Beloved Founder of Flora-Bama, Joe Gilchrist, Has Died
There are a few iconic places that mean so much more to the country music world than the four walls and roof that comprise them. One of those places is the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package, and Oyster Bar on Perdido Key, with the state line of Florida and Alabama darn near running right down the middle of it.
Though it’s perhaps Kenny Chesney and his 2014 song about Flora-Bama that helped raise awareness of the place to the national level, it’s the establishment’s support of songwriters that has made it nationally renown. And now, the man whose vision and spirit is what allowed Flora-Bama to become so much more than just another bar on the beach has passed away.
The Flora-Bama did exist before Joe Gilchrist. Owned by the Tampary family initially, it was little more than a dive shack on a barrier island. But it was importantly located, because at that time, it was dry territory right across the Alabama line. When Joe Gilchrist purchased the property in 1978, he would reshape it into an iconic music spot and cultural landmark.
“You play the music, I’ll pour the whiskey” was Joe’s guiding principle, allowing the local, regional, and later national and international artists to do whatever they wanted. Though country music was most of what was played, most everything was tolerated, and songwriting was often the centerpiece.
This is how Flora-Bama became ground zero for many songwriters, and specifically how the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival came into being that will be celebrating its 38th year this November. The event now spans across 12 days and numerous venues. The beach, the brews, the oysters, and the road house feel draws many to Flora-Bama. But it’s the songs that patrons stick around for. This is the reason Gilchrist became known as the “Patron Saint of Songwriters.”
Born on April 17, 1942, Joe Gilchrist was a graduate of Auburn University. Before he bought Flora-Bama, he worked as a school teacher. When he purchased the spot, he saw the potential for the little shack just on the Florida side of the state line. Slowly building it up over time, Flora-Bama now employs over 400 people, and offers a stage to hundreds of musicians each year. Gilchrist was also known for his philanthropy, supporting local charities and businesses, while the Frank Brown festival benefited music programs for local youth.
For a lot of performers, no matter where they’re from, Flora-Bama is home, just like it is for many music fans, including the ones who’ve scribbled their names on the walls and posts of the place—another wrinkle that make the ‘Bama unique. It’s know as a place where you can see a millionaire sitting next to a biker, and everyone gets along, because it’s Flora-Bama.
Joe owned the Flora-Bama with Pat McClellan, and in 2009, John McInnis and Cameron Price were also brought in as partners. But the original vision of Joe Gilchrist always remained, even as Perdido Key went from a remote barrier island, to a hot spot for condos, resorts, and other businesses. Sure, Flora-Bama could be bulldozed for development. But the locals would never allow it. What Joe Gilchrist built is a place like no other, and it will likely outlast all of us.
Joe Gilchrist passed away on Wednesday, May 25th. He was 80.
May 26, 2022 @ 1:19 pm
How can you talk about the Flora-Bama without bringing up the Mullet Toss?
May 26, 2022 @ 2:54 pm
Love that place a great way to spend some time listening to live music and having a cold one. RIP sir! It is a very unique spot it truly is everyone should experience it at least once.
May 26, 2022 @ 3:24 pm
Hope to be at the festival this Nov.
Shout Out to OlaR.
Currently in INDY, the town of Speedway, more specifically.
🚀🚔🏁 Atypically, arrived 2 hours before time.
Helicopters, planes trailing banners.
Scalpers, very organized under race tents, etc.
Nothing like the 500
May 26, 2022 @ 6:19 pm
Have fun at the 500! That is awesome. I am from the Florabama area. It really is a cool place.
May 26, 2022 @ 6:42 pm
I can’t wait to go to “the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package, and Oyster Bar on Perdido Key.”
See all the cool stuff we learn from Trig?!!! 2, 6-shooters up!
: D Not going to the race this year. Wanted to see my son, & some friends this evening. Get in/get out, before 465 becomes a parking lot.
Couple cool stories … one year, at the front row party/dinner, night before the race, turned in my chair to better converse with a friend, & J. Rutherford & i bumped elbows. Johnny was retired at the time. Our parties had neighboring tables.
Was like – oh sorry, Johnny. He was all, no problem, both of us giggling because we were at least one drink in to the evening.
Then A. Luyendyk calls my brother to say, Dave, we’re out of butter over here. Do you think my brother could get up & walk some butter to Arie? Oh – heck no. He grabs a couple pats, & lobs them to the next table. If remember correctly – Arie caught them.
Guys … you can dress them up …
Lots of really fun stories from the track, races, & qualifying
May 26, 2022 @ 8:03 pm
I don’t know if its sad or great. He fought off and survived hurricanes, mega condos, the “touristification” of Orange Beach, and others. But left a great legacy with a damn fancy bar and restaurant now…still love it but… I’m not old, but who else remembers when it was the only thing out there! And Jimmy Buffet singing about it before all the rest? “Rag Top Day”? Best place to get oysters and beer! Go rest high on that mountain Joe!
May 27, 2022 @ 5:26 pm
Awesome place. We tease my son about falling of a barstool head first onto the floor at the Flora-Bama. He was 6 years old. He went to sleep while we were listening to music on the deck. RIP Mr. Gilchrist.
May 28, 2022 @ 3:38 am
Wow! Brings back memories! I knew Joe and worked there over the summer of 1982. I played harmonica and fiddle with resident entertainers J. Hawkins and Ted Handley. Back then Perdido Key was basically nothing but sand dunes and the ‘Bama was just a little building. All those add-ons and growth came later. Personally, I think I worked there during the “Golden Age” before it got to big and touristy. Anybody remember the Sunday Skydivers? Every Sunday they’d “drop in” at the ‘Bama, landing right outside the back door. Great fun! RIP Joe!
Daniel Allen Judy
May 28, 2022 @ 2:28 pm
I just talked to him on the phone a few weeks ago. 😔
May 29, 2022 @ 8:32 am
It’s very sad that everyone did not know Joe for the guy he truly was !! If you were one of his characters that he said he surrounded himself with then I guess you did? Always a giver and never a taker except for what his love of music and songwriters brought to him. There is now a void that can never be filled !!!!! Rest in peace my friend !!!
May 30, 2022 @ 6:30 am
LTC Michael H. Sarra, USA (ret.)
June 26, 2022 @ 3:30 pm
We went to Auburn University during the 60’s. A outstanding person that will be missed by many. May Joe Gilchrist rest in peace.