CAMP VERDE - Pouring equal parts coffee and folk music, Thanks a Latte has been Monday's answer to the three-day weekend since proprietors Paul and Jan Hawk and local musician Gary Simpkins began hosting a weekly Open Mic Night in 2011.
"As I recall, Paul Hawk was looking to have music in there," Simpkins says. "Paul has been an integral part of this. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have this."
Paul Hawk remembers the first Open Mic night at his coffee shop.
"It started off with a kick right away," he says. "It was packed. It gives people something to do on a Monday night. Gives an outlet for local musicians to do their thing, to play. And we're appreciative to the people who come in and do dinner."
Simpkins says that Thanks a Latte is a "good place" for local musicians to play their music.
"We tend to get the folk musicians," Simpkins says. "There's a little group of people who play all the time or do it fairly often, and they're pretty good at what they do. And we get the occasional younger person. They get a chance to get better."
Though 15 performers in an evening is considered average at the weekly Open Mic Night, both Simpkins and Paul Hawk remember as many as 18 people showing up to play.
"We used to start at 6 p.m," Simpkins says. "But I set up around 5 p.m., so I figured why not start at 5:30 p.m.? I'll play a few songs, check the sound system. This way, there's a pretty decent audience. I need as much time as I can to get as many people on."
"Well there's Lance that old bluesman, he's playin' his guitar.
Folks are calling out requests, 'won't you please play Charlie's Bar?'
Don't forget about Leadbelly, the King of the 12-String.
All the folks in Camp Verde love to hear old Hound Dog sing ..."
A "real family camaraderie" is how Jan Hawk describes Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night.
"Gary is amazing," she says. "When he starts something, he keeps it going."
When he was 15 years of age, the music bug bit Simpkins square on the proverbial ear.
"When I would go to bed, I had a radio next to me, [tuned to] WCBS in Connecticut," Simpkins says. "They had a show called the 'Folk Hootenanny.' Back in those days, an open mic used to be called a hootenanny. I thought that was really cool. 'I think I'll try to do that,' I thought."
Simpkins decided he was going to learn to play the guitar.
"My dad had a guitar. But he didn't play it," Simpkins says. "I grabbed it and began to play it. I probably played it a month before I knew how to tune it."
Eventually, Simpkins' father gave him a music book, which helped the young man learn how to play and tune the guitar. Besides the guitar, he plays bass guitar, mountain dulcimer and percussion.
Describing his pre-show soundcheck, Simpkins breaks down his music set into thirds.
"For my own act, one-third of the songs people know, then one-third my own songs, then about one-third of songs by people the audience may not know," he says. "All of my songs would be loosely called folk music."
"The king of the open mic"
Dan Engler first fancied himself a musician as a child.
After putting down his guitar for three decades, he "started again in earnest" seven years ago. Now, the 58-year-old is "the king of the open mic," according to Simpkins.
Having played "most every open mic in Sedona and the Verde Valley, Prescott, Tucson and many in Phoenix," Engler says Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night "is undoubtedly the best."
"Gary has done everything right to make this open mic so successful," Engler says. "First, he is so highly respected in the Verde Valley music community that the very best local musicians naturally gravitate to it. He has excellent sound equipment and is one of the better sound guys around, so you are always assured of getting a good sound. Then toss in the fact the Paul and Jan have opened their doors and their hearts to this Monday night gathering, and you can't beat their food, and it's just an ideal setting.
"Also, the folks in Camp Verde are the very best in the Verde Valley at coming out and being a respectful, listening audience," Engler says. "Gary and Paul hung in there, and when the dominos started falling, they ended up with the best open mic in the Verde Valley, probably one of the best you will find anywhere in Arizona."
Though a big fan of Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, John Hiatt and Steve Earl, Engler says he prefers to play his own material, "unless I have not written a new one in a while and people are sick of hearing the same old ones."
"He's smooth as silk, Ray Sealing, Big Jim is keeping time
Flat pickin' by Ken Ralston, JR will blow your mind
The night is young, stick around, the music's bound to last
If we're lucky Gary just might sing 'Stay Low & Move Fast' ..."
A man of many instruments ... and musical influences
J.R. Robusto was 12 years old when he began playing music.
"But [I] was singing a lot earlier," says the 58-year-old Rimrock resident.
Having been to Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night "off and on" since it began, Robusto plays the drums, guitar, bass guitar, piano, violin, viola, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, native flute, recorder and Celtic harp.
"I remember playing in the beginning and many locals came out to support the cafe and music," Robusto says. "People were extremely thankful and receptive to my music."
Robusto mostly plays original material, with a cover "here and there." He also cites Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Phil Keaggy, Bela Fleck, Roy Clark, Jaco Pastorius, Mark O'Connor and Allan Holdsworth among his many musical influences.
"The folks who attend and perform are attentive and responsive, not like some places where the music is simply a background thing," he says. "There are comments and clapping, sometimes even whistling and singing along. I greatly appreciate the venue, as do all the locals."
She grew up with a brush in her hand ... as a microphone
"It's hard for me to hear any music and not respond," says Judy Hathcock of Camp Verde. "I'm either tapping my foot or singing along. I love music."
Born in Alabama, Hathcock spent most of her childhood years in Mississippi. She met her husband Larry while in college at Auburn University. Though she grew up studying classical piano. Hathcock sings mostly classic country music at Thanks a Latte.
"I grew up singing other types of music, but when I met my husband Larry, I got into country," she says.
The first time that Judy and Larry went to Open Mic Night, they were impressed with the local musicians.
"It was so fabulous to see and hear all this talent. After a month or two, I asked Ray [Sealing] if he'd play for me. We've been doing it ever since. And I love it."
A musician and a storyteller
The first time he played at Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night, John Ferguson was "very nervous."
"I had to tell a little joke in order to relax myself," says the Camp Verde resident. "I still do tell a story to keep myself relaxed."
Ferguson was 25 years old when he first started playing the guitar. Now 78, he also plays harmonica and lists Roy Acuff, Johnny Horton, and Hank Williams as the musicians that have most influenced his style.
Of Simpkins and Thanks a Latte, Ferguson says, "I think both of their efforts are fantastic. Gary for taking his time to set everything up for the musicians and keeping track of who is up next to keep it flowing smoothly. Paul for opening Thanks a Latte each week, so the musicians can have a place to play their music and also to enjoy a good meal and a night out."
"I'll bet you ten dollars Jim French wrote a brand new song,
& when Ron McLain sings 'Georgia,' everybody will sing along.
Time to order up some apple pie they'll bring it right to ya.
As Big Mike closes out the night singing Hallelujah ..."
Our little secret
What makes Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night so special?
"The musicians, the customers the food, and Paul and his wife Jan are all beautiful people that make this family all work," says Sedona resident Jim French. "Monday night fills your heart and soul with music, love, and total enjoyment that transports you to a kind and gentle place. It's one of the best. But don't tell anyone. It's our little secret."
Almost three years ago, French played his first Open Mic Night at Thanks a Latte.
"I hadn't been playing regularly for about 27 years, so I played the few songs that I remembered," he says. "I was nervous and made mistakes. But they were all kind to me. People really came to listen to the music and I immediately feel in love with everyone. Such kind hearts and just good souls."
French mostly likes to play his own music, but he also plays songs by The Beatles, Neil Young, Moody Blues America, Jeff Buckley and John Lennon.
Born in Canada, the 55-year-old guitar player has also lived in California, Colorado, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and New York.
Good food, great coffee and an open atmosphere
Ron McLain says he began performing at Thanks a Latte about 5 years old.
"I was in a band at about 14 years old, singing Elvis Presley songs," says the Cottonwood resident, now 69. "I didn't start playing full time until 1969."
Playing the guitar, harmonica, vocals and keyboards, McLain's early influences were Roy Orbison, Elvis, Sam Cooke, The Platters, Barbara Streisand, The Eagles and Willie Nelson. McLain first began playing at Thanks a Latte about two years ago.
"I found it to be a very welcoming place for musicians," he says. "I felt very comfortable the first time I played there. I like doing some of my original songs, playing blues classics, The Eagles, some '50s and '60s as well."
Having played open mics across the country, McLain says that Thanks a Latte's Open Mic Night is "right at the top" of the list.
"It supports not only experienced musicians, but also encourages new and less experienced players," he says. "Gary and Paul offer good food, great coffee and an open atmosphere. It has cultivated a great listening crowd as well. When we go there, it is like getting together with family. When someone is having trouble, the group of people offers support, cards and emotional and physical help. It is a unique place in the Valley."
"Thanks a Latte Paul & Jan for all that you do.
Thanks a Latte to the musicians for sharing your songs, too.
Thanks a Latte to the audience for kindly comin' along.
And Thanks a Latte, I appreciate, you listenin' to my song ..."