Nick at Night


Pam Stallings is the woman behind Birmingham’s best dirty little secret.

Written by Rosalind Fournier  

Photography by Art Meripol

 

The Nick—the Southside music club renowned for the legendary acts that have graced its stage; its rugged façade, reminiscent of a cross between a convenience store and abandoned saloon; and the stories (some exaggerated, others no one will confirm) of what happens on the many nights that stretch until the break of dawn—has a lot of nicknames.

Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 once stopped in for a drink, and Bono declared it “Birmingham’s dirty little secret,” a motto the club has proudly embraced ever since. Others call it “CBGB of the South,” after the famed (now defunct) Manhattan music hall that many consider the birthplace of underground rock and roll.

But when Pam Stallings, now The Nick’s co-owner, first walked in to the club as a customer in her early 20s, it was just the place where money was stolen right out of her purse. “It was hanging right against my leg,” she remembers. “Someone unzipped it and took my wallet.”

That was in the final days of The Wooden Nickel, The Nick’s predecessor before it was taken over by Dan Nolen, who now co-owns it with Stallings. The Wooden Nickel, Stallings swears, was even funkier, a place where barroom brawls were not unheard of. When Nolen bought the club, he didn’t want to buy a new sign, so he simply removed a few letters and changed it to “The Nick,” which it’s been ever since and seems likely to remain come hell or high water…never mind an outward appearance that makes you think a few good, strong winds would be enough to take it down.

Stallings’s graduation from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she studied marketing, roughly coincided with the changing of the guard from The Wooden Nickel to The Nick in 1982. In spite of the wallet incident, she kept coming back and quickly went from customer to waitress to bartender and then assistant manager in a short period of time. Then she comanaged for several years before Nolen took her to lunch and made a business proposal. With his interests in other regional bars, including Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, as well as Brother’s Bar in Jacksonville, Ala., he decided he could use a business partner at The Nick and thought Stallings was the perfect fit.

“She’s a remarkable human being,” Nolen explains. “She shares my passion for our music and our business, so I felt like I had her back, and she’d have mine.” Nolen asked her what she would want out of a partnership. “I said, ‘I want half of it,’” she remembers. “And we’ve been co-owners ever since.”

Stallings describes herself as young, naïve, and innocent when she started working here and “definitely too trusting,” but she says Nolen was an excellent mentor. She also had the advantage of being a hard worker from an early age, having helped out in her family’s bullet and ammunition factory since she was just a kid.

When she became a partner in The Nick, her mom helped loan her the money. “I had been working here and supporting myself for years, and my mom—probably the most supportive, loving, and generous woman I have ever met in my life—supported my doing this because it’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was passionate about it.”

In her early days as a bartender here, Stallings was in many ways the face of The Nick—even more so than now, when she runs things largely from behind the scenes and feels confident regularly leaving her staff to manage the late-night crowd. But back in her bartending days, she remembers, “It got to a point where my mom and I would go the mall and 50 or 75 people would say, ‘Hey, that’s Pam from the Nick! What’s going on at The Nick?’

“So I stopped going to malls for a while,” she laughs. “That was kind of odd.”

When she became an official bar owner, she ran into a different kind of weirdness. Because of its gruff exterior (and equally gruff interior, which Stallings painted black and keeps as dark as humanly possible while still allowing people to find their way from one end to the other), she says people sometimes have misconceptions about the Nick. They’re surprised to meet the polite, professional, and, well, normal woman who co-owns it. “Many people are definitely surprised when they meet me. ‘You own The Nick?’ is very common,” she says, describing a scenario that became fairly common in the days when she was still single. “One of my best friends used to work at Highlands Bar and Grill, so I would go in and have dinner or drinks at the bar waiting for her to get off. Men would sit down and we’d chat and they’d say, ‘Well, do you want to go have coffee or something?’ And I’d say sure…and then it would roll around to what I did for a living, and they were like, ‘Oooh, never mind.’

“People think The Nick is something it is not,” she continues. “We probably run this place more on the up-and-up than anybody else in town does.” That includes a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule for troublemakers, zero tolerance for underage drinking (though underage band members have been known to try and sneak around it), and an outside auditing company that makes sure every dollar is accounted for.

It seems everybody has a great Nick story. Sometimes it’s about someone in the crowd getting sloppy and saying or doing something outrageous, which Stallings says is OK, so long as they don’t cause any trouble, get sick, or attempt to drive. “It’s kind of our job to let them have fun while keeping them reeled in to keep them from hurting themselves,” she explains.

But many more stories are about the bands themselves, many of whom consider The Nick a rite of passage on what they hope is an upward trajectory to fame and fortune. Just take a look around—once your eyes adjust to the lighting—at the signed photos that literally cover the walls and ceilings to get an idea of who has played The Nick over the years. The list includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 311, Johnny Winter, Better Than Ezra, Continental Drifters, Kings of Leon, Faith No More, Black Flag, Jane’s Addiction, and too many more to mention, including the best local bands in town.

One visitor, Dale Bryant, remembers seeing Jane’s Addition at The Nick in the 1980s. “They took the tables out for that show, because it was standing room only,” he recalls. “Another night I saw Living Color…and then saw them just four months later opening for The Rolling Stones at Legion Field.”

But no one has had a more up-close-and-personal view of the music than Stallings, and by far she has the most colorful anecdotes about The Nick’s history to date.

There are the quiet stories, such as a long series of Tuesday nights when the lead singer from Tonic would come in to try out new music while planning his first solo album. There have been the surprise visitors, including actor/singer Jack Black (“very gregarious,” Stallings says), Stone Temple Pilots front man Scott Weilan (who did an onstage cameo), Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, and Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, who recently spent New Year’s Eve at The Nick, among others. “A lot of these are bands that have outgrown the club, but when they’re in town they come back after their show,” Stallings explains. “This is the type of place where you can come and not get messed with.”

And there are the surreal nights, such as one about two decades ago—Stallings thinks it was 1992—when snow was predicted, so she packed up her blankets, pillows, and dog and headed for the club, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Though the roads were barely drivable, all three bands she had booked that night showed up: Demolition Doll Rods (who perform only in bikinis); R.L. Burnside; and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. “There were only six cars in the parking lot but probably 400 people inside,” she recalls, adding that her dog, spooked by the loud music on the stage, stayed out in the car while customers took turns keeping her company. “It was the most positive, amazing energy ever,” she says. “Just a lovely party. I still get chills thinking about it.”

Other nights have been dicier. One band got up to start playing only to realize nobody could find the lead singer. “Finally we’re like, ‘What the hell?’” she remembers. “We had to take the hinges off the bathroom…he was in there taking a nap.”

But few stories top the night the legendary Fleshtones flew in from New York to perform. After sound check, one of the guys in the band asked for a cab, not saying where he was going. At show time, he was still nowhere to be seen. “We called the cab company and eventually found out he’d gotten a ride to the airport and flown back to New York,” Stallings remembers. The opening band was The Ticks, a popular local group at the time, and when they finished their first set, she asked them to do another. They complied as best they could, though their drummer had already left for the night. Ed Reynolds, who played with the Ticks from about 1990 to 2000 and calls The Nick Birmingham’s “only true rock ‘n roll club,” remembers the night as particularly harrowing: “After our opening set, it was apparent there would be no Fleshtones,” explains Reynolds, who considered them one of his favorite bands and was particularly disappointed by the turn of events. “The show ended up being various audience members playing instruments. The only high point I recall is when the Fleshtones drummer played ‘Get Off of My Cloud’ with us. The Fleshtones singer wouldn’t sing the song, so I had to, though he did do some backup singing.” Stallings is quick to point out that no one asked for their money back, and even Reynolds concedes that the crowd seemed happy.

Meanwhile, Reynolds adds that on the many nights The Ticks played there—including many Christmas Eve concerts—Stallings always struck him as one of the most level-headed people in the business. “She was always really sweet and in a good mood,” he says. “So many bar owners could get sour really easily.”

In spite of her degree in marketing, it’s one skill Stallings has not had to use a whole lot of in her position. “Our word of mouth is amazing because The Nick has been around for more than 30 years,” she says, noting a few other advantages. It’s also an insider’s kind of club, where people come to hear the Next Big Thing before their friends do. And it’s a place where camaraderie reigns among people of all walks of life: “It’s lawyers, construction workers, teachers, doctors, everyone,” Stallings explains. “It’s always been that way. I don’t care about age, profession, race, sexual orientation, or religious anything. Everybody is welcome here.”

While other clubs come and go with great regularity, The Nick seems able to either out survive and/or coexist with any new semblance of competition around town. It comes from a combination of strong management, great music, and revered status among bands and loyalists alike. The latter run from pool players who show up for happy hour starting at 3 p.m. to the die-hard music fans who come primarily for the shows—which these days run between around 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.—and the late-late-night crowd, mostly folks from other clubs who have just gotten off work and want to have some fun of their own. (The Nick stays open until 6 a.m. on the weekends and 4 a.m. on weekdays hours when, as Stallings puts it, “a lot of taxi cabs come through that parking lot.”)

“We’re just that place,” Stallings says simply. “We’re fortunate in that for the most part, once you come in here and realize what it’s all about, you’ll come back. We go through our tough times, but for the most part, this is the best job anybody could ever have.”

7 Responses to “Nick at Night”

  1. Jill Vann says:

    Fantastic article…and I think we all agree that Pam is one incredible lady!!!

  2. martin says:

    i was a sounddude at the Nick from ’90-’92 – what a place
    Scott Weiland and Robert DeLeo of STP came in the night before a concert at Boutwell with the Butthole Surfers. Dean had a cast on his right arm from a skateboarding fall, and said he hadn’t told anyone at the label about it. they were both looking a bit ‘altered’.
    i don’t recall Scott getting on stage, tho – Mark Kimbrell and Itchy Wigs were playing.

    here’s some stuff from that era –

    Col Bruce & Aquarium Rescue Unit http://www.archive.org/details/aru1991-02-05.sbd.flac24

    Follow For Now – http://www.archive.org/details/ffn1992-01-04

    Mark and Matt Kimbrell
    http://www.archive.org/details/ItchyWigs1
    http://www.archive.org/details/ItchyWigs
    http://www.archive.org/details/ItchyWigs3

  3. Bobbie Wilfong Fletcher says:

    Wow…. what a great article for a wonderful woman. I have known Pam for years – never very well – but i always, always looked up to her and admired her for her hard work and survival in a time when bartending women were sort of a novelty….. real bartenders, not cutie go-go types. I was in the business back then and can tell you that it was hard to be taken seriously as a woman who can pour a good drink, stop a fist fight, turn on the charm, and protect the tip jar all at the same time. She has always been taken seriously – probably because she has earned it through kindness, trust, and great personality. I can’t believe the Nick has been in business so long – hell, I can’t believe I am as old as I am. I have seen some remarkable music come through there and had many a good time in that place. Congratulations Pam and The Nick for many years of doing great things. I am proud to be a part of the history even if I rarely get out any more! Keep it up!!!

  4. Bobbie Wilfong Fletcher says:

    I hope that my children will be hearing great music at the Nick in a few years. Unlike my own mother, I know it is a relatively safe (just be smart people) and awesome place to hang!

  5. Jordan says:

    Pam is awesome! Too much love for what these guys do.

  6. Leila says:

    Wonderful person, wonderful bar. When Robert and I decided to get married, back in the days before cell phones, Robert took me to The Nick at midnight because that is the only place he knew that he could find his brother, Jimmy Watson, and introduce me to my future brother-in-law. What an experience! Thanks for the memories.

  7. Dollie says:

    AHH yes, The Nick. It will always rock. I had the privilege of working there from around the same time Pam started; we waited tables and eventually tended bar together and I co-managed with her for several years. We both learned a lot from those days…how to handle butt head band managers to making the best darn margarita in town. Pam has done a remarkable job with maintaining the stability and the “nature” of The Nick. It is a true honor to know her and be her friend. Pam and The Nick Rocks!!!

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