“Ashmore’s Store,” an album of uncommon ambition, is named for a small pharmacy, opened in 1946, that served folks in the black area of Tallahassee called Frenchtown, where a teenage Michael Koppy developed his music and the courage to hop his first freight train and make his way in the world.
More than a building, the store was a cultural crossroads for its community and, run by a white Southerner from Sopchoppy, Robert Roy Ashmore, a symbol of how the mutual exchange of respect and dignity could be a successful business model in 1950s and ’60s Dixie.
Koppy, once of Pompano Beach and now of Honolulu, estimates he took nine cross-continental trips by boxcar between his expulsion from Leon County High School (he was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, but "I was being a jerk," he says) to his eventual landing in the entertainment industry in California. He has plenty of stories in him, but the time he spent hanging out with the local characters and musicians at Ashmore’s Store and the nearby Redbird Cafe remains in a separate category.
“To say that it saved my life might be overstating it,” Koppy says. “But it was an oasis … from the swaggering, assertive, right-wing ascendancy, the vestigial, palpable racism. I couldn’t put up with it. So meeting Rob Roy, who — talk about a country redneck, and yet a caring liberal — he was a godsend.”
Koppy had spent his middle-school years in the early ’60s in Pompano Beach with two siblings being raised by a single mother who bootstrapped her way from a series of low-paying jobs to Florida Atlantic University and then Florida State, where she eventually earned a doctorate. Her oldest son took a more circuitous route to success, working as a laborer in a gunpowder factory, stagehand, carnival roustabout, union organizer and small-town newspaper editor, finally settling in San Francisco, where he produced and directed stage musicals, television and concerts.
Koppy’s third album since he began recording and performing in 2001, “Ashmore’s Store” (its name fulfills a promise Koppy made to Ashmore before he died in 2010, a year after closing his store) includes contributions from musician friends such as John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Woody Paul (Riders in the Sky), Norman Hamlet (Merle Haggard and the Strangers) and Roy Blumenfeld (the Blue Project). Some sections include Koppy playing a Buck Owens American guitar, a gift from the country-music icon himself.
Befitting its name, a hallmark of the album is its remarkable variety, which can be distilled into two parts. One group of songs, Koppy’s cowboy tenor gritty with the ashes of old flames, offers the progressive anthems “One Great Mornin’ (the South’s Gonna Rise Again)” and “Behind Every Great Fortune,” and the frisky fun of “A Filled-Out Shirt” (exactly what you think it means) and “’Til Hell’s Dang Done Froze Over.”
“The songs are so eclectic, you could say schizophrenic … but they’re all me,” Koppy says with a laugh.
And then, there is “All in the Timing: A Hollywood Romance in Seven Chapters,” a vivid, literate tour-de-force that runs more than 27 minutes and includes references to Keats, “Uncle Remus,” Puccini, William Faulkner, “The Lone Ranger,” James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Rupert Pupkin (Google it), the Clash, Bob Fosse and the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Koppy says the song, a “sprawling musical rodeo” originally twice as long, was inspired by the novels of Thomas Pynchon and the films of Jean-Luc Godard.
“The best way, so I’m told, to assimilate ‘All in the Timing’ is to take it on a drive across town. Turn off the cell phone and cruise,” Koppy says.
But equally impressive is the third aspect of “Ashmore’s Store”: It comes tucked into a small book that includes Koppy’s firsthand account of day-to-day life at the pharmacy, with pictures of some of the main characters; lyrics to the songs, including many pages devoted to “All in the Timing”; and an exhaustively researched list of annotations explaining some of the song’s obscure pop-culture references, including Rupert Pupkin.
The richly detailed depiction of Frenchtown is a wonderful time capsule of “the soul and beating heart of working-class black Panhandle North Florida,” and is why Koppy’s upcoming May tour through Florida also will include readings at bookstores and libraries.
Koppy says the trip, nearly 40 stops from Key West to Pensacola, will take him to Tallahassee, and he’ll probably drive by the old neighborhood. But he won’t stop at the old store.
“The building is there, but everything’s gone,” he says.
IF YOU GO
Michael Koppy has scheduled several South Florida stops on his monthlong tour of the state. Included this weekend are performances at 9 p.m. Friday at Stingers Bar and Pizza (1201 S. Ocean Blvd., Pompano Beach; 954-782-2344, StingersPizza.com), 8 p.m. Saturday at Luna Star Cafe (775 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-799-7123, LunaStarCafe.com), 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mandel Public Library (411 Clematis St., West Palm Beach; 561-868-7700, Facebook.com/MandelPublicLibrary) and 6 p.m. Sunday at the South Shores Tavern (502 Lucerne Ave., Lake Worth; 561-547-7656, SouthShoresTavern.com). Other South Florida appearances on Koppy’s evolving schedule include May 23 at a Florida State Historical Society conference at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and May 31 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. For more information, go to MichaelKoppy.com.