Out of the box
IN THE CRICKET-EDGE OF DEEP TWILIGHT WHEN the green fields and ancient oaks glow like unplugged neon and his old mule peers from a flanking pasture at the unfathomable world of humans who want either live music in the backyard or an uncompromising jukebox in the house, Tommy Lee Cook has given up the day for the night.
Now he’s sitting in the Buck at his four-square bar, way out in east Lee County, Florida. Around him, the sprawling, low-ceilinged room with a stage on one end is splashed in the reds and blues of light and music like a steroidal Edward Hopper painting, its walls festooned with old photos of Buckingham Army Airfield crews and a .30-40 Krag rifle and Mr. Cook’s novels, among others. It’s a haunt where loneliness is banished but a drinker can still find solitude, or not.
There’s a .38 pistol in Mr. Cook’s trousers, a New York Times crossword puzzle under the pen in his paw and 60 years of experience etched in the lines of his face — a topographical map, perhaps, of living hard into the wind.
With a pickle-barrel chest over narrow hips, Mr. Cook keeps his hair pony-tailed. He wears it tight, often over a black shirt embroidered with red or white stars and tucked into clean denim that drops to needle-nosed cowboy boots. The boots suggest a dancer designed for a Saturday night soiree, especially on feet that skip forward when he walks in light prancing steps like those of a man about to jump over the moon and come up smiling.
The men and women drinking around him ignore all that. Over their own bottles and conversations they trade amiable observations and occasional jibes with the master of the house. For many this is home, or at least a second home.
The bartender, meanwhile, is pouring Johnny Walker Black into a silver cup planted beside Mr. Cook’s crossword puzzle — either that, or she’s sliding bottles 10 feet in a push down the long smooth bar, smack into his fist: one beer for him, one beer for a friend seated next to him.
None of those traveling beers touch the puzzle, an informal icon of Mr. Cook’s rather unlikely other life as an intellectual gamer: He’s competed 12 years running in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament directed in the Big Apple by his friend, New York Times Puzzle Editor Will Shortz.
On the telephone from New York, Mr. Shortz describes both the setting and their friendship in the same even, unpretentious tones (he’s a Hoosier) many Americans have listened to for years on National Public Radio, where he serves as puzzle master on Weekend Edition’s Sunday show.
“Well, it’s a very diverse group — people from their teens to their 90s and men and women from all over the country, 40 states, participate,” Mr. Shortz explains.
“Everyone loves crosswords, but the talk is about everything in life. People tend to be interesting, well-rounded, well-read — these are people with lively minds. It’s a great group to hang out with.”
Lively minds, yes. Mr. Cook fits right in. But can they play a guitar like ringing a bell?
“I’ve known Tommy Lee for a number of years,” Mr. Shortz says, “and for an hour before the awards, while the judges are finishing their work, we have performances, or just entertainment.
“Tommy Lee has performed for four or five years now: He’s my favorite performer. I’m a garage-rock kind of guy, so when Tommy Lee plugs in his amp and starts? I love the sound — and the quality of his lyrics. It’s just very good.”
1,200 miles south
About 1,200 miles south of New York, the Buck — The World Famous Buckingham Blues Bar & Grill Mr. Cook resurrected from a dirt-through-the-pores country dive 15 years ago — is his lesson and his promise to 21st century culture hereabouts: that the blues-soaked storytelling art of three-chord poets and traveling master-pickers does not come in a box, either cardboard or digital. That men and women and black and white, that joy and sorrow and love and despair, that hardscrabble stories and glory, that money lost and money won, and especially that friendships regulated by no government but due respect, no virtue but gentle courage, no religion but dreams and no engine but the hormones of vibrant people, all come live.
None of it, insists Mr. Cook, can merely leap from a speaker. It won’t sail out of electronic never-never land into cars, homes, offices and shops by sound system or ear bud. It’s not merely packaged by a production company. No, sir.
Instead, you have to draw in music and by extension, life. You have to make the music live yourself. And when you do, some fine evening music will pull up suddenly in a tinted-window bus, open the doors and step down onto the sweating asphalt, grinning and swinging an old guitar case like a bucket of water. Then it will look you in the eye, put out a hand, and say, “How you doin’, son? My name is Delbert McClinton.”
That’s Mr. Cook’s promise, delivered recently in person by the famous Texas singer-songwriter himself, the man and model for three decades of Tommy Lee’s own playing and songwriting.
“It’s been my dream,” he said about that recent evening, the evening when Mr. McClinton finally brought himself and his band by bus to the Buck’s backyard. There, 800 people had gathered to see and hear music that breathes and lives.
When such a moment happens, the culture becomes beautiful and real — not merely packaged and marketed, Mr. Cook insists.
“It’s an original, modern-day Chitlin’ Circuit going on here. And that’s not easy to maintain. “There’s cover charges that don’t cover, hotel rooms (for musicians), and a doofus bitching about a 3-buck water.”
Before civil rights, the Chitlin’ Circuit offered countless black musicians and entertainers safe working venues through the South and the Midwest, providing a culture of artistry that eventually gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll. Mr. Cook stands in that tradition, he says.
“I’m keeping a culture, a style of music alive and live. Original music, real musicians, writers and singers.”
The effort is likely part of Mr. Cook’s larger notion of what it means to come from the South, something he once described to Florida Weekly this way: “(It means) making $7 for a day’s work in a tobacco field, daylight to dark. Baling hay for winter stores in giant barns. Huge vegetable gardens. The slaughtering of various creatures for meat, women on front porches snapping beans, or in the kitchen canning with Mason jars — all that may seem romantic but (it’s) backbreaking labor.”
Hard work, economic risk-taking and culture-raising are Mr. Cook’s stock-in-trade, just like his Southerness, which may become more pronounced the more he drinks, say those who know him well.
“I think he’s a type A personality but beyond that he’s a conqueror,” explains Cat Turner, a Buck-fixture bartender whose husband, Kent Turner, has worked for Mr. Cook in his various enterprises for more than a decade.
“He likes to conquer things, to do things, and he’s so intelligent, he can. He also loves music and loves people who want to be around music — he loves being around other musicians. It’s one of the joys of his life.”
In his construction business, Laura Hannahan has served as office manager and bookkeeper for more than 16 years.
“I was with him when he bought the bar, when he did his recordings, when he wrote his novels, and when he did the Hut restaurant. The whole spectrum,” she says.
“In my opinion: He is a genius when it comes to business and construction.”
And also when it comes to living as “a redneck Renaissance man,” in the words of Woody Hanson, a real estate appraiser who has joined his grandfather and father in embracing the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians in ways that have helped preserve their culture. Mr. Cook, too, celebrates that effort.
How it started
Tommy Lee Cook was raised both in southern Virginia and in North Fort Myers by Herb and Ann Cook, who adopted him at six months of age into their home in Dry Fork, Va., in the mid- 1950s. Twelve years later, they brought him into Florida like an unlit dynamite stick.
“Mentors. Isn’t everything about mentors?” Mr. Cook says, remembering his late parents.
“‘Always be honest, work hard, and be a good student — and be an achiever,’ bofem said.”
He also remembers men who gave him not just his first guitar, but a bassoon (he learned to play well in middle school here), positions playing and later jobs coaching high school football (Naples and North Fort Myers), loans for his first efforts as a contractor, and other help — men with such names as Hoover, Thompson, Harper, McNew, Inge and Youngquist.
Mentors. Now Mr. Cook is a mentor, which is why he encouraged a couple of young musicians to stay on the stage and continue to play at open-mic night recently, even after they screwed up the first song they tried, recalls Cat Turner.
“He said, ‘Keep on it now, you’ll get it, try again,’ and they did. He’s a natural teacher.”
He’s also a father. Two of his three adult children work with him both in construction and at the Buck.
About relationships and women, whom he seems to appreciate (the feeling often appears mutual), he has this to say: “I will never be married again.”
All of which makes him a complex character with a resume that won’t sit still on the page.
He’s a published novelist and a singers-songwriter whose CDs have made the blues charts; a 35-year general contractor with a reputation for scrupulous honesty who has built hundreds of homes; a restaurateur whose lavishly restored Hut, in east Lee’s Buckingham, he recently closed and put up for sale. “My dream for it must now become another’s,” he says.
He’s a man who first named his construction company after an Ayn Rand character, one who champions the notion of unregulated free enterprise and ethical self-interest (John Galt, from the novel, “Atlas Shrugged.” Mr. Cook incorporated his business on April 1, 1981, with the name Thomas Galt).
He dropped out of the Coastt Guard Academy after a year — too many regulations, he says — andd walked on as a long-snap center on the University of Florida football team, before quitting with injuries and earning an English degree there.re. Then, he returned home to coach football at his old high school, while bartending at night.
He quotes the Constitution and passages from Shakespeare’s plays at length. He’s kindly to strangers. And he’s intolerant of whining, rudeness and laziness.
The real Tommy Lee
That said, there’s also this: Nobody can really figure out Tommy Lee Cook, not even his closest friends.
They speak of him with love and admiration, with insight and clarity, but also with some confusion.
In the bar, he’s in charge unless Cat is working, then she’s in charge because he taught her to be, she says, referring to him as “Daddy.”
For David Brown, a retired professor of psychology at Hodges University, “He’s two things. He makes it clear it’s his bar and blues is gonna be played, not rock ‘n’ roll. The music more often than not is original blues — not necessarily somebody else’s — so he lets you know: his bar, his rules.
“But within that understanding he’s a genuinely nice person. He has plenty of opportunity to not be, but he is.”
There’s no fighting in his bar. There’s also no moping, at least not the kind that brings down everybody else, says Ms. Turner.
“Once a lady was in here crying in her beer and she was so depressing that she started making everybody else depressed. So Daddy told her she either had to stop or she had to go.”
All of which, combined with his conservative and vocal politics, make him an enigma of sorts, which is likely just fine with Mr. Cook.
“How can a guy who runs a blues bar and has a pony tail be a f---ing Republican? You cannot explain him, but that is the explanation,” says Woody Hanson.
Mr. Cook’s response: “I don’t know that I consider myself a Republican anymore. I’m a citizen of America. I’m tired of all the fools on both sides.”
When the subject of international politics and the West’s conflict with Muslim extremists arises at the bar, Mr. Cook is fond of leaning back and trumpeting, “I’m rootin’ for Putin!”
Like him, Mr. Hanson also plays the guitar, has a near encyclopedic knowledge of rock and blues, and has traveled with Mr. Cook to such otherworldly places (by some standards) as New York
City and the deep heart of the Everglades. On one occasion, Mr. Cook sunk his airboat near a cottage he owns more than 20 miles from the nearest habitation, and the two men had to walk out — all night long, anxious about both alligators and water moccasins. By dawn, exhausted and slumped by the side of U.S. 41, they were picked up half-naked and deeply dehydrated by Miccosukee tribal police, then delivered to the lobby of the jail, Mr. Hanson recalls. There, a clerk who appeared to have suffered many indignities in her own life — an overweight black woman — found them both blankets and food while they waited for a ride to arrive from Fort Myers some 70 miles to the northwest.
“This is what he does,” explains Mr. Hanson: “He took the time to listen to her and know her. He found there’s an angel hidden behind all that (stuff) in her appearance. So Cook — after she gave us food and went and got us blankets — the next day he sends her a dozen roses. And she sends him an email and says nobody in her life had ever given her flowers. So out of what he felt in that spiritual heart of his, Cook did it. And the woman cried for an hour on the phone the next day.”
As Mr. Cook recalls the odyssey, “She and I connected. A beautiful black lady.” So he gave Mr. Hanson so his blanket and food, and got to know her over black coffee. It was a crossroads moment for all of them.
“He put a paradigm shift on her and changed her forever,” Mr. Hanson says. “She is now worth something — she has self-worth.”
What all this means about Mr. Cook is probably also best described by Mr. Hanson.
“There is no measure of dispersion that is wide enough to fit him in,”in he says, referring to statistical models.
“You have patterns of a central tendency, but he lives beyond the clustering of the dots, beyond the third standard deviation. ’Cause he’s so far from the mean.
“I like him for the same reason I like Florida.
I can’t explain the f---er. And I think honestly, in his mind, he is certain there is nothing he cannot do. Nothing. Nothing is impossible.”
For Cat Turner, one of his glories is his tolerance. Her politics are not his, for example, but it doesn’t matter.
“Where a lot of people who are that strong and unwavering in their opinions will cut you off if you disagree, he will still talk to you and respect your opinion — he won’t fully poo-poo you. He’ll argue with you, but he’ll never hate you.”
For Mr. Hanson, it’s friendship uncut, loyalty unwatered.
“You know what he is? He’s a goddamn friend. When that SOB says he’s gonna do something, he’s got your back. That’s big. That’s a Floridian.” ¦