Lived in bars

Will Quinlan and the Diviners
with Matt Butcher and
the Revolvers, the Legendary JC's
8 p.m. Saturday, May 9
The Plaza Theatre,
all ages


Tampa is a city that revels in its culture of debris. From its colonial origins as an enter-if-you-dare hideout for slaves to its modern-day incarnation as the I-4 dead end that signals its tough stance with overflowing garbage bags under highway overpasses, from its full-friction strip clubs to its ranking as one of the top party cities in the country, this is a place that gets more hardscrabble the deeper you look. It's a city that specializes in characters born from the dirt and sharpened by booze, boredom and belligerence; figures like baseball's John McGraw, the punchy "Little Napoleon"; icons like the scrappy Ray Charles or Gone With the Wind's no-bullshit Butterfly McQueen.

Texas-born Will Quinlan is another such product, a stocky man of 43 who, when asked where he wants to meet for this story, provided a choice of two downtown bars, claiming that's where he feels most comfortable. He settles on the Hub, a dive on Franklin Street that Quinlan adores except for one peeve: It's too big. "The original location is a block over and a block down at the southeast corner. I wish the old place was still around. It's about half the size … much cozier," says Quinlan.

Whiskey in hand, the city's alt-country songwriting icon — whose former band, Pagan Saints, and current project, Will Quinlan and the Diviners, have earned him elder statesman status in the area — appears miserable. He's positioned at the bar, grimacing straight ahead into a camera, the flashbulb of which elicits heckling from his barfly friends off to the side. A withdrawn yet thoughtful and eloquent Southerner who longs to tuck himself away someday in a small town, Quinlan grins and nods at his friends, reluctantly acknowledging their good time at his expense. "I didn't expect them to be here," he says.

Later, he retreats to a dark corner of the Hub. Once the buzz has died down, he warms up and bemoans his introverted nature. "I'm getting better with it," he says. "It's about context. On that stage, it's a familiar idiom, for what it's worth. You learn to fight that self-consciousness or fear, but I'm not at all an extrovert. For years I was uncomfortable onstage and it showed. Unless I was really drunk I just stood there."

Raised Irish-Catholic — "but not with heavy hands" — Quinlan carries with him a hefty bag of regret. He points to his drinking days in the '90s, when, he says, he could have made some real moves with the Pagan Saints if he hadn't burned so many bridges with his behavior. He also points to caring for his mother, who was hospitalized with mental health issues when he was young and died in 2000 of a stroke, as years that put him a decade or more "behind the curve" in terms of breaking out as a musician.

"It took me away from what I wanted to do and I can't deny that. Do I resent my mother for her situation taking me away from it? I never did, but I was always afraid that was the case so I would escape those thoughts by getting into some pretty stupid, drunken escapades. I was really lucky in that I had a lot of good people around me. I never went to jail. Several times, I probably should've."

When he came to after the daze started to fade, Quinlan began to notice a yearning for small-town life, the kind of life his mother enjoyed in her childhood on a farm in Navasota, Texas. That ended when she moved to bustling San Antonio.

"This is nothing against my father, but when she married my dad is when her issues started to bubble up. And she was never truly happy from then on in her life, although she was an incredibly sweet, kind, surpassingly generous woman. To watch someone like that get chewed up by circumstance her whole life was beyond painful for me, and I realized Navasota was a touchstone to the essence of who this woman was."

To cope with his grief, he began writing songs again, songs that captured his internal dichotomy of place. "So many times in my life, I've thought, ‘Fuck it, I'm gonna go live in a place like Navasota. Somewhere quiet.' But then the urbanite pseudo-intellectual in me gets the best of me and I want to be around people that are in universities and art and culture."

He assembled other musicians, including fellow Tampa veteran Rebekah Pulley, as the Diviners and recorded last year's Navasota, featuring tracks like the pedal-steel stomp of "Hallowed Ground" and the Neil Young—esque "South San Pedro" that evoked a distinctive (and possibly idealized) Texas that, he sings, "is my home."

"Tampa, to me, has never been much of a consideration at all," says Quinlan. "I don't much care for the place, but it's the people here I care for. And the music scene has been surprisingly good over the years. `But` my experience with Tampa has been somewhat detached. I'm just not comfortable being here. I never have been."

But Quinlan holds no grudges. A former golf prodigy who literally walked away from the game during a tournament when he couldn't stand the entitled attitude of his peers anymore, he's an unfailing humanist who craves to see the good in people, an issue he addresses in the song "Remember the Beatitudes." "It's not righteous," he sings on the darkly urgent foot-stomper. "It's not right."

"I just sat back and said, ‘You're so bitter, you're so angry. What about the beatitudes `in the Bible, blessings that opened Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount`? It all comes back to the same thing: Simple human decency and, to use a flowery word, love. So many people are so afraid of that."

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