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Celebrating The Way Out Club’s 27-Year Run As ‘Birthing Ground’ For St. Louis Art

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Evie Hemphill
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Way Out Club’s husband-and-wife owners Sherri Lucas and Bob Putnam have been a fixture behind its bar for nearly three decades.

There’s no single answer as to why Sherri Lucas and Bob Putnam decided to open the Way Out Club 27 years ago.

Even during his previous career with Chrysler, Putnam had always been “a bit of a dabbler,” his wife, Lucas, points out. Putnam’s uncle owned a bar when he was growing up in Indiana, and a part of him had always wanted one, too. Then there’s the fact that the pair had already established connections by putting on open-mic nights at various venues around St. Louis.

Perhaps more than anything it was the dream of a shared life. Evenings and weekends weren’t enough.

“We started the business because we wanted to work together,” Lucas explained to St. Louis on the Air.

And so they did. First established along Cherokee Street in 1994 and now located near the corner of Jefferson and Gravois, the Way Out Club gained a reputation for giving a leg up to local performers, in addition to hosting national acts.

But the cherished community gathering place and watering hole is closing at the end of July, with Lucas and Putnam convinced it’s time to begin a new chapter in their lives.

“Closing it means we get to have that life together still,” Lucas said.

A major driver in that decision is Putnam’s struggle with dementia. His doctors believe he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was [at the doctor] last week, and she said, ‘I was reading in the paper about how you don’t mind telling people,’” Putnam explained. “And she said [being open about the disease] does a lot of good, because most people are scared or family don’t want them to say anything. … If you say, ‘I’m still living and I’m not afraid to say it,’ she says that makes a big difference to other people.”

On Friday’s show, the couple joined host Sarah Fenske to reflect on the role of the Way Out Club in St. Louis over the past few decades — and their hopes for their next chapter.

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Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
July 2021 has been full of bittersweet celebration for the Way Out Club, which has been hosting shows nightly as part of an extended farewell.

Local musicians and attendees at a recent farewell bash also shared their reflections. That included Ellen Hilton Cook, who recalled her first interaction with Lucas and Putnam, back when she was waitressing at Chevys in Crestwood Plaza.

At the time, Cook had recently booked her first show at the Way Out Club. One afternoon, in the days leading up to that gig and while Cook was working her shift, Lucas and Putnam walked into the restaurant. She didn’t know who they were but remembers thinking they seemed like a cool couple, which made her especially chatty as she served them.

“I start talking about this show I have coming up,” Cook explained. “And Sherri just starts laughing and looks at Bob, and she hands me her business card, and it says that her name’s Sherri Danger and she is the DJ for ‘Dangerous Curves’ [at KDHX on Friday afternoons] and that she owns the Way Out Club.

“And I just had like a complete f---ing meltdown in the back room. I was like, ‘Hold on, I’ll be back with some more chips and salsa,’ and I went into the kitchen and just screamed. And none of the cooks knew how big of a deal it was for me at all, but I was just starstruck over Sherri and Bob.”

Cook said the duo gave her chances as an artist “when nobody else would.”

“I was still kind of figuring myself out as an artist, and there weren’t many, like, rock 'n' roll, piano player people.”

Local musician Cory Perkins drew an enthusiastic crowd to the Way Out Crowd a couple of weeks ago for her first solo show — for her solo project Quiet Lion.

“I’m really excited to play as an adult after playing here so many times as a kid, you know,” Perkins said, adding that she’d just located the spot on the wall where she and her band Dino Fight had signed their name years prior.

The fact that the Way Out Club is even in its final days giving artists new opportunities comes as no surprise to Sugar Cyanide, a St. Louis burlesque performer and teacher who was running the show the night Perkins performed. She’s produced shows at the venue for more than 10 years and got her own start as a performer there.

“Bobbo and Sherri have been so good to me,” she said. “I taught burlesque classes here on Saturday afternoons. They let me use the space for $6. … Back then Angus the Cat would come in and attack our yoga mats. They’ve done so much, which is why I decided to do this show no-cover, as a way to give back to the venue. I’m excited for tonight … also really sad to see this place go. It’s been such a birthing ground for so much great art here in St. Louis.”

Bidding Farewell To The Way Out Club
Listen as husband-and-wife co-owners Sherri Lucas and Bob Putnam talk with Sarah Fenske.

Nina Stewart, one of the patrons at the club on a recent evening, noted that the bar hasn’t changed much during its many years.

“It’s really eclectic in style and in patrons that come here,” Stewart said. “I think always seeing Bob and Sherri behind the bar will always stick with me, and will be sort of a St. Louis staple that we’ll all really miss. I just hope that their transition exiting out of the Way Out business goes smoothly.”

That’s a sentiment that others echo as well.

Cathi Degler, who played electric cello in an all-female, St. Louis-based chamber pop band called the Paper Dolls from 2008 to 2012, recalled one particular moment that sticks out in her mind about her group’s early gigs at the Way Out.

“One night we were setting up to sound check and I dropped my cello, hard, face first on the stage,” Degler said in an email. “The bridge broke and I was devastated. Bob and my bandmate’s dad helped find some glue to patch it up just to get us through the set. It was a lesson in the age-old adage ‘the show must go on,’ and the show did go on. Thanks for the support Bob and Sherri!”

A listener named Debi commented on the St. Louis on the Air Facebook page.

“My favorite memories [are] my first ever poetry reading at the Way Out, at its opening days at its first location; and my last poetry reading there, at Maria Guadalupe Massey’s warm and wonderful farewell shindig a couple weeks ago,” she wrote. “So many old friends there.”

Another recalled “The Day of the Dead Beats” as a cherished poetry reading series at the Way Out Club, and shared a link to a YouTube video of the final 2009 performance.

When Fenske asked Lucas and Putnam if, despite its impending closure, the club might still have a future, Putnam said he does have some hope that this isn’t the end.

“There’s been some people talking to me about wanting to continue on with it, [and] others that would tear it apart,” he said. “I want it to stay like it is.”

Lucas echoed her husband’s faith in the community — and his belief that there’s an ongoing need for venues that focus on St. Louis talent.

“We’re hoping somebody still believes that and still supports that idea and that that music club continues on,” she said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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