Bartlesville native Laura Birkett is the kind of lady who walks up to an aging, beer-only bar on the edge of Main Street and sees a promising oasis of Natural Light and sound.
Eight years ago, during her undergrad years at the University of Oklahoma, she told her friends she’d like to work there. They said that she couldn’t: “That’s a rough place.”
right Black Canyon at Blue Bonnet
“Well, I’m going to try it and see,” Birkett told them.
She walked in to find the owner’s wife reading Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” Birkett asked, tongue-in-cheek, if they needed help. Within a week, she was slinging beers to and hearing stories from regulars. As years passed, she wondered if the venue could be a home to local talent.
“The Blue Bonnet has a certain kind of appeal to a more artistic, nostalgic mind,” she said.
However, the bar’s owner wasn’t interested in having music, and Birkett continued to serve the patrons with her usual good humor. After she earned her master’s, she took a librarian job in southern Oklahoma, but the town wasn’t for her. Back at the Bonnet, she asked if there was a way to “give a professional twist to my job.” And certain moments hinted at the possibilities.
“I had turned away countless talented musicians,” Birkett said. “John Calvin, that day broke my heart. I could see he had this drive and wanted to play. He’s so great to watch. He has fun. He makes the whole bar have fun.”
Then there was Norman Music Festival landing in the Bonnet’s front yard. Selling beers in front of the Jägermeister stage reminded Birkett that a change was needed for the Bonnet to keep up with the resurgent art scene on the block. She started talking to management and the Norman Arts Council.
“It occurred to me that Main Street was experiencing a rebirth,” Birkett said. “If I put together small shows (first), then I could pitch becoming a venue for Norman Music Festival in April 2011. I didn’t like that the event was going on and we weren’t participating as fully as we could.”Bloody Ol’ Mule’s Shilo Brown asked if his band could play the picturesque bar, with its wild game on the wall, free shuffleboard and wire spools as tables, where saw blades are nailed over the holes keep people from shoving trash down them. Since then, Brown and LoFi Shit Records producer Bradley Allan Fielder have worked with Birkett on shows, making the Bonnet a bona fide venue — perfect for both pensive and amphetamine-paced country rock, or showcases with names like The Weekend of Days.
Blue Bonnet’s acts strike one as a set who love truck-driving songs, or find honor working in a factory, or travel as light as possible and listen to stories. The meshing of sensibilities has worked, Birkett said. She targets bands whose style will fit the bar. The boss is also pleased with the extra income.
“He and (his wife) have really enjoyed meeting all the new people and hearing good music,” Birkett said. “I also find it really interesting that the regulars like the music so much, too.”
Rest assured, the place is just as scrappy as it was before.
“My major plan was to hear wonderful live music,” Birkett said. “And I don’t have to deal with that persnickety jukebox. In that way, it’s self-serving.”
Photo by Matt Carney