Monthly Archives: July 2004

Book Review: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?


Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?


The story of the Carter Family, also known as the First Family of country music.


July 29, 2004

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?
By Mark Zwonitzer with

Charles Hirshberg.
Simon and Schuster, 417 pages,

$15, softcover.

The story of the Carter Family is the story of Appalachian mountain music, the genre that would later spawn country, bluegrass, and folk music. Along with Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters were among the biggest stars of the late 1920s and ’30s. Their 78 rpm recordings of “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side” sold close to 100,000 copies at a time when the recording industry was still relatively new. Carter Family songs have been recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, among others. They’re also credited with the first recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Maybelle, Sara and A.P. Carter. (click for larger version)

For nearly half a century, the real story behind the breakup of the original Carter Family remained a mystery. Ensconced as the first family of country music, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle never spoke publicly of the split. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, however, reveals the family secrets in agonizing, intriguing detail worthy of a John Steinbeck novel. It’s a fascinating, eye-opening journey into the desperation that not only defined the Great Depression, but that also was the essence of Carter Family songs.

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? is more than the Carters’ story, though. It’s also the story of the birth of the recording industry and the hoodwinking quackery of a millionaire “medical practitioner” named Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, the man who broadcast the Carter Family to much of the western hemisphere over his million-watt border radio station XERA. In fact, it’s the bizarre introduction of Brinkley’s cure for male impotence (which he regularly hawked over the airwaves) during the book’s prologue that initially prompts the reader’s jaw to drop before the Carters ever show up in their own book. The doctor was pocketing $750 to $2,000 a pop in the 1930s performing operations that involved grafting bits of goat testicles onto the gonads of gullible men who were seeking to regain their virility. One can hardly wait to find the Carters’ connection to this freak show.

Raised in Poor Valley, Virginia, at the bottom of Clinch Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter possessed a slight tremor from childhood on. The affliction (“nervous energy” the locals called it, as A.P. constantly talked to himself and could not sit still) was attributed to his mother having been struck by lightning while pregnant. His constant shaking added a distinctive vocal quiver to his bass voice that lent an ethereal, tender quality to the Carter Family sound. On the other side of Clinch Mountain, his future wife Sara lived in Rich Valley, so named for its fertile soil. Sara’s cousin Maybelle eventually married A.P.’s brother Eck, and soon Maybelle and Sara were close as sisters, spending their free hours singing and playing guitars together.

Keep on the Sunny Side: a grinning June Carter and her first husband, singer Carl Smith, in the early 1950s. (click for larger version)

If having a woman [Sara] as lead singer made the Carters a unique act, A.P.’s role made them even odder. His bass dropped in and out of songs unpredictably, and there were some nights he didn’t bother to show up for concerts or recording sessions at all. A.P.’s number-one contribution was roaming the hills of Tennessee and Virginia in search of songs that he could adapt to the group’s sound. Though his name is listed as the writer on most of the Carter songs, he rarely wrote anything.

A.P. was unique in another way: he sometimes stayed with black families while traveling to collect blues songs and then reciprocated by allowing blacks to stay with him and Sara, much to the consternation of the locals. A.P.’s incessant travels left Sara to tend to the farm and raise the family, offering the first clue that their marriage would soon unravel. That Sara fell in love with his first cousin Coy, who moved into the Carter house to help Sara with the chores while A.P. traveled, made the divorce even more bitter.

Ralph Peer, the man who made a fortune off of musician Jimmie Rodgers and who introduced the terms “hillbilly” and “race” into the lexicon as new rural musical genres, recognized the Carter Family genius. Peer literally grew up with the recording industry. He was born in 1892, the same year that Thomas Edison introduced his Electric Motor Phonographs for $190 each. After the Carters’ audition in Bristol, Tennessee, Peer signed the trio to his Victor recording label, paying the group $50 for each song recorded. Steeped in opera and classical music, Peer despised the hillbilly and black blues from which he was making a fortune, but he made the Carter Family a household name by 1928. Soon, Maybelle’s graceful, thumping guitar style that incorporated rhythm and lead at the same time would be the most widely imitated picking technique around. Their harmonies grew incredibly tight. Because three minutes was the maximum space available on a 78 rpm record, they whittled a song down to its essence.

Maybelle and her husband Eck, however, stayed above the frayed edges that haunted A.P. and Sara’s lives. While singing songs about what the book refers to as “the fine art of hard living,” they lived like royalty, spending their money on cars, motorcycles, and other luxuries their neighbors could only dream about. Even Maybelle was a motorcycle enthusiast. The image of June and Maybelle careening around the dirt roads of Poor Valley at 100 miles per hour does not match the backwoods Grand Ole Opry image projected by the simplicity of their music or June’s dumb-girl comedy routine. Maybelle and her clan were actually quite sophisticated for a bunch of Clinch Mountain yokels. Eck, an entrepreneur at heart, introduced electricity to the valley in 1930 when he rigged a turbine wheel in a nearby creek. He was so successful that the Appalachian Power Company of Bristol bought him out when he began plugging in his neighbors. As part of the deal, Eck demanded—and received—every electrical appliance on exhibit at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Daughter Anita, the youngest of Maybelle and Eck’s three daughters, said she could not recall ever being without a dishwasher. It’s almost surreal, the way the Carters lived. Every Sunday afternoon, Eck would set up huge speakers in his yard and baffle the surrounding hillbillies by blasting Mozart and Beethoven into Poor Valley.


By the time Dr. John Romulus Brinkley entered their lives in 1938, Maybelle and family had been living well for quite some time. At Eck’s behest, Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. moved to Del Rio, Texas, where Brinkley paid them $75 a week each, with six months paid vacation thrown in. The Carters did two shows a day for six months on XERA, an outlaw radio station with the miraculous power to “shrink a vast continent down to the size of a small village.” Brinkley had been run out of Kansas after being stripped of his medical license. Fleeing to Texas, where medical standards were less stringent, he built a couple of hospitals for his libido-rejuvenating procedures. He even had pens out back for his many goats, allowing patients the opportunity to pick out their own goat testicles. Because of 50,000-watt restrictions on U.S. radio stations, Brinkley built XERA across the border in Mexico, where his million watts not only broadcast his surgical skills, but also sent the Carters across America, into Canada, and as far south as South America.

At this point, the story is only half-told. There’s still the anecdote of a drunken Hank Williams trying to shoot June Carter. And, of course, June will eventually marry Johnny Cash, who adds another dimension to Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? by performing such wild antics as kicking out the stage lights at the Grand Ole Opry. Night after night, the Carters went on perpetual searches of Cash’s dressing room to flush the many pills he had stashed away. Trying to find Cash’s pills was “like an Easter egg hunt,” said June’s sister Anita. A.P. does not have a happy ending, and most appropriately, neither does Dr. John Romulus Brinkley. Sara settles down in California with her true love, Coy. And as for Maybelle and her family, the best is yet to come. &

Set List: Ludacris, Tobi Keith, The Isley Brothers, and more


The Set List


July 29, 2004Little Charlie and the Nightcats
In a world saturated with bad blues acts, swing and jump blues masters Little Charlie and the Nightcats provide redemption for the most worn-out genre in the history of music. They’re the best blues band in the world. Despite Charlie Baty’s talent at dashing off clever and tasteful guitar licks, the real show-stealer is harmonica virtuoso and wry vocalist Rick Estrin. (Estrin’s immaculate, eye-popping suits are worth the price of admission alone.) His gangster persona never fails to entertain. (Saturday, July 31, at Workplay; 7 p.m.; $15-$17.) — Ed Reynolds

Mac McAnally
He started out as the Warren Zevon for the Jimmy Buffet set. Mac McAnally then spent the ’80s putting out great country-pop albums that could’ve spared us the Americana movement had they been more successful. Fortunately, he’s been covered enough to guarantee that labels would fund his own string of ’90s releases (most of which went straight to the cheap bins). The patronage of David Geffen has also ensured the occasional windfall from projects like the soundtrack to The Prince of Egypt. Europeans still haven’t discovered McAnally as a cult figure, though, most likely because very few recording artists can do justice to his unashamedly emotional tunes. Adrienne Barbeau has recorded an impressively torchy version of “All These Years,” though. (Tuesday, August 3, at Zydeco; 8 p.m. $15.) —J.R. Taylor

Little Charlie and the Nightcats (click for larger version)


Don’t mistake this for a KISS reunion tour. It’s really another fine summer cash-in, but it pales next to the potential of the Gene Simmons solo tour we should be enjoying. Poison deserves the privileged opening slot, though, since they were always The Ramones in spandex. Nobody wrote better pop songs about girls and best friends—at least, for about two years back in the ’80s. Here’s a Don Dokken quote that really sums up the band’s long career: “Poison’s having the last laugh on all of us. It makes me feel like I wasted a lot of time practicing guitar and reading poetry.” (Tuesday, August 3, at Verizon Music Center; 7:30 p.m. $25-$60 R.S.) —J.R. Taylor


Poison (click for larger version)

Garrison Starr
Don’t blame Hilary Duff because Garrison Starr isn’t on a major label. Airstreams & Satellites is an album worthy of any woman who’s been around long enough to be Duff’s mom. True adult pop still doesn’t sell—but if it did, Starr’s defiant jangle-pop would ensure that her posters covered the bedroom walls of many beleaguered adults. (Wednesday, August 4, at Workplay; 8 p.m. $17; Laser’s Edge in-store concert; TBA; free admission.) —J.R. Taylor

Toby Keith/Terri Clark
They’re still terrified of Southern rednecks, so Toby Keith has certainly done his part to keep country scary for the national media. The press will never get close enough to appreciate his complexity, either. In that same spirit, Terri Clark’s new Greatest Hits collection showcases one of country’s most bizarre femmes—or soft butches, as the case may be—who has an angry sexuality that doesn’t scare away the fans of her fun and tuneful work. (Thursday, August 5, at Verizon Music Center; 7:30 p.m. $32-$64.) —J.R. Taylor

Ludacris/Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz/Sleepy Brown/David Banner
Everybody knows Ludacris is so crazy, and Sleepy Brown is still an unknown quantity when not performing with Outkast. That leaves David Banner, who is this bill’s biggest deal as the critics’ darling of Crunk—mostly because he adds a spiritual spin to rapping about the joys of bouncing along in a Cadillac. Banner also has an impressive stash of instrumental tricks, and everyone likes the idea of storytellers coming out of Mississippi. Lil Jon & the East Side Boys, however, remain the true Kings of Crunk, and not just because they used the word as an album title back in 2002. Their big jeep beats are the closest that Southern hip-hop will ever get to matching the stigma of bad Southern Rock blaring from Camaros. (Friday, August 6, at Alabama State Fairgrounds; 7 p.m. $25 per day; $40 for weekend.) —J.R. Taylor

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley/The Gap Band/Bobby Womack/Avant/The Bar-Kays
The Isley Brothers are back to being chart-topping pop stars, so there’s little to add there. The Gap Band and The Bar-Kays are equally iconic as vanguards of funk. So that leaves Bobby Womack sorely in need of being remembered as a soulful crooner whose long, long career has him defining any number of genres. This singer/songwriter has plenty of hits to fill his stage time, but Womack could’ve also built an entire alternate career out of some stunning album tracks. He’s still a great live act, too. Avant also appears as the token young-blood soul man who’s probably thrilled to share a bill with guys who were legends before he was born. (Saturday, August 7, at Alabama State Fairgrounds; 5 p.m. $25 per day; $40 for weekend.) —J.R. Taylor


The Isley Brothers (click for larger version)

Bobby Womack
When Bobby Womack was a young man singing in a gospel group with his four brothers, his father, Friendly Sr., warned of eternal damnation if his son went secular, which acquaintance Sam Cooke was encouraging him to do. So what did Womack do? He convinced his brothers to join him on the secular circuit despite threats of damnation. They changed their name from the Womacks to the Valentinos, and released a pair of songs written by Bobby that would be famously recorded by The Rolling Stones ["It's All Over Now"] and The J. Geils Band ["Lookin' for a Love"]. After going solo, Womack later penned many songs for Wilson Pickett (including “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love”) and recorded in the studio or performed live with acts such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Sly & the Family Stone. As a solo artist, he had a string of R&B hits, including “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the blaxploitation classic “Across 110th Street” (last heard on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown).

Bobby Womack (click for larger version)

But despite his success, Bobby Womack might have wondered if his dad had been right, because tragedy was not far behind. Womack married Sam Cooke’s wife a few months after Cooke’s murder. The resulting ill will in the R&B community stalled his career, and he began battling a drug addiction that almost killed him. In 1974, Womack’s brother was stabbed to death by his girlfriend at Bobby’s home, and in 1978, Womack’s son Truth Bobby died at the age of four months. Another son committed suicide at age 21.

Throughout his adversity, Womack continued to record and was generally known as a bit of an iconoclast. At one point in the late ’70s, Womack badgered his reluctant label into letting him do a full album of country music, something he’d always loved but that the label regarded as commercially inadvisable. The album, BW Goes C&W, sold poorly. What’s more unfortunate is that the label didn’t release it under the title Womack reportedly wanted: Step Aside, Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger a Try.

Womack’s output slowed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. His last studio recordings were a 1994 album for the label owned by friend Ron Wood and a 1997 gospel album, Back to My Roots. (Saturday, August 7 at Alabama State Fairgrounds, August 6 through 8; $25 per day, $40 for the weekend.) — Ed Reynolds

White Animals
The White Animals date back to precious days when a band had to be sure they had good songs before investing in studio time. They’d be D.I.Y. legends if they’d been turning out bad punk rock. Instead, the White Animals deserve to be heroes of jam bands everywhere for pioneering trashy frat-rock that bespoke a World Music collection instead of a token reggae LP. Actually, they’re probably responsible for a lot of really bad music from bands that followed in their wake. At least their recent originals are pretty good, and they’re touring seldom enough to make this show worth seeing. (Saturday, August 7, at Zydeco; 10 p.m. $10-$12.) —J.R. Taylor

Patterson Hood
In retrospect, Patterson Hood had little to worry about at the start of 2001. His band, the Drive-By Truckers, was already getting more press than any other project from this rapidly aging rocker. Any musician about to tour behind a popular album doesn’t get much sympathy for being recently divorced, either. Hood nevertheless worked out all of his bad feelings in his living room on his new solo album, Killers and Stars—a pleasant diversion from the determined Southern goth of the Truckers. The album is less of a singer/songwriter bid than a look at the self-loathing and self-obsession that eventually turn into grander obsessions for the band project. Hood’s feeling much better, of course, and maybe this solo appearance will bring up some of the poppier tendencies that some of us still hope to hear again. (Thursday, August 12, at Workplay; 9 p.m. $12.) —J.R. Taylor

City Hall — Mayor Kincaid Playing Hardball with George Barber






By Ed Reynolds

July 15, 2004

Mayor Kincaid Playing Hardball with George Barber

Mayor Bernard Kincaid remains opposed to giving money to the Barber Motorsports Park to bring the world’s top motorcycle racing series, the MotoGP, to Birmingham until George Barber addresses the blighted Sears building property he owns in downtown Birmingham. Barber is reportedly asking the City to kick in $250,000 per year for three years, plus another $80,000 per year for police presence at the motorcycle Grand Prix. In a July 6 interview, Kincaid said, “I will not go to the council with the recommendation for MotoGP, which I support fully. . . . I will not do that until we have gained some site control of the Sears building, a blighting influence in our city.” Kincaid said he was not asking any more of Barber than he has of other developers of blighted property in the City, including the Peerless Saloon and the City Federal building. “And those [other developers] aren’t coming to us asking for our support [as Barber is]. But the City’s support of the Barber Motorsports Museum was tied to our getting that completed and then getting some closure on the Sears building. And until that happens, I’m not prepared to make a recommendation. I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I would not like to lose that event—some 230 million people across the world might view Birmingham. But the Sears building is a blighting influence, and if we don’t do it now, I don’t know that we ever would.”



MotoGP is a worldwide racing circuit that stages 16 motorcycle races in different countries during the racing season. It has not held a United States Grand Prix in a decade, and the Barber Motorsports Park is reportedly the leading candidate to land the race in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The 2005 race would be scheduled the weekend before the May NASCAR race at Talladega and could draw up to 100,000 people to the Barber racetrack and museum located off I-20 in Birmingham near Leeds. The Grand Prix has a worldwide television audience of more than 200 million that is broadcast to 200 countries. Although Birmingham is leasing the 700 acres to Barber for $1 a year, Barber has spent $55 million of his own fortune to build the facility, and the dispute with the City centers on whether or not Barber committed to doing something about the Sears building in exchange.

“I stand with the Mayor on this issue,” said Birmingham City Councilor Carol Reynolds, in whose district the motorsports park and museum lie. “[Barber] has a lot of blighted area in District Two,” much of which is in the Eastwood Mall area, Reynolds said. Councilor Valerie Abbott agrees with Reynolds. “[Barber] made a commitment,” said Abbott. “I don’t care how wealthy he is, and I really don’t care what opportunities he has over there, he needs to do what he promised he would do. The City already bought all that land out there and gave it to him for a dollar a year until the point at which he chooses to purchase it. These people think they’re heavyweights and can throw their weight all over the city of Birmingham.”

Dial 311

A year after approval by the City Council, a 311 telephone number is now available to report non-emergency situations to the police department, fire department, mayor’s office of public assistance, and the department of public works. According to Mayor Kincaid, the police and fire departments receive approximately one million calls a year (that’s one every 31.8 seconds), with nearly 45 percent of those being non-emergencies. “The 311 call center will allow citizens to have a service to call for non-emergencies and receive real-time action from the respective departments,” said the Mayor at the July 6 meeting of the Birmingham City Council. Kincaid added that 311 would also be a “management tool” that lets the City know what reports have been made and how timely the response is. “It gives us an ability to see if we need to shift resources to one area or another,” Kincaid said.

John Wade, who oversees the City’s department of information management, explained that the primary goal is to take the load off of 911 to allow for “true emergencies” to be addressed. Wade said close to 200 calls have been made using 311 since May. He explained that the City began testing software for 311 a year ago, and then implemented it in November 2003. In May, a call center manager was hired. Wade said the service number would be extended to other city departments in the future, including the traffic and engineering department, so that residents can report malfunctioning traffic lights and damaged traffic signs.

The Set List


July 14, 2005

Carole King

Alongside Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, Carole King ranks as one of the great American songwriters of the 20th century. Unlike Williams and Dylan, who relied more often than not on singing their own hits to create their legacies, King’s reputation was launched in a tiny cubicle with a piano in New York’s famed Brill Building, writing for others. Her credits include “One Fine Day” by The Chiffons, “Up on the Roof” by The Drifters (Neil Diamond and Dean Martin also did interesting versions),” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees, “Oh No, Not My Baby” by Dusty Springfield (absolutely stunning), “Go Away Little Girl” by Donny Osmond, “Hi-De-Ho” by Blood, Sweat, and Tears, “Don’t Bring Me Down” by The Animals, “The Loco-Motion” by both Little Eva [her baby-sitter] and Grand Funk Railroad, and “Chains” by the Beatles.

Her legend as a performer was sealed in 1971 with the release of Tapestry, a remarkable album featuring “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” “So Far Away,” “Natural Woman,” “It’s Too Late,” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” The record made soft rock hip, a California-besotted sound that was eventually turned to mush by less talented writers like the Eagles, Poco, James Taylor, and a slew of other post-hippies who tried to substitute with electric and acoustic guitars what King had done on a piano.

To witness Carole King sing from her astonishing catalogue is a rare treat. Stage fright (and no doubt an endless supply of money earned over her career) kept her from live performances for years. Recently, she has undertaken extensive tours armed with only a piano and a pair of guitarists. Perched behind the grand piano, King’s fingers pound the keys aggressively as her bouncing head of curls and endearing smile exhibit a childlike enthusiasm. If she’s scared, she doesn’t show it. Her voice has aged to a soulful rasp, and despite her 63 years, she’s still as easy on the eyes as ever. (Thursday, July 21, at the BJCC Concert Hall) —Ed Reynolds


There was a time when India.arie was going to be the supreme mix of Sade and Joni Mitchell. Now she’s just a perfectly reasonable presence on the soundtrack of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Arie didn’t exactly come unhinged between Acoustic Soul and Voyage to India, but she certainly sustained a certain meltdown. It was all foreshadowed by self-obsession that went past navel-gazing and straight to the masturbatory—and you know there’s something seriously wrong when that’s a turn-off from a soul sister. It’s been several years since an actual album, but Arie’s voice holds up even when her melodies don’t. You’ll still want to ignore those lyrics. You’re better off trusting a U.N. oil-for-food program when it comes to advice for the downtrodden. (Friday, July 15, at the Alabama Theatre; 8 p.m. $39-$45) —J.R. Taylor


Kelly Clarkson (click for larger version)

American Idols Live

Everybody knows that it’s Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” on the short bus. You can also consider it a missed opportunity to shoot a superior reality show, since Bo Bice, Carrie Underwood, Constantine Maroulis, and the rest must be miserable on this obligatory summer tour when they could be pushing their solo careers. At least nobody’s going to be straining their voice while sharing a bill with nine other acts. It’s also a considerate way of cramming plenty of novelty acts onto one bill without having to pay Dr. Demento—or William Hung—as an emcee. (Friday, July 15, at the BJCC; 7:30 p.m. $37-$47) —J.R. Taylor

Kelly Clarkson/Graham Colton Band

Wait five days, skip this year’s models, and marvel at how a gal who chirps like a generic cell phone ring tone went on to win Idol and become . . . well, probably a cell phone ring tone. That slutty new makeover isn’t very believable, but who cares? Neither is Breakaway—although it’s really fun to hear her making a bold move from her pop past that still fizzles out with generic ballads. In a few moments, she almost rocks as hard as Quarterflash, though. File this as another fun cultural moment, and you’ll have a good dopey story when you’re sitting around reviewing the decade in 20 years. People might also remember Graham Colton as the Tab Hunter of mild jam-band pop, except Tony Perkins wouldn’t go to the movies with him. (Wednesday, July 20, at Boutwell Auditorium; 7:30 p.m. $25-$40)—J.R. Taylor

18 Visions/He Is Legend/The Black Maria

And here’s the point where post-thrash-punk-whatever becomes album-oriented rock. 18 Visions and The Black Maria are both perfectly fine and impressive acts whose songwriting uses every dopey trick that’s ever been utilized by Styx, REO Speedwagon, Heart, and other bands that you’re not supposed to like but you really do. (Well, in the case of REO Speedwagon, up to around 1978.)

The Black Maria is in especially good shape coming off of Lead Us To Reason, and it’s baffling that they’re stuck in the opening slot here. Meanwhile, I Am Legend is a mainstream metal act coming off of the surprising ambition of I Am Hollywood. The noise can venture towards more prog than punk, and there are a few other self-referential layers that make Legend the Thomas Pynchon of lit-rock—except they know how to keep it short. (Saturday, July 23, at Cave 9; 7 p.m. $10)—J.R. Taylor

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk

He should be a rock legend just for having been told by Keith Richards that he really needed to straighten out his act. And now he’s eight years sober and still stuck with a family heritage that—outside of New Orleans—is good only for scoring lots of free drugs on the jam-band circuit. Dumpstaphunk, fortunately, is a smart strategic intervention that imposes plenty of song structure on a quality band that could actually get away with jamming. They’re not the new Meters, but Dumpstaphunk also has Ian Neville to make it even easier to be the next best thing. They’re also smart enough to rely on other people’s songs—including at least one Meters cover. (Wednesday, July 27, at Zydeco; 8 p.m. $10, 18+) —J.R. Taylor &

More Delays on Animal Control

More Delays on Animal Control

Continuing differences between the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County stall the renewal of an Animal Control contract.

July 01, 2004

The ongoing debate between the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County regarding the contract with BJC Animal Control is well into its sixth month. In January of this year, the County drew up a request for proposal [RFP] for prospective vendors to bid on animal control services. Both the City and an advisory board created by the County disagreed with some aspects of the RFP, and some changes were eventually implemented. The contract was awarded to Steve Smith of BJC Animal Control, the low bidder at $1.052 million. Dan Bugg of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who was recommended by the County Commission’s Animal Control Advisory Board, bid $1.6 million. The City, however, has not been satisfied with terms of the contract, which it finally received May 24, one week prior to the County’s deadline for the City to decide if it would join with the County or seek animal control services independently. Steve Smith has been the County’s and the City’s animal control vendor since 1997.

The standoff has all the drama of high-stakes poker. Birmingham pays 65 percent of the joint animal control expenses. Without the City on board, the County’s contribution to animal control jumps from $327,000 to $635,000. So, it’s no surprise that the County is interested in having the City involved, though it makes no sense why animal control services will suddenly cost the County twice as much for the same service it has received in the past.

The County extended the deadline to June 22, as city officials still were not completely satisfied with the contract. A June 22 memo from County Attorney Andy Strickland to the City stated that the County was unsuccessful in contacting the City on the morning of the 22nd for its decision, so the deadline was extended to June 29. In the memo, the County continued to disagree with a contract stipulation which would allow the City to terminate the contract with 30 days notice. Instead, the City, which pays the lion’s share of the contract, can only terminate the contract jointly with the County on 90 days notice. A June 23 memo from City Attorney Tamara Johnson to Mayor Bernard Kincaid and the Birmingham City Council indicated that the City was still “not in total agreement with the terms of the proposed contract with Steve Smith.”

Mayor Bernard Kincaid, among other city officials, has expressed concern that the contract was written to benefit Steve Smith. It has long been insinuated by local animal advocates and some city councilors that the relationship between Smith and the County Commission is a close one. So it comes as no surprise that some city officials are curious that in his June 22 memo to the City, Strickland refers to Smith as “Steve.” Regarding the right of the City to end the contract, Strickland wrote: “Steve objects to the County or City being able to independently terminate the contract.”

Regarding compliance, the contract states, “Contractor agrees to inspections by the County, or its designee, or the City, or its designee, during the year for the purposes of determining whether the Contractor is in compliance with the Contract.” According to the County Attorney, Smith objects to this compliance clause. Strickland stated in his memo: “It appears to vest the County and/or the City’s ‘designee’ with authority to determine whether the Contractor is in compliance with the Contract. Steve welcomes reasonable inspections but would like some comfort level that the inspectors will have some qualifications for the job and be unbiased.”

Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott is flabbergasted at the weight given to Smith’s input: “It’s interesting to me that the people at the County have repeatedly denied that they have a special relationship with BJC Animal Control in the form of Steve Smith. This pretty much backs it up,” said Abbott. “They just say, ‘It’s acceptable to Steve and the County.’ . . . It really does amaze me. There was this great wave of denial from the County that they were involved in any kind of special relationship. But it looks pretty obvious to me that somebody has a special relationship . . . It’s like Steve’s running the show.”

Writer’s note: Mayor Kincaid’s Advisory Committee on Animal Control met on June 28, and decided to agree to the contract if the County would allow the City to opt out of the contract independently upon 90 days written notice. As of press time, the County had not responded.