Norman’s oldest saloon clears the air

The Mules perform at Bluebonnet Bar on Main Street. (Photo Provided)

Tradition dies hard in these parts. One custom that many will welcome passing is that of patrons and employees smoking tobacco in bars. Oklahoma is one of the few states in the nation where this practice is still legal. Michelle and Tanner Miller own and operate the Bluebonnet Bar, 321 E. Main St.

In April while their establishment and others like it were still completely closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 20-something couple made an executive decision. They decided that when Norman’s oldest watering hole reopens, which is tentatively scheduled for May 29, smoking tobacco would no longer be permitted inside.

“We’d been thinking about it since we bought the bar in 2016,” Michelle Miller said, “but we didn’t want to upset the regular customers. We had one who had been coming there since the 1940s. He smokes and we didn’t want to take away his living room. But now he’s almost 90 and isn’t coming out anymore.”

When the Miller couple purchased the business their intent was to adjust its focus to being a live music venue from just a downtown bar. Many musicians and their fans today decline to perform or listen where smoking is allowed.

“COVID-19 has really opened our eyes and made us more conscientious of public health,” Michelle said.

The couple acknowledged that they will lose customers by going smoke-free. They lost all customers while being closed because of the pandemic.

“But we’re excited that we’ll be meeting new people,” Tanner Miller said. “The Bluebonnet has changed just like Norman has and we think it’s time to open the doors to everybody. It’s not like it was when their dad and grandad were there. It’s a welcoming place that still has its swagger and smart-ass remarks from the bartenders. We just want the whole town to enjoy that.”

The couple had anticipated the City of Norman would have regulated smoke out of bars by now but decided to snuff out the butts themselves. They’d installed a large, garage-type door in the joint’s rear and added a patio in 2019.

“There’s still an area where people can smoke and hear the music,” Michelle said.

Attractive to many is the Bluebonnet’s friendly neighborhood vibe. It’s a shot and beer place not fancy-schmancy cocktails.

“We’ll still have the atmosphere,” Tanner said. “We just don’t want to get cancer while we’re doing it.”

Many of the Bluebonnet’s patrons are straight-up music fans who know they can count on hearing live central Oklahoma music there. It’s also a place known for being safe, tolerant of everyone and intolerant of racism, homophobia or bigotry. Trouble makers are swiftly dealt with and banned from future entry.

“We’re going to focus more on being a music venue than a bar with music,” Michelle said.

Even before the Millers took over operation, notable Oklahoma musicians such as John Moreland and Parker Millsap had performed there. Since 2016, live performances with no cover charge increased to six nights a week. A proper stage and sophisticated sound system were added. Both Millers are musicians and they’ve learned how to run sound for a variety of bands with several different kinds of instruments.

“Musicians such as Carter Sampson, Terry ‘Buffalo’ Ware, Steve Boaz with his bands and Katie Williams who wouldn’t play here because of the smoke now will,” Michelle said. “Those are our friends and we want to be accommodating to everyone.”

In addition to an internet jukebox the Blue Bonnet has a free CD jukebox featuring exclusively Oklahoma artists.

“The Okie jukebox is played more than the internet one which we like,” Michelle said.

Oklahoma musicians pass their new records on for inclusion in the juke box which makes for a constant infusion of fresh sounds.

“It makes me feel bad when I have to take a record out,” Tanner said. “But it’s fun hearing our friends singing in our bar.”

The Bluebonnet’s regular patrons miss their hangout. They started a Facebook page for keeping in touch. The Millers have fully supported Mayor Breea Clark’s “Healthier at Home initiatives to Reboot Norman.”

“Our patrons can’t wait to be together again,” Michelle said. “We’ve built a community and that’s what’s really cool and special about operating the Bluebonnet.”

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