Deep Roots and Tradition on the Gulf Coast
Reporting by Erica Thomas
“Sitting here at the Flora-Bama
’Bout to open up a big old can of
Good times, unwind
Fall in and out of love in the same night
Can't say I got a whole lot of cares
I'm in the redneck riviera.”
– Kenny Chesney, Flora-Bama
It’s been nearly 60 years since the Flora-Bama got its start on the Alabama-Florida line. The business has undergone ownership changes and major additions but has kept an atmosphere of comradery and love for others. Ask anyone who has been to the Gulf Coast and they have heard of the Flora-Bama.
Hearing about the bar is one thing, but going offers beachgoers an experience like no other.
John McInnis, III is one of the current owners of the famous beach honky-tonk. Along with Joe Gilchrist, Pat McClellan, and Cameron Price, McInnis has worked hard to ensure the Flora-Bama stays true to its roots and people.
Those roots go back to 1964 when the Tampary family opened the Flora-Bama Liquor Store following the construction of the Perdido Pass Bridge. The family sold the store to Joe Gilchrist in 1978. With his love for people and music, the location began transforming into the legendary beach bar now known nationwide.
Gilchrist “added a room on the back of it, which would be known as the ‘main room,’” McInnis explained. “He put a little bar and a stage back there and he invited a friend that was playing in the area, who was Jay Hawkins, to come back there and play. People would come in and the area was growing, but there wasn’t a whole lot down here at that point.”
Word got around, and soon visitors from all walks of life stopped in to enjoy music and meet new friends at the Flora-Bama.
“You had people from all over the place walking in and listening to the music,” McInnis added. “It started a feeling of comradery and fun that helped the Flora-Bama turn into what it is today.”
In 1986, Navy veteran Pat McClellan joined forces with Gilchrist, bringing even more excitement to the Flora-Bama.
“He was the one that started adding the tents out back and brought more events to the Flora-Bama,” McInnis said. “He added the Bama Dome area and started coming up with all of these wild and crazy events.”
Gilchrist passed away in May 2022. The remaining three owners are focused on continuing his legacy.
“We still have Pat McClellan and he’s happily participating at the Flora-Bama. He is still one of our characters that make the place what it is. He’s just a big, tall, strong, loving guy who loves people and loves life and is always the life of the party. He loves seeing people not only have a good time, but he treats people with love and respect.”
Music has always been a thread in the fabric of Alabama, so the list of performers has only grown over the years, and the Flora-Bama now has several stages. The beach bar books over 3,500 musicians annually, and an estimated two million customers enjoy the atmosphere.
“We have what we call the main bar and our honky-tonk on the beach and then across the street you have the Flora-Bama Yacht Club Restaurant, the Ole River Grill, the Flora-Bama Marina and the Flora-Bama liquor store,” McInnis said. “They all grew out of an area that all of the musicians lived in for decades in their campers.”
One of the most well-known events, Mullet Toss, brings over 30,000 people annually. The event started in 1986 when Gilchrist and McClellan were bored on the beach.
“They were bored and they had nothing to do and Jimmy Lewis played the rodeo circuit,” McInnis explained. “He said when they were bored at the rodeo, they would throw cow chips for distance. They didn’t have cow chips, but they did see a dead fish on the beach, so that’s where that came from.”
Whether you are part of a massive event such as Mullet Toss or you visit on a Tuesday afternoon, McInnis said you could expect to have the time of your life, an experience you won’t forget.
“They can expect the unexpected,” he said. “My partner Joe used to say, ‘we thank you for lowering your expectations.’ And when you do that and you walk in, you know, it’s a big old shack and so, there’s nothing pretentious about it.”
The location became a shining mark on the map in 2014 when country music superstar Kenny Chesney released his song “Flora-Bama.”
“There’s ball caps, photographs, dollar bills, and bras,” he sang. “License plates from every state nailed up to the wall.”
Jimmy Buffett, Luke Combs, Jon Pardi, and Riley Green are other high-profile names with connections to Flora-Bama. Some Flora-Bama staples include Jay Hawkins, Rick Whaley, and Jack Robertson.
"Certainly, I didn't want to be the guy that screwed up the Flora-Bama," said McInnis. "A lot of people focus on money and the business side of it first but … at the end of the day, if you focus on making sure people have the best time of their life, and they're treated with respect, and they give you respect in return, and they stay safe doing it, and they have a great time, then the business side of it takes care of itself."
When you're ready to kick back, have a cold one, try some oysters and enjoy music, you are more than welcome at Flora-Bama.
"Come as you are, relax and listen to music and I would say most importantly, meet other people that are from all over the place, that are from all walks of life," McInnis suggested. "I think if you do that you will end up meeting people that you otherwise wouldn't have hung out with because they're different. And you find that you actually have a lot in common and you make some lifelong friends to take with you."
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