It’s not an uncommon thing to say of a bar that “there’s no place like it,” but in the case of Jimmy Doyle’s Country Club, this is more or less observably, even statistically true. A vast, brick, dungeon-like structure encircled by several acres of parking off Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, Jimmy Doyle’s belongs to a vulnerable and dwindling species, the traditional American honky-tonk. Friday nights are for karaoke, Saturdays are for the house band. There are no other nights. There’s a story some of the regulars tell, about a “great big old tall guy” who came sliding across the slick wooden dance floor up to the bandstand one night, saying, “Hey, can I come sit in with you guys?” The band said yes, because it was Toby Keith. The important thing isn’t whether the story is true or not, I think, but that they tell it.
“What we do out there is a dying art,” Michael Heavner told me recently. A music instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Heavner is a classically trained pianist who spends his weekdays among “educated musicians,” as he calls them, but for the past 16 years has spent his Saturday nights playing keyboards in the Jimmy Doyle’s house group, the Arkansas River Bottom Band. “I saw it happen,” he said, meaning the decline. “Whenever satellite TV came along, Tunica [the gambling destination in Mississippi] came along, the D.W.I. laws changed, the economy. All of that started a downward trend for blue collar, workingman clubs.”
In the peak years, some 20 years ago, they say you had to show up early to even get in the door. It was a crucial stopover for truckers and country acts both, the I-40 Galloway exit being home to one of the largest truck stops in the state and, in those days, a prime checkpoint for tour buses heading west out of Nashville. The landscape has changed now; the bar hasn’t. “It’s a step back in time,” Heavner said. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”
To really understand the character of the place, its unlikely survival and what Heavner calls its “different vibe,” you have to talk to its namesake, the man who founded the place in his own image and sustained it through good times and bad. And there have been bad times. On the phone with Heavner, I asked if he knew any particularly good Jimmy Doyle’s stories. “Well,” he said, pausing to think. “I know some tragic ones.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I met up with Jimmy Doyle himself, now 78 years old, at his bar, a place few have seen in the daytime. Originally built by Iranian immigrants, a family of grocers, the building is enormous and architecturally striking, with concrete walls 18 inches thick, faux-marble bathrooms (complete with ashtrays) and a metallic gate of ornate, Middle Eastern design over the front door. The closest other building, the place they send you if you forget to bring cash (they don’t accept cards), is a liquor store called, ominously, First and Last Chance.
We met out back, where the remnants of the old sign — huge, wooden letters spelling out “Jimmy,” “Doyle” and “Club,” wired with 255 light bulbs — leaned against the side of the building. A tornado dislodged it a decade ago, though you can tell it must have been an impressive sight. Jimmy Doyle himself stood in the gravel lot, held out his arms and beamed, as if to say, This is it. He wore tight brown slacks, cowboy boots and a short-sleeve button-up print shirt featuring antique prop planes. “Come on in and I’ll show you around,” he said.
Jimmy Doyle, it should be mentioned, isn’t a first and last name — it’s a double first name, like Mary Catherine or John David. His family name is Brewer, as in Brewer Bottoms, the township 15 miles below Stuttgart where he was born in 1936. The son of a nurse and a moonshiner who “agreed to disagree,” as he puts it, when he was still a toddler, Jimmy Doyle was shaped by the place, a 12-mile circle of swamplands along Bayou Meto. After his mother left, he helped his father make whiskey in the woods, pumping the water and making delivery runs with a little red wagon. His favorite stories from childhood involve running from “the revenue men” on horseback. “It’s the only way we had to make a living,” he said, though it seems they often didn’t. Before he got out, he said, things got so bad that their kitchen was a 10- by 12-foot tent and they survived primarily off tree bark and “possum grapes” (similar to blueberries). He still remembers the day he joined the Navy — Dec. 6, 1954.
He wanted to show me around upstairs, an area he hardly uses anymore except as storage, so I followed him up the back staircase. The place was airy and empty, a concrete floor littered with memorabilia, holiday decorations and souvenirs from his various career ventures. It was an autobiography in junk: There were photo albums, books of handwritten lyrics, stacks of LPs, plastic Santas. He showed me the broadcast cameras he’d used for his public access TV show, “Jimmy Doyle’s,” back in the ’70s and ’80s. For a while there, he said, the show had been the heart and soul of his business, the thing that inspired him the most.
One room was filled entirely with small porcelain figurines — I counted four unicorns. By way of explanation, he said simply, “We went to Mexico a few times.” Then he showed me into his old recording studio, which featured vocal and drum booths, a 32-track mixing board and an old Fostex tape recorder. Brown shag carpet covered the floors, around which were scattered broken musical instruments and boxes of unlabeled tapes. Live wires dangled from the ceiling. I asked when he’d last recorded there. “Hell, I don’t know, 10 years ago?” he said. “I can’t keep track of time.”
Jimmy Doyle started playing the fiddle for family dances in the Bottoms. In the Navy, he led a band called The Hayseeds, and played on the ship — he made three Far East cruises — and in country bars wherever they’d stop. After his discharge, he wound up in San Jose, Calif., with $35 in his pocket. One day he heard a call for musicians on the radio: “Come on out to the Corral Club. Play with the band who played with Bob Wills.” He was hungry, so he answered the ad. “Come to find out, they didn’t even know Bob Wills,” he said. “I stayed there a long time.”
Soon he was a fixture in the emergent West Coast country scene, leading the house band and either opening or playing back-up for all the artists who came through San Jose: Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Freddie Hart. He earned a regular gig in Las Vegas, a TV show in Reno and eventually became semi-well-known for his stand-up comedy. “I was Mr. Doyle on the West Coast,” he told me. “Then I came back to Arkansas and they said ‘Jimmy Who?’ “
This is the thing that is, on the one hand, most surprising about Jimmy Doyle, and, on the other, exactly what he’s been trying to tell us for 40 years: For a moment there, in however specific a way, he was a big deal. As strange as it is to say about a man who named a bar after himself, he’s arguably too modest. Ask him about the time he hung out backstage with a young Tammy Wynette while they watched George Jones, whom they both idolized. Or better yet, ask him about his own records. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he recorded a number of singles in Nashville with producers like Pete Drake, the great pedal steel player who worked with Bob Dylan, The Beatles and just about every Nashville star of the era.
He had a gorgeous, malleable voice, full of sharp twang, vibrato and that hard-to-define quality common to all great male country vocalists, a sense of regret tinged with resignation. He sang songs about truck drivers, burning bridges and trading a “moment of passion” for a “lifetime of love.” “Without a fiddle and a steel, I don’t think it’s country music,” he told me, and his own music is appropriately decked out in all the trappings of the Nashville Sound’s golden age. His records are also, without exception, un-anthologized and out of print.
There is only one way to purchase music by Jimmy Doyle, in fact, and it’s as strange as you might expect. In 2009, he self-published a novel titled “If The Whole World Was Blind,” based on a song he wrote in 1967 about an interracial relationship (“Then I heard somebody whisper/The girl she’s not our kind/Should somebody tell him?/The poor boy he’s blind”). He showed it to the legendary singer-songwriter Mel Tillis, who told him it sounded more like a book than a song, advice he took literally. He named the main character, a white Army veteran blinded in Vietnam, after his own son, Charley Bob.
A well-meaning and odd book, every page is filled with public domain clip-art to illustrate the story. It’s sold exclusively at Jimmy Doyle’s, and comes with a CD of his music, the only one currently available. The CD alone is worth the price of the book, which might be of interest only to Jimmy Doyle completists, though there are sections that approach something like self-revelation, mostly those that draw on his military experience and his love of flying (he owns a Mooney single-engine plane, which he still flies regularly).
“As the airplane gained altitude, things were getting smaller on the ground,” he writes of one of Charley Bob’s flights. “He thought, ‘If we get any higher, we will be in heaven.’ “
The book is also tinted with tragedy given the fact that the real Charley Bob was killed three years ago, shot four times by his wife in their home (she claimed it was self-defense and was convicted of manslaughter; the sentencing hearing is later this month). The younger Brewer performed regularly at Jimmy Doyle’s and had even gone to Nashville briefly to try and make it as a country singer. “He was a guitar prodigy,” Michael Heavner said. “A real product of his environment.” One of his songs was reportedly a hit on the Christian Country charts, a song written by his father and inspired by 9/11. It’s on the CD as well, track 4: “A Teardrop in the American Eagle’s Eye.”
We walked downstairs into the bar proper, and Jimmy Doyle switched on the lights, shading the whole room a dark, eerie red. His wife and business partner Patsy Gayle stood at the bar. They met in 1974, when Patsy’s mother, then in the hospital, saw him on TV and insisted her aspiring-singer daughter seek him out. “You got to go out and see this guy,” she told her. “He’s a nut.” She found him playing at the Red Gate Supper Club and ended up singing with him onstage that very night. “We met and that was it,” Patsy told me. “We never really parted after that.”
While we talked, an older man in a baseball cap walked in and sat down at the bar, which wouldn’t be open for business until the following Friday, not that anyone seemed to mind. “What’s up, Black Jack,” Jimmy Doyle said, saluting the man. That was the only time Black Jack was acknowledged in my presence, and I soon forgot he was there. While I spoke to Patsy, Jimmy Doyle climbed up onstage and took up his fiddle, which is pure white. The stage is long and backed by velvet curtains, which seem all the more dramatic in the red light.
“We don’t know which way to go with it,” Patsy said, gesturing around the bar. “We’ve thought about giving it a face-lift. Making it something that could appeal to younger people.” Jimmy Doyle started fiddling, slowly at first and then furiously shredding. It was some sort of improvised concerto, beautiful and startling. “But then people tell us not to change the place,” she went on, a little louder so as to be heard over her husband. “So you don’t know what to do.”
She stared idly at the stage and recalled an old routine Jimmy Doyle used to do with a friend, something they called “Chester the Chicken,” where a giant chicken puppet would dance around the crowd while they spoke for him. There were other memories too, like the time Alan Jackson played there before anyone knew who he was. Or the time Ray Price’s bus broke down in the parking lot, and his whole band came inside and spent the night. She ran through a whole list of old friends, forgotten Grand Ole Opry stars, veterans of the Arkansas River Bottom Band (which, she estimates, number in the hundreds). “We’re talking about them like they’re here,” she said laughing, “like they’re still here with us.”
Jimmy Doyle had reverted back to country and was singing now. His voice was magnificent. “Jimmy says he’s not gonna get old, and I sometimes think he never will,” Patsy said. Michael Heavner had told me the same. “The future remains to be seen,” he’d said. “I know Jimmy Doyle, though; he’ll stay there till the end.”
When I’d asked the man himself about the future of his bar, he’d shrugged and said, “I like the smell of smoke.” I remembered the chorus to one of the songs from the CD I’d liked best, track 2: “I don’t want to be a millionaire,” it goes, “I just want to live like one.”
Onstage, Jimmy Doyle started making strange, atonal sounds with his fiddle. “That’s a train coming!” he shouted, and it did sound like a train. We all laughed. “That’s a mule!” he said, switching it up, and it was. “Mule,” he said gently, addressing the imaginary animal, “do you want some oats?”