When you cross over the railroad tracks on Jenkins Street in LaGrange, it’s like taking a step back in time. You leave behind the modern world of progress with wide four-lane highways and the high class architecture of stream-lined college buildings. It is as if there’s a thinly veiled curtain on the southside of the tracks, and on the other side is a 1940s neighborhood of what used to be a thriving mill village.
The houses are worn down. The landscape is cluttered with massive water oaks and towering sycamores that have seen better days. Chain-link fences are covered with vines. Front doors look like they are barely hanging on. The porches sag from the weight of time itself.
You take a left on Clark Street, and you begin to wonder if maybe you should make a U-turn and head back to civilization.
This is home to Pure Life House of Music.
When I first saw the faded green metal siding and the low-slung tin roof with the 12 ft. roll-up garage door on the end, I imagined it might have been a mom & pop tire shop back in the day. Air hoses hissing. Front ends jacked up. A long wooden counter just inside the big front window. Fan belts hanging on the wall above a few wooden chairs where customers waited. A row of broken-down cars out back pushed aside until another day.
The current owner of this establishment, Maggie, had a different vision. She is one of those rare individuals who sees potential where most of us see junk. If I had the idea for creating a venue where live music could be enjoyed and I saw this place, I would have passed and kept looking. I’m guessing that she saw it and said, “This is perfect.”
Her vision has paid off.
Just inside the front door there is a small lobby, and by small I mean there’s room for about 10 people to stand up-close and personal prior to the show. Off to one side there’s the green room. This is the closet where visiting artists warm up and make sure their deodorant is working. The bathroom down the hall doubles as a storeroom. In the design process, Maggie was making sure she saved every square inch possible for the main reason she built this place.
When you step inside the main hall, any ideas of an old tire shop disappear. You immediately get the vibe of a place where music is made and where spectators are bathed in the intimacy of the experience. There’s an old church pew against the back wall. Two chandeliers hang from the high ceiling, dimly lit. The stage is only 20 feet away. Maggie says there’s room for a five-piece band, but I’ve seen three guys on that stage and I’m not sure where the other two would sit.
There are about a hundred chairs set up in tight arching rows around the stage. I’m guessing these are chairs that Maggie found at the flea market, or maybe a hotel fire-sale, or in the basement of an old office supply store. A few are in matching sets of four. Some are unique one-of-a-kind wonders. One or two of them would remind you of a chair in your granny’s living room. Clearly, Maggie was going for comfort and character. Like the building, what everyone else wanted to throw away, she turned into something inviting and cozy. She was not going to ask people to listen to music sitting in metal folding chairs. Bless her heart.
Against the far wall, in front of the roll-up garage door, there are maybe 8 high-top tables with high-backed chairs. Room for four. Maggie doesn’t serve food or drink here, but it is an approved brown-bag facility. You are welcome to bring your own snacks and beverage of your choice. Koozies and cork screws are not provided.
Most of the music here is acoustic. Testimony to that are the scores of guitars that hang on the high walls in the shadows of the main hall. Each one signed by some artist that came through here over the past several years. She even has a stash of cheap guitars in the storeroom behind the curtain just in case the artist doesn’t want to donate his own guitar, he or she will have one to sign and leave behind.
I don’t know Maggie. I probably should have called her and asked for an interview. This would have been a much better story if I had. But I don’t have to know her well to know that she loves music. More than that, she loves musicians. The kind that hang in there through thick and thin. The kind that flirt with stardom. Her guests may not be radio gods, but many of them have written songs that made platinum hits, while they themselves undeservedly remain in the background of music glory.
Take John Berry, for example. He cut his teeth in the bars of Athens, Georgia. He scrambled to make six albums before he ever went to Nashville. When he did, he got noticed. He won the awards and accolades that others only dream about. He played solo on the stage of the 1995 CMA show, live on national television. He wrote songs with and sang with some of the household names of the industry. He has stood on “the circle” in front of the WSM radio mic from the Grand Ole Opry.
Yet, you are probably saying, “John who?”
Two weeks ago, he played for almost two hours at Pure Life. When I got there about twenty minutes prior to the show, he was outside in the gravel parking lot working with wrenches on his bus. A relic from the 70s. He was replacing the generator.
The show started about 15 minutes late. When he walked up on stage, the sweat was still rolling off his forehead. A little bit of grease still under his fingernails.
He played his heart out for us that night. His wife, Robin, sang the harmonies. His vocals were perfect. His hair was gray, and his face cut with the deep wrinkles of the life he had given himself to for decades. I thought of him as a man who had a dream and who stuck with it no matter where the journey had taken him.
There’s a movie line that got stuck in my brain a few years back. “Bands come and go. Musicians keep playing.” Or something like that.
These are the artist that sit up front at Pure Life. Song writers who play for the love of what they do. A room intimate enough to make you think that you’re just sitting around the living room. Close enough to feel the heartbeat. Near enough to be touched by the lyrics that drip into your soul.
My buddy with me that night spent a number of his early years playing the honky-tonk bars in small towns. “In the places I played,” he said, “the people weren’t really there to listen to the music. This place is way better than that.”
Yep. We come to listen to the music.