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'We have a bright future ahead of us': Norman's historic Bluebonnet Bar continues supporting local musicians amid COVID-19

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Bar (copy)

The bar of the Bluebonnet Bar on Oct. 12.

Tucked away at the end of Main Street sits a bar and music venue older than most Norman residents. Despite the bar’s recent smoking ban, the scent of old cigarette smoke and the history attached to it lingers.

As always, the Bluebonnet Bar sells some of the cheapest drinks in Norman. But the history, inclusivity, and community it serves with every drink is priceless. 

The bar shut down in March, following Norman’s COVID-19 guidelines, and after 10 weeks the bar reopened with limited capacity. Months later, the bar is still open with half its normal seating but with all of its drive to remain a steady venue for Oklahoma musicians.

Michelle and her then-boyfriend Tanner Miller bought the bar in 2017, and while COVID-19 may have gotten in the way of a few months' worth of income, since opening in the 1930s, Bluebonnet has seen and survived its fair share of economic hardship and national unrest. 

“Everyone gets along while they’re at the Bluebonnet,” co-owner Michelle Miller said. 

A day at the Bluebonnet begins with its opening at noon, and then the older generation comes in to play dominoes and watch "Jeopardy!" at 3:30 p.m., Michelle said. After they leave, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s shuffle in after work.

Bluebonnet Bar (copy)

The entrance to Bluebonnet Bar on Oct. 12.

By night, music from the evening’s musical act and people of every age fill the bar. 

Manager and bartender Chris Levings said the variety of clientele forms a tight-knit community, and with that community comes a sense of safety and tolerance.  

“You should feel comfortable being able to come down here by yourself and not be worried that something’s gonna happen. ... We have a lot of people who return just because they’re like, ‘This is one of the first places I've ever felt welcome being me,’” Levings said. “That’s really nice and heartwarming to hear.” 

Outside the bar, under a glowing purple and green “OPEN” sign, hangs a sign noting, “We stand with you. You are safe here,” and a few more with social justice-related messages. 

Michelle said bigotry is a rare occurrence for those who come inside the Bluebonnet Bar.  

“Everyone is welcome. ... Once you’re in the bar it's just a place for everyone to just escape the outside world ... (and) the chaos,” Michelle said. 

Michelle said the bar’s message isn’t about politics — it’s about acceptance. 

“If you wanna make people feel bad for who they are ... there’s other places to drink,” Michelle said. 

COVID-19 may have closed the bar for a short time, but Michelle said the sense of community didn’t lessen. 

Michelle and Tanner both work full-time jobs outside of the bar and were able to fund Bluebonnet through the closure. For them, Bluebonnet is a worthy investment to save — the same worthy investment they made a few years ago when they came up with the cash to buy it in the first place. 

“We love that bar. If they close it ever, it’s not gonna be on our watch. … We were just not gonna let COVID get in the way,” Miller said. 

Before Michelle and Tanner took over, Levings said the then cash-only, beer-serving Bluebonnet wasn’t exactly her speed — she wasn’t a beer-lover, didn’t fit in with the older clientele and rarely saw the bar full. 

But Levings had been friends with Michelle long before the Millers bought the bar, and she knew they would do something special with the historic joint. 

Michelle and Tanner, now married, have made major renovations to Bluebonnet — including getting a liquor license and credit card capabilities — but they aren’t trying to turn the historic bar into something that it isn’t. 

“It’s the oldest bar in Norman, and we don’t want it to feel or even look like a newborn, ’cause it’s not,” Michelle said. 

Art (copy)

Art on the walls of the Bluebonnet Bar on Oct. 12.

While some things have changed, the pool tables and shuffleboards from its older days remain in the bar, along with loyal patrons and the title of the oldest bar in Norman. 

The new no-smoking rules, a garage door for the bar’s patio, and knocking out the drop-ceiling to reveal the duct-work above the bar were moves to make the space more welcoming for patrons, employees and musicians.

“We were always just afraid to go non-smoking because we thought we would lose a bunch of regulars,” Michelle said. “Then COVID happened, and we saw what it was like to make zero dollars for 10 weeks ... we were like, when we reopen let’s go ahead and go non-smoking.”

Feedback has been positive, Michelle said, but some patrons were lost to the change. However, the clientele remains a mixed bag of ages and demographics. 

Levings said the bar’s success with maintaining their patrons through an ownership shift a few years prior to the pandemic assured her Bluebonnet would be OK. It also didn’t hurt that Bluebonnet has earned its stripes as a decades-old establishment. 

“That itself showed we can pull ourselves out of anything. ... Y’know, keep the historic Bluebonnet feel but get up to speed with everyone else,” Levings said. 

Losing money during the closure was stressful for businesses downtown, Levings said, but some of Bluebonnet’s regulars and other service workers looked out for each other. 

Part of reopening in July and staying operational meant being mindful of Bluebonnet’s older and immunocompromised patrons, Levings said. Half of the barstools are still removed, bartenders wear masks at all times and Levings uses up bottles of hand sanitizer constantly. 

Levings said while the occasional customer doesn’t believe the pandemic is worth all of the health precautions Bluebonnet is taking, she sees patrons remaining considerate of the rules every day. 

While the bar is still slow during the day, Levings said, business picks up at night as performers bring their music to the space. 

“Bringing entertainment to people who have been stuck inside and lifting the spirits of people ... that’s pretty much our biggest role,” Levings said. 

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The stage inside of Bluebonnet Bar on Oct. 12.

Every night except Sunday, Bluebonnet hosts musicians from a variety of genres, but Levings said the “red-dirt” style makes the most appearances. 

The bar maintains a general no out-of-state musicians policy. The goal of this, Michelle said, is to support local musicians whose livelihoods depend on performing, especially in the wake of COVID-19. 

“Everyone has bills to pay,” Michelle said. 

Norman-based singer-songwriter Troy Alan started playing at Bluebonnet before Michelle and Tanner took over and a few dozen bottles of liquor lined the back wall. 

He began at the bar as a bass player in a friend’s band, but has since performed as a solo folk artist and even bartended at Bluebonnet. Now, Alan has a recurring spot every other Thursday night. 

Alan said not being able to perform for a few months before getting the call from Michelle about the recurring gig was particularly scary for him — in March, just before mass shutdowns began across Oklahoma, Alan quit his retail job, bought a pricey guitar and planned on making music his main hustle. 

Bluebonnet’s stage has been a way for Alan to re-enter the music scene with relative safety. Alan said while campus bars are packed, Bluebonnet stays a bit less attended. 

“I had a group of about 10 people right in front as I was playing. We just sat there and cracked jokes all night. ... I had the whole bar singing along,” Alan said. “I don’t know how to describe it. It feels like home.” 

Alan said Bluebonnet has done a good job making space for new and local artists in a bar that spans decades. 

“They’ve renovated a little, but when you walk in there ... I don’t know if it's a smell that hangs in the air or the beer stain on the floor that, despite mopping it a hundred times, you can't clean it up ... there’s some history in the air there,” Alan said. “People have taken its legacy and are extending it into the future. They’re definitely doing a great job of preserving an old Oklahoma mainstay.” 

Another Norman-based singer-songwriter, Celia Monroe, is also a regular act for Bluebonnet and has been for about eight years. She now plays her acoustic stylings the first Wednesday of every month. 

Monroe’s first ever solo show was at Bluebonnet — or, in her words, “the Bonnet.” The bar has been a home base for Monroe during COVID-19, as it’s one of the only gigs she books lately. 

“Bluebonnet is definitely one of those ‘walk-in-and-you’ll-know-everyone' (places). If you don’t know anybody, there's gonna be somebody friendly being like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Hope you're having a good day,’” Monroe said. “On the general, it's just a very welcoming, peaceful-natured bar.” 

Oklahoma-based band The Bottom of the Barrel has been playing at Bluebonnet for about two years. 

Lead singer Kasey Dillon said Bluebonnet was one of the first bars to give the band a chance, and the space allows them to try their new songs out for a crowd they can actually interact with. 

“You can literally see from 3 feet away people's interest in it,” Dillon said. “You can really see people's participation. ... If somebody gives you a tip, you can say thank you, and you can wave at them. ... It really feels like you're part of the community when you’re there.”

The Bottom of the Barrel brings a non-traditional fusion of bluegrass, outlaw country and rock ‘n’ roll to Bluebonnet every other Wednesday night — a style of music Dillon said one fan accurately described as, “the bluegrass Eagles.” 

Dillon said Michelle and Tanner’s faithfulness to his band is encouraging and keeps them coming back to Bluebonnet. 

“They’re really good people ... they have a good crowd. Not always the biggest crowd, but it’s always a crowd that's there to listen,” Dillon said. “We’ve played a lot of places where they couldn’t care less who was on stage, but the patrons there know they're gonna hear a band that does their own thing.”

Bluebonnet is a usual venue for Norman Music Festival, which is typically slated for spring but was canceled due to COVID-19. Michelle said she gave the organizers total support in canceling the festival despite what it meant to a venue like Bluebonnet. 

Patio (copy)

The outdoor patio of the Bluebonnet Bar on Oct. 12.

“We care more about people than we do about profits,” Michelle said. “Yes, of course there was a loss there, but it was well worth it for us.” 

Norman Music Festival usually brings close to 100,000 people through the bar’s door over the course of the weekend, but Michelle said the community did what it needed to do to remain safe — and to her, that matters most. 

“I have an autoimmune disorder, so I’m all for the safety of everyone. I get it. I don’t want to put anyone at risk,” Michelle said. 

None of Bluebonnet’s regulars or staff have tested positive for COVID-19, but Michelle said there’s procedures in place in the unfortunate event that somebody contracts the virus. 

The future for Bluebonnet is still a bright one, Michelle said, and hopefully one that continues for decades upon decades to come — but right now, they’re hoping for Norman Music Festival’s return in 2021. 

“My husband and I would like to own (Bluebonnet) for our lifetime. We’re gonna keep on maintaining our inclusivity and maintaining the local community and local artists,” Michelle said. “We have a bright future ahead of us.”

This story was updated on October 23 at 7:37 p.m. to reflect the correct spelling of of Troy Alan’s last name to “Alan” instead of “Allen.”

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