[Reprinted from Riverview and Beyond ]
The Hapi Place at the Riverview Flea Market on U.S. 301 is certain to make a nostalgia buff happy. The three booths are crammed with signs, records, games, memorabilia, concert posters, lamps, guitars, fiddles, a buffalo head, and even old tires.
But what really keeps owner Philip “Hapi” McKenzie in good spirits is not the flea market sales, but the music he has been making for more than 50 years.
“Every mile we travel is a line for another song,” McKenzie, 70, sings in the title track of “Hotel Hillbilly,” the upcoming CD for The Crabgrass Cowboys, a band he formed with his wife, Patty Pfister, in 1988.
The Crabgrass Cowboys are preparing to release their fifth CD, a mixture of country, rockabilly, Americana, and bluegrass — hence the CRAB acronym —and that sound remains as fresh as it was when McKenzie and Pfister met at Sweet Baby Jane’s bar in Tampa on the Fourth of July in 1988. The couple play concerts decked out in cowboy attire that make them a modern-day version of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
“I’ve been dressing like a cowboy since I learned to walk,” said McKenzie, whose mother, Gaynell, designed and sewed the band’s costumes.
A 1997 ad in The Orlando Sentinel called McKenzie’s lyrics “good-natured wink-and-nod songwriting.”
“I guess I do a lot of winking and nodding,” McKenzie laughs, confessing he had never seen the advertisement and laughing when he looked it over.
“The widows of West Virginia are stronger than the coal,” McKenzie sings.
“Give Me a Flag, Not a Rag,” was inspired by McKenzie finding a tattered flag flying at a local bank. When bank officials refused to replace the flag, McKenzie wrote the song and vowed to stand in front of the bank until they did.
Pfister, classically trained, plays five-string fiddle. “It’s a viola string, it gave the fiddle a deeper sound,” McKenzie said.
Sometimes, Pfister breaks out a 100-year-old violin used by McKenzie’s grandfather. “Papaw’s fiddle” had belonged to McKenzie’s great-uncle, Shorty Vanover, who played with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
“She plays all the leads,” McKenzie said. “She’s the best fiddle player I’ve ever seen.”
The Crabgrass Cowboys have driven across the country to play, hitting 49 states, originally traveling in a Chevrolet Astro “with a tent.”
“When they build a bridge to Hawaii, we’ll play there too,” McKenzie cracks.
In 2000 the group did a “border to border” tour sponsored by book retailer Borders. The band played at Borders sites in the continental United States and crossed the borders to play in Canada and Mexico.
The group is an annual draw at the annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull & Tribute Festival in Waycross, Georgia (where Parsons grew up), and once opened for bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. They also have played in East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic
They even performed for Princess Anne on Harbour Island in March 1994, when the British royal family member was president of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).
“We played in a big tent,” McKenzie recalls. “They were eating barbecue on fine china, go figure.” As they began their set, McKenzie called out, “This one’s for you, Princess, since you’re mighty fine,” and the band launched into one of their signature numbers, “Mighty Fine.”
It’s been a mighty fine relationship between McKenzie and Pfister.
Thirty years ago, McKenzie was playing at Sweet Baby Jane’s, a smoky bar at the corner of West Hillsborough and North Rome avenues in Tampa. He was a part of a three-man group called the Tijuana Donkey Show, a trio that played music “to wash dishes by.” The Fourth of July crowd that night was small, and McKenzie wanted out of the group.
“I wanted to do more original songs and they wanted to do Jimmy Buffett,” he said.
In a life-changing moment, a fiddle-playing woman from Havre, Montana, walked into the bar. Patty Pfister, whose father Fred had been a professor of library science at USF, had been playing the fiddle since she was 8.
“She comes from Montana where a lot of her family are bronco bustin’, bull-ridin’, all-around cowboys and gals,” McKenzie said.
Pfister liked McKenzie’s music,and since he was leaving the Tijuana Donkey Show anyway, suggested they team up. At first, they called themselves Fine Entertainment (“that lasted two months,” McKenzie said), but then settled on The Crabgrass Cowboys. The couple added McKenzie’s brother Lloyd, known as “Thumper,” on stand-up bass.
Their first CD, “Lookin’ Mighty Fine,” was released in 1989. “Roll It Home” came two years later. A 1999 live album taped from their set at Skipper’s Smokehouse was next, which included “Hickory Wind,” written by Parsons.
“That was Patty’s favorite album,” McKenzie said. “It starts out with my mother leading a chant of ‘crabgrass,’ and then we follow it up with ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train.’”
The live album was followed by “Tributes,” a compilation of songs that Tampa radio station WMNF released.
Their latest, “Hillbilly Hotel,” was cut at a Ruskin studio. It is a tribute to the recreational vehicle they have driven across the country.
“This thing’s turning into a hillbilly hotel,” McKenzie observed during one trip and a new song was born.
McKenzie and Pfister were married in Orlando in 1998 — on the Fourth of July, 10 years to the day they met. McKenzie immortalized that first meeting in his song, “The Saga of Sunny and Sally.”
“Patty was in a play as a kid and played a character called Sourdough Sally,” McKenzie said. “The song took off from there.”
The group has had its share of success and even was featured in a Metro PCS commercial in 2015. Their song, “Drifting Away,” was a chart-topper among country independent labels, holding down the No. 1 spot for two months.
McKenzie was born in Ashland, Kentucky, on Sept. 29, 1947, and shares birthdays with Jerry Lee Lewis and Autry. One could say that McKenzie has something in common with the Killer and the Cowboy.
He moved to Tampa with his family when he was 6. His father became a union organizer after working in the coal mine and was killed in an automobile accident in Alabama when McKenzie was 8. That Christmas, he picked up his first guitar.
“When my father died the family felt so sorry for me, they got me a lot of presents, including the guitar,” he said.
McKenzie grew up in the Tampa neighborhoods of Davis Islands, Beach Park and South Tampa, graduating from Plant High School in 1966. He began writing songs while attending Wilson Junior High and formed his first group while in high school.
The Blue-Eyed Souls “were tragically white kids,” McKenzie said. “We did surf music, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and the Kinks.”
They later changed their name to the Gladiators. Before forming the Tijuana Donkey Show (“I figured if nothing else, people would come to see us because of the name”), McKenzie played for the Blues Busters in 1987.
After forming the Crabgrass Cowboys, McKenzie and Pfister would play gigs on weekends and during their vacations. Both were full-time employees at Tower Diagnostics for 20 years (McKenzie was a courier and Pfister was a transcriptionist), so a full-blown tour during their early years was not possible.
After years of accumulating memorabilia from their times on the road, McKenzie opened The Hapi Place in the Riverview Flea Market five years ago.
“We started with one booth and then expanded it to three,” McKenzie said. “It was just stuff we bought from different places, at yard sales and flea markets.”
The booths are filled with a variety of items, including memorabilia depicting Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Three Stooges, and more.
A man walks up to McKenzie at the flea market and asks about some used tires. McKenzie points the man in the right direction, calling out, “they’re $35 apiece or two for $50.”
The man buys the tires, and he’ll be on the road again soon. As for McKenzie and the Crabgrass Cowboys, the sale might be another line in another song.
And that’s mighty fine.