Just nine years after his final class at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Layne Flournoy has begun carving his own legacy into the Blazer community as the third owner of Zydeco. The Southside venue is situated at the corner of 20th Street S. and 15th Avenue S., just before B Red Mountain’s peak at Vulcan Park and Museum.
Steven Knight opened Zydeco on the Southside in 1989 as a Cajun restaurant and venue for bluegrass and blues bands. Only the first floor existed then. The only Birmingham club that has stood longer is The Nick, which opened in 1984. As such, it’s easy to romanticize the latter’s storied past while forgetting how vital the former’s contribution to the Magic City music scene has been; the list of young acts that have performed on the Zydeco stage is equally impressive.
Alison Krauss and Union Station were there in 1993. Dave Matthews joined Tim Reynolds there in 1995. Counting Crows once opened for Cracker at Zydeco in 1993. John Mayer, Train, Lemonheads, Shovels and Rope, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Blues Traveler, Son Volt, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Chris Stapleton, Snow Patrol and Justin Townes Earle all played Zydeco on their way up.
Zydeco saw Sum 41 on their way down. They saw Montgomery’s Jamey Johnson join Lit for a version of “Miserable.” Last year, Scott Weiland performed with The Wildabouts, his last band before his death. A Grammy-nominated band named Highly Suspect opened that show.
In 2003, Josh Billue bought the club and Flournoy began tending bar, booking shows and managing. Then a recent UAB graduate in political science, Flournoy’s plan was to attend law school, but as his presence within the club became more imposing, his course changed.
“Needless to say, that conversation with my parents — when I called to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m going to manage this bar and not go to law school…’” Flournoy trailed off, laughing. “It’s all good now, though.”
Flournoy pressed harder, moonlighting as a talent buyer — notably, he’s promoted shows at Atlanta’s Peachtree Tavern, Auburn’s Bourbon Street and Tuscaloosa’s Gallette’s. Meanwhile, Billue had moved to Nashville upon purchasing the music venue Exit/In, turning over the day-to-day operations of Zydeco to Flournoy.
“I started booking and promoting shows in other markets and saved where I could, and slowly, I was able to buy [Billue] out,” Flournoy said. “He was very detached from the market. It just made sense for everybody.” Billue had shown Flournoy the ropes, and while the two men are now separated by 190 miles, he remains a close friend and mentor.
Since Flournoy took over, making Zydeco a club with a diverse musical lineup has been one of his priorities — and it’s difficult to argue with the results. “In any given week, we’ll have a metal show and a bluegrass show and a country show and a rap show and an indie rock show,” Flournoy said. “It’s tough to keep up with all of those genres of music, but because I also buy talent for college markets, I stay in tune with what college kids want. And if they want it, I want to sell it to them.”
Certainly, the genres that Zydeco has owned in Birmingham have been rap, country and EDM. Big K.R.I.T., Sam Hunt, Bassnectar, Run the Jewels, Dierks Bentley, Pretty Lights, Yelawolf, Luke Bryan, Flux Pavilion, Waka Flocka Flame and Little Big Town played Zydeco on their way up. Eric Church played there. Flournoy has booked Zac Brown Band shows for so long that he once negotiated a show with Brown for a percentage of the door. (That show was at Auburn’s Bourbon Street, but Brown has played Zydeco four times.)
As Birmingham’s music community has grown, Flournoy has made his second tenet becoming a part of the UAB community that he grew to love as a student there. He says he knew that a venue’s sustainability is dependent upon the crowd it could attract on the 20 days each month that it doesn’t have a show.
“Sometimes it’s not about how sexy your calendar is, it’s about market demand,” Flournoy said. “There was a time when no one was at Zydeco unless there was a big show upstairs. But now, I focus more on regular business. I cater to the college kids. I went to UAB. I was very active as a student. I take pride in UAB. When kids say, ‘Hey, we’re going to the bar tonight,’ their friends don’t say, ‘Which bar?’ They know which bar they’re going to. And I like having that reputation.”
Birmingham’s second oldest rock club, the “Official Atlanta Braves bar of Birmingham,” Southside’s forgotten gem: Over 27 years, Zydeco has been a lot of things to a lot of people, but as the scene grows and the market grows even more competitive, its most unique distinction has been its loyalty to the home team.
“I’m a part of the alumni society, and even when UAB wasn’t doing very well in football, I bought season tickets every year,” Flournoy said. “UAB was really good to me. I learned a lot outside of the classroom. There’s no rhyme or reason to learning how to do what I do for a living. But I owe a lot to that school for the life experiences that I had while I was at that school. I love UAB.”
Zydeco will host legendary Athens, Georgia band Bloodkin on January 16. Adam Hood comes on January 29, New Orleans-based rapper Curren$y is there on January 30, Drivin’ N Cryin’ and Great Peacock perform on February 13, Tim Reynolds and TR3 perform on February 17 and college favorites Trotline will perform on February 19.