Schneider. 

“That was the best movie we had here,” he said. “Good girls. It was nice. They stayed here from October to March. 40 rooms. They were beautiful people. They paid the bills and it was good advertisement for the motel. The producer (Jean Doumanian) wanted to write a story on me. I came here with nothing and made something.”

The 92-year-old proprietor can walk around his grounds and realize it is not 1964 any more. “It’s not good people like it used to be,” he said. “You have to watch close to whom you rent it. You don’t want to rent to people who have a good time or dealers of dope and those things. You have to watch it close. You have to be 21 to rent a room. We have a bridal suite with new furnitures.” And like an old wedding ring, the Mountaineer circles the past with hopes for the future.

The Mountaineer Inn is at 155 Tunnel Rd, for reservations, call 1-800-255-4080.

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

Finding yourself on the road; George Maharis (left)

A couple weeks ago I saw my pal Jimmy Rittenberg at Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse, 1028 N. Rush for an interview on the most comprehensive book about Disco Demolition you will read.

Rittenberg was the impresario of Faces, 940 N. Rush, arguably America’s best known disco. It certainly had a longer run  (1971-89) than Studio 54.

Like a Frank Sinatra ballad, our conversation floated off into the dreamy 1970s memories of Rush Street; a time when footsteps were lighter and the Jack was stronger.

Soon we were joined at our table in the bar by comedian Tom Dreesen.

This guy is everywhere.

He was on my WGN Nocturnal Journal radio show in May  and now he was in Chicago to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Dodgers game.

Dreesen told a few good stories at Gibson’s  but I loved his recollection about his bit role in the 1971 movie “T.R. Baskin,” which starred Candice Bergen as a young woman from rural Ohio who meets sleazy guys in the big city.

The mostly panned movie was shot in Chicago and included scenes at the now-gone O’Connell’s Coffee Shop on Rush street. The coffee shop wasn’t far from Punchinello’s, 936 N. Rush, a popular after-show spot for acts at the Shubert  Theater and Mr. Kelly’s—now Gibson’s. The second floor Punchinello’s is also where comedienne-singer Pudgy got her big break.

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

Jimmy Rittenberg (L) and Tom Dreesen (Paul Natkin photo)

 “I just had a couple of lines,” Dreesen said. “But in the movie with me was a gay kid who worked at Punchinello’s. He was one of the first gay guys back in those days who buffed, who wore the tight shirts and everything. And his name was Bon-Bon which I thought was the greatest name for a guy in a movie. Everybody liked him and he was a likeable kid.

“George Maharis was working at Mister Kelly’s. He goes down to Punchinello’s and he likes Bon-Bon. But George wasn’t out of the closet in those days. I don’t if he ever was out of the closet.”

Rittenberg leaned over and said, “He is now!”

Actually, Maharis was arrested in 1974 for  on a sex perversion charge with perfectly named male hairdresser Perfecto Telles in the bathroom of a Los Angeles gas station. Just a year earlier Maharis posed nude for “Playgirl” magazine.


“George Mahraris was (Buz Murdock) on Route 66,” Dreesen continued. “So Maharis sees Bon-Bon and makes a move. He says, ‘Would you like to go out later?’ Well Bon-Bon says ‘Yes!, are you kidding?’ Bon-Bon tells Maharis he’s going to get off in five minutes and Maharis says ‘I’m going to leave, meet me on the corner.”

Dreesen looked over his shoulder to distant characters on a different Rush Street.

With impeccable pacing he continued, “Bon-Bon was disappointed because he wanted his friends to see him. So Maharis is walking through the restaurant going out and Bon-Bon starts walking behind him.”

And Dreesen started tip toeing around the crowded restaurant bar, smiling with sealed lips as he pointed to an imaginary Maharis. “All the other gay guys are applauding Bon- Bon,” Dreesen said. “ And Maharis is beaming and going ‘Thank you, thank you!’

“It was a scene I could put in a movie.”

Rittenberg and I took it all in.

Rittenberg was born in 1943 and grew up in West Garfield Park. His father James, Sr. was a Jackson Boulevard bus driver for Chicago Motor Coach, his mother Lucille was a telephone operator. “My Mom was a music buff but I hated a lot of her music,” he said. “I remember breaking ‘Sentimental Journey’ by accident on purpose. Then when ‘45s came out I ruled the roost, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was my favorite. I played ‘Lucille’ and my mother hated it.”

He broke onto the Rush Street scene tending bar at the original Store, 1030 N. State, which previously had been the Gate of Horn, where in 1962 Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges.

“Rush Street was different than State Street,” Rittenberg explained. “Rush Street was a little dressier. I made $6 a night in tips bartending at the Store, when I moved to Jay’s (1026 N. Rush) I was a school teacher so I only worked Friday and Saturday nights. I made a $150 a night.”

Rittenberg taught sixth and seventh grade and coached baseball and basketball for six years at St. Francis Cabrini at Sacramento and Polk. “I go back to the Marienthals, Chez Paree,” he said. “I learned from those guys.” George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s, the Happy Medium and the London House in the north Loop. Rittenberg declared, “ Rush Street has been destroyed.  I tell (Gibson’s owner Steve) Lombardo that all the time. No more hookers, no more jazz joints. Its turned into restaurant row and now clothing.”

And life is more fun when you peel back the layers.


NASHVILLE, Tn.–Bob Dylan began recording “Blonde on Blonde” in the fall of 1965 with the Hawks, the Ronnie Hawkins band that was still navigating the departures of Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. The sessions were sluggish and producer Bob Johnston moved the show (with Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Al Kooper) to Nashville, Tn. 

Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy became the connector.

The Nashville session player was visiting New York in the summer of 1965 to see the World’s Fair when Johnston invited him to play acoustic guitar on the 11-minute “Desolation Row” for Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album. McCoy helped open the doors to one of the most prolific eras of Dylan’s career. Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde” “John Wesley Harding” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” in Nashville with generous session players that became known as the “Nashville Cats.”

Dylan also buddied up with Johnny Cash, which is the point of the new “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” that runs through Dec. 31, 2016 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The cats were popularized in the 1966 Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Nashville Cats.” Cash taped his ABC television series “The Johnny Cash Show” between 1969 and 1971 at the Ryman Auditorium.

McCoy had been a member of the Escorts that also featured ‘Nashville Cat’ drummer Kenny Buttrey. Dylan likely heard the root source of the Escorts that he was looking for in the Hawks. Dylan also found a recording process that was more democratic and less rigid than New York studios, which begins to explain how the double-album “Blonde on Blonde” zig zags through country, rock, folk and rhythm and blues.

During a charming interview in late April at the Country Music Hall of Fame (the same day Dylan appeared with his pop combo a few blocks away at Andrew Jackson Hall) McCoy figured Dylan knew of his harmonica playing on the 1962 Escorts hit “Harpoon Man.” The exhibit companion CD was released this week and includes “Harpoon Man” as well as a previously unheard Dylan outtake of “If Not For You.”

“Somehow I didn’t see Bob Dylan checking out the country charts,” McCoy said. “It was a strange deal. He never talked in the studio. And I’m the leader so I’m supposed to be the go between between the artist, producer and musicians. Every time I asked him his thoughts about what we’re going to do, his answer was, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ I told Bob Johnston, ‘Listen, I’m not getting any answers from him so I’m going to quit asking. If he doesn’t like something, maybe he’ll speak up. He never said a word. Ever. So that’s what we did.“Maybe I should have been paid as producer.”

The cats were led by McCoy but also included Charlie Daniels, guitarist-producer Norbert Putnam (J.J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt) and many others. McCoy did the arrangements on “Blonde on Blonde.” “You listen to ‘Blonde on Blonde’, there’s not a lot of solos,” he said. “A lot of songs are real long, too. It was just another session. But it was a strange session for us. In the country world, nobody had budgets to have a room full of musicians sitting around all night.”

McCoy’s favorite track remains “Lay, Lady Lay.” “The (Pete Drake) steel on it was magical,” he said. “Many people swear we overdubbed, he did not over dub. I sat there and watched it.” McCoy went on to play bass on “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait.”

Michael Gray, museum editor and co-curator of “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” said, “When Dylan and others were coming in the late 1960s they were working with that second wave of studio musicians. Bob Dylan was 24 when he first came to Nashville. The musicians he was working with were about that same age. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a much different record than ‘John Wesley Harding’ or ‘Nashville Skyline’. It’s more of that R&B based rock n’roll. I think Dylan was impressed with the fact Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, the core band on that album were a white R&B band.”


Charlie McCoy (far right) and the Escorts (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Dylan, McCoy, Johnston, Robertson and others began recording in Columbia Studio A, 34 Music Square East. Cash, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline  found magic in the studio walls and relaxed atmosphere that includes a living room.

In 2014 the studio was restored and reopened through an estimated $10 million donation from the Curb Family Foundation. Studio A is closed to the public but in recent months Ben Folds and Kacey Musgraves have recorded there. After hosting Dylan, Studio A became home to folk-rock artists.

“The great thing about Dylan is that it exploded the town,” McCoy said.  “The ‘A’ team guys (The Nashville “A-Team” session players included Floyd Cramer on keyboards, Bob Moore on bass) were as full as they could get. They couldn’t do anymore. All of a sudden there’s this new  volume of recording. There became a need for a lot more players.“The studios started springing up right and left.”

This is where “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” gains traction.

For example the exhibit pays homage to Paul McCartney, Neil Young and others who came to Nashville to record as well as the outsider’s Quadrafonic Studio, a.ka. “The Quad” where Steve Goodman’s self-titled 1971 debut album was recorded with Putnam and Kris Kristofferson.

“Quad” co-owner Putnam produced the early hit records of Jimmy Buffett at the studio that also attracted Jerry Jeff Walker and J.J. Cale. “They built that studio thinking they would be the home for hippie artists with their ‘alternative’ lifestyle,” McCoy explained. “Because smoking grass and all that was absolutely not allowed in mainstream studios here. Although I did not agree with it I think David (Briggs, co-founder) and Norbert were smart in they let guys do what they want.”

The Nashville A-Team had already sat the bar so very high.

Nashville Cat Lloyd Green's Show-Bud pedal steel which was used on the Byrds 1968 album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," introducing pedal steel to rock audiences. Green also played this instrument on Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Nashville Cat Lloyd Green’s Show-Bud pedal steel which was used on the Byrds 1968 album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” introducing pedal steel to rock audiences. Green also played this instrument on Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

“Pursuit of excellence,” McCoy said. “Those guys were doing three or  four sessions a day, cutting hit after hit. When I started playing in 1961 my first session was with the A team. I was inspired by their work ethic–in a relaxed way. And it was all good. Of course the music was relatively simpler then. It was incredible.

“One day on three back to back sessions for Mercury they cut three number one records with three different artists: “Ahab the Arab” for Ray Stevens, “Wooden Heart” on Joe Dowell and “Walk on By” for LeRoy Van Dyke. In the same day.”

Bob Johnston’s name appears as producer on Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen records, but he did not have the high profile of a modern day Don Was or Joe Henry.

“Bob was a songwriter from Texas who came to Nashville to demo songs to get into Elvis movies,” McCoy said. “That’s how he and I knew each other. I was leading sessions for him with Kenny, Pig (Robbins, keyboardist)–that group. He took songs they turned down for Elvis to New York. The Columbia producer said, ‘These are great demos. Where did you record these?’ He said he did them in Nashville. He then asked the age old question, ‘Did you produce these?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ Don’t say ‘no’ to a question like that. Say ‘yes’ and figure it out later.”

So Johnston was assigned to produce Patti Page in Nashville. He later  became the head of Columbia’s Nashville division. “He revived Patti’s career and made him the golden boy for Columbia Records,” McCoy said. “That’s when they offered Dylan to him, after the Patti Page record. Bob (Johnston) was a smart guy. He wasn’t totally musical but he had a good instinct for tempos and grooves. He could converse with these artists and make them feel like they were in the right place. He stayed out of the way of musicians, too.” Johnston, now 83, went on to produce Jimmy Cliff’s 1978 “Give Thanx” reggae record and Carl Perkins’ 1996 all-star record “Go Cat Go.”

Chicago artist-country-rock musician Jon Langford contributed the exhibit’s artwork, CD cover and the engaging rustic atmopshere of the museum rooms.

The wonderful work of Jon Langford (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

The wonderful work of Jon Langford (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Gray said, “We considered different artists and painters. The staff here knew Jon Langford had done paintings of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. We knew he understood the story and had a love and appreciation for it. We called him out of the blue and said, ‘Would you be interested in creating the art for this exhibit?’ The primary piece we commissioned is a picture of Dylan and Cash together and the names of the Nashville cats are scrawled all around it. Shortly before the exhibit opened he sent us another painting he did on his own because he has a passion for this, and that one was of all the Nashville Cats that we feature in the exhibit.” The museum took Langford’s look and style to the exhibit graphic designer who used the same feel and fonts to create the rest of the exhibit.

Langford, country singer Deana Carter and others were guests in a Nasvhille Cats band led by McCoy during the exhibit’s opening weekend in late March.


Jon Langford at work (Museum photo by Dave Hoekstra)

McCoy was born on March 28, 1941 in Fayette County, W. Va. “The same town Hank Williams died in,” he said. “I got my first harmonica when I was eight years old. I saw an ad in a comic book, 50 cents and a box top for a harmonica. So I conned my mother out of 50 cents. After about a day she said, ‘Could you take that thing outside?’ That same year I got a guitar for Christmas.

“My Dad lived in Florida. My Mom lived in West Virginia. I was kind of an anemic kid and they figured the warmer weather would be good for me. I went to school in Florida in the winter and went back to West Virginia in the summer.”

On one lonely night at the age of 15 McCoy heard the grinding blues of Jimmy Reed on WLAC out of Nashville. “It was so strange,” said McCoy, who was also listening to Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. “My father didn’t like rhythm and blues music. So there was a kid in the neighborhood whose Dad was a ham operator. He took my clock radio and put an ear phone jack on the back of it. So I could listen to WLAC late at night and my Dad wouldn’t hear it. I’d hear Howlin’ Wolf. All the blues stuff. Then I discovered Little Walter and that was it.  He’s still the greatest for blues harmonica.”

McCoy came to Nashville in 1960, the day after he graduated high school and by May, 1961 he was hired for his first session. McCoy played harmonica behind singer-starlet Ann Margaret. “It was like I  died and went to heaven,” he said. “There’s God. Chet Atkins. His disciples, the Nashville A-Team. There’s the heavenly choir, the Anita Kerr Singers. And there’s an angel–an 18-year-old Ann  Margaret. The bass player on that session asked me if I was free Friday. I was free the rest of my life. He said, ‘Come back to the studio and record Roy Orbison.’ So we did ‘Candy Man.’ (Elvis Presley sideman) Scottie Moore was playing guitar. Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph were on it. After that record became a hit my phone started to ring.

“It was like a charmed, magic dream that I’m still in.”

McCoy played empathetic harmonica on the George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1995 some of his  fellow Nashville Cats (Pig Robbins, Buddy Spicher on mandolin, the Jordaniares singing group) backed alt rockers Ween on their excellent “12 Country Golden Country Greats” tunes that included “Piss Up a Rope” and the peppy “Japanese Cowboy.” The 10 song project was recorded at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville under the production of Ben Vaughn. “They did their homework,” McCoy said. “They came here and knew all about everybody which was amazing especially how young they were. Some of their lyrics were over the top, but musically it was good. And they were nice guys.”

Charlie McCoy

Charlie McCoy

McCoy also was the long time  musical director for the hit Buck Owens-Roy Clark variety show “Hee-Haw.”

“First I was called in to play one show behind Ray Charles,” he said. “At that time they were filming in a television station in downtown Nashville. They would tape for a month and every time they would tape the City of Nashville police department had a field day writing department tickets. There wasn’t enough places at that station for their own employees more less 60 or 70 people that it takes to do a major TV show.

“A year later the producer called me back and asked me to consider playing in the band. I was working around the clock. I tried one shot and 18 years later I was still trying one more shot. It was such a great show and every day you went to work you were surrounded by legends. Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl.

“Later it became evident to me how important this show was to country music. Today, when I go out and play people say, ‘We miss ‘Hee-Haw’. It was our Saturday night routine. If you can’t laugh at yourself, that is too bad. That’s what we were doing. We were laughing at ourselves.”

No session player in Nashville had the gritty blues textures of McCoy, a fact that was not lost on Dylan. “In my formative years I was trying to play as much like Little Walter as I could,” McCoy said. “For a while here (in Nashville) that  was a novelty. Then it started to wear thin. I’d get comments like, ‘Could you play maybe not quite so funky? That nasty tone and all that stuff.’ I realized if I was going to stick around I’d have to do something different. I started copying fiddles and dobros and cleaning up the sound. I tried to play melodies. You don’t hear many harmonica players play melodies. The combination of all that stuff together gave me a sound. 

Bob Dylan? I didn’t realize he was playing tonight. The last time I saw him was when he did ‘Nashville Skyline’.”

Look at this resume of Charlie McCoy, (he’s playing the Hatfield-McCoy Reunion tonight in West Virginia.) McCoy took a long pause at the end of our conversation. He looked around the room, smiled ever so gently and added, “You know I worked with so many artists and Steve Miller (McCoy is blowing harmonica on Miller’s 1970 “Number 5” record)  was the only one who has given me a gold record.”

My parents back porch

Overlooking my parents back porch, June 2015

You set out on the road to get centered.

The loss of both parents within six weeks is hard to take, even when they were 93 and 94 years old. In their last weeks they asked for “one more day,” which is the gift given to all of you reading this.

On the day after my June 2 birthday I drove to see my brother in Nashville, Tn., I double shot over to listen to Beach Music in Myrtle Beach, S.C., watch the Pelicans lose a double-header and then headed back to Chicago through Asheville, N.C.

The birds chirped louder.

At night I walked alone in the Atlantic Ocean along North Myrtle Beach. The stars seemed closer. I drove and I swam. I tried to keep going.

But I stopped to pick wild flowers. My parents loved flowers. I’ve been looking at Kodachrome slides and discovered portraits of my father in fields of roses, tulips and marigolds. He was always smiling.

I teared up at seeing a Bob Evans restaurant sign and that came out of  nowhere. My folks were Bob Evans regulars before we had to take away the car keys. This road trip presented the conflict of memory and being in the moment.

That all James Taylor station on Sirius XM is not a good idea in this condition.

Cemeteries aren’t as foreboding as they used to be. The first thing I did when I returned to the Chicago area was visit the Naperville Cemetery. The grass has grown over my father’s side. The other night a friend at the Cubs game told me you aren’t fully grown up until a parent dies. I get that now.

I waited for two hours to hear Marsha Morgan singer her Beach Music hit This Girl Needs a Tune-Up” on a Sunday night at Duck’s Too in North Myrtle Beach.


I learned that my favorite newspaper writer Joseph Mitchell called depression “The Black Dog.” Joe was from North Carolina.

I brought along Van Morrison and remembered that “Enlightenment” is the end of suffering. I also thought of my Sun-Times editor and mentor Lon Grahnke and how Van’s “Full Force Gale” was played at the end of his memorial service.

I drove 1,900 miles but still have a long way to go.

In reality, the present is all you have.

North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Under the Boardwalk, North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Mom at an 80-something birthday at Hugo's Frog Bar in Naperville

Mom at her 80-something birthday at Hugo’s Frog Bar in Naperville

Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.

And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.

Mom was 93 years old.

All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.

Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.

Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.

Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.

They stayed strong for each other.

In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.

They lived a deep love I may never know.

Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.

They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner  and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.

Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.

Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home. 

Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.”  The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.

I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”

The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”

My mom was of very ordinary means.

Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.

She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”

In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”

Our Mom & Dad

Mom & Dad with flowers

Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.

In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several  years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.

This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance  at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”

We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.

Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.

Then he smiled and winked at my mom.

Now he did it.


Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.

I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom  scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.

The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.

My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.

She is the gold ring around my heart.


The view from our mom’s favorite chair, 5/23/15

Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal  show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.

Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd.  in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

It should not come as a surprise that Bob Dylan loved Calvert De Forest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman.

Melman was an everyman David Letterman character with jiggly jowls and huge Harry Caray glasses that blurred boundaries between image and reality, just as Dylan does.


Melman was often placed within an incongruous setting–always a key to a fun time. Something like Dylan doing an album of obscure Frank Sinatra songs.

In his 2009 memoir “We’ll Be Here For the Rest Of Our Lives–A Swingin ‘ Show-Biz Saga” “Late Show” bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote that Dylan was fascinated with Melman.

“He mentioned he always saw Larry Bud [walk on] with those gorgeous models,” Shaffer told me in 2009. “Dylan said, ‘Why is he with those chicks?’ It is as simple as that.”

Melman made his name  during the 1980s “Late Night With David Letterman” run on NBC. Back then Dave had a bigger budget, sending Melman off to South America in a Winnebago to harvest his unfiltered observations on culture and food. Back on his home turf Melman once distributed hot towels to grimy travelers at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.


When Dave moved to CBS from NBC in 1993, NBC said “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman’ remained as their intellectual property. Dave simply continued to bring De Forest on stage at the same wide-eyed character, except he was “Calvert De Forest.”

On the May 13, 1994 “Late Show” Dave promised that Johnny Carson would deliver the Top 10 list. De Forest appeared as “Johnny Carson.” Just after De Forest waddled off the stage, the real Johnny Carson appeared. It would be Carson’s final television appearance.

De Forest died in 2007 at the age of 85.

I’m gonna miss you Dave. I’m pulling for “Like a Rolling Stone” tonight.

Or “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”