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.

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