Proud Larry’s: A rock that keeps Oxford rolling

Oxford — Twenty-four years is an eternity for a town as transient as Oxford. In that time, Ole Miss, the university around which the town has sprouted, has reached record growth year after year. Countless student housing facilities have come and gone, and the historic Square has seen new restaurants, bars and boutiques. But, Proud Larry’s, the part-restaurant, part-music-venue on South Lamar Boulevard, has withstood an ever-changing population and helped shape the vibrant culture now defining the North Mississippi college town.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

Since 1993, its relaxed ambiance and small stage have drawn people from across the region for up-close performances by the likes of John Mayer, the Black Keys and Elvis Costello — all while consistently offering great food. What started as three college boys’ daydream has outlasted their youth and naiveté to become a family-serving restaurant and workhorse when it comes to putting Oxford on the map for some of the country’s best music.

“I call it legacy,” said Bruce Butler, the restaurant’s general manager, “because there are people that have been coming here for 20 years. It’s multi-generational, and I think that’s a really good thing. We’re comfortable. We may not be the newest place, and we might not be the fanciest, but this place has a lot of heart.”

It started in the early 1990s. Scott Caradine and Darby Ricketts worked together at Harvest Café, a vegetarian restaurant in what is now the Old Venice building, before going on to cook at City Grocery during its first year. The year 1992 was also when Caradine and his friend Jeff Bransford graduated from Ole Miss.

“The three of us would hang out and talk about opening our own place,” said Caradine, a Lafayette, La., native. “We wanted to bring live music, pizza by the slice and good beer to Oxford all under one roof.”

But Ricketts, Bransford and Caradine — the three faces within Proud Larry’s bohemian sunshine logo — didn’t know what to call their place, a small building that had once served as a lingerie shop. They drew up a list of potential names: Isle of Capri, Moon Time Bar and Grill, Proud Larry’s and The Fat Slice.

“One day, our accountant called and said he needed a name right then for our articles of incorporation, but the name we do business as could change before we opened,” said Caradine. “We named it Proud Larry’s Inc., and never looked back.”

More than two decades later, though, Butler said the name has sparked a lot of curiosity.

“I’ve heard stories over the years as to who Larry is, and I feel like it’s nebulous enough to be interesting,” said Butler. “I kind of like that.”

But, according to Caradine, there was no great ingenuity behind the name — or the financing, in the early days.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

“We started as young college kids who knew how to cook well — burgers and pizzas — and we knew how to throw a party (bring good bands to town), but we were not very good at running a business,” he said. “We struggled with the business side for a long time. We struggled with how to be consistent in our product and service. Our friends worked for us. Luckily, we enjoyed working and being here and spent countless hours here just trying to get it right.”

Four years in, though, Ricketts and Bransford were ready to move on and Caradine was newly married to wife Lisa, a Greenville native he met in college. The couple decided to take on sole ownership of Proud Larry’s, setting in motion a series of changes for the business.

“Since we had gotten married and begun to have children, we knew we needed to focus on being a family restaurant,” Caradine said. “The student bar business is absolutely necessary in this town, but the consistent day-in and day-out, year-round business of the local people in Oxford — from families, retirees, and young folks like us — was what we really needed to solidify.”

So, in 2007, the Caradines renovated the entire building — central heat and air, plumbing, electric and all. They added a patio and updated the bathrooms, kitchen, bar — and even the menu — with three functions in mind: efficiency, service quality and cleanliness.

“All things needed to serve a family base of patrons,” he said. “The music and the college kids still can flourish in the
new atmosphere — that’s what kept us here for the long haul.”

Butler, who has been with Proud Larry’s since September 2009 and general manager for a little more than a year, sees the fruits of those labors on a daily basis.

“People come here with their kids who have been in a baseball tournament. They’ll bring the whole team, and we’ll take care of them the same way we do a couple on their first date on Valentine’s Day,” Butler said. “It’s a good mix. We have a wide variety of things so that everybody can be happy.”

Photo by Danny Klimetz

Indeed, the extensive menu includes everything from pizza to shrimp and grits to burgers to a chicken fajita salad — “casual pub fare,” Chef Jon Myrick calls it.

“The menu was real big when I started,” said Myrick, a Johnson and Wales graduate who joined Proud Larry’s as head chef nearly seven years ago. “It was almost too big, so we’ve been trimming it down over the last four years, focusing on the good things that sell and that have been a staple. And it’s given me a lot of free time to do some specials and be creative.”

Originally from Charleston, S.C., Myrick has spent 15 of his 25 years as a chef in the Magnolia State. And, according to Butler, he’s a large contributor to Proud Larry’s success.

“It says on the menu, ‘Come for the food, stay for the music.’” Butler said. “He’s the reason we get them for the food. He’s elevated our food since he became chef here.”

Even the burgers and chicken sandwiches — a constant favorite among diners — are made with the best ingredients.

“It’s quality stuff,” Myrick said. “We pay good money for what we get. I’d put our menu up against anybody in town.”

But, unlike in other restaurants lining the Square, the kitchen is only one portion of the entire operation at Proud Larry’s.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

“I’ve had people say that they struggle with our identity because sometimes we’re a restaurant and sometimes we’re a bar and sometimes we’re a music venue,” Butler said. “And it meshes together.”

Even Ron Shapiro, who has a pan-seared catfish and steamed vegetable entree named after him — “The Ronzo” — admits that it was music that initially drew him to Proud Larry’s.

“They’ve always treated me kind of like an honorary board member or something,” said Shapiro, who moved to Oxford in the 1970s when he opened and operated the famed Hoka, a combination art-film theater and concert venue, until 1996. “They’ve given me a pass to come and hear the music whenever I want. They just appreciate someone who appreciates the music, and I’ve always supported it. And, because of the quality of music, it digs in people’s heads that they have quality food, too. It really all works together.”

“The Bruce” is another more humorous of Caradine’s nods to a member of the Proud Larry’s family. Named for the restaurant’s vegetarian general manager, the pizza is something of a meat lover’s dream.

“I’ll never be able to eat my own pizza,” Butler said.
But he attributes the restaurant’s success to that jovial spirit of Caradine’s.

“You wouldn’t think an owner of a restaurant would be like this; you’d think they see everyone as competition,” Butler said. “But Scott has always been not just accepting but encouraging to other restaurants on the Square. His point of view has always been, ‘When they do well, we all do well.’ And it’s refreshing to work for somebody like that.”

Shapiro, who has attended numerous Proud Larry’s shows over the years — many of which are documented by vivid posters hung along the building’s indoor brick walls — said Caradine’s band-booking skills aren’t bad either.

“I remember when Larry’s had the Alabama Shakes before they made it big,” he said. “Scott’s like Lyn [Roberts] at Square Books. They just have a feel for who’s going to be big.”

Butler sees Caradine in his office each morning listening to novice musicians online.

“Scott’s very good about getting groups you might not have heard of, but the next thing you know, they blow up, and they’re a big deal,” Butler said. “He’s very welcoming to new artists and new music.”

But Caradine said it’s not an instinct or a secret. In the end, the trick is to find acts that will sell tickets — and drinks — in order to pay the bills.

“I love spending days listening to lots of new music and old music, too, but there is a huge support line that I rely on,” he said.

In addition to calling upon Lisa and their children, Haley and Miles, for input on new music, Caradine finds a wealth of knowledge in the community.

“The music scene in Oxford is really vibrant and thriving,” he said.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

With End of All Music Records just up the street, Caradine frequently calls to find out which albums are new and selling. There’s also Fat Possum and Muscle Beach, two of Oxford’s record labels that represent a myriad of artists both up-and-coming and established. Caradine even looks to his staff, many of whom are college-aged, for fresh ideas. And then there are the musicians who call Oxford home.

“We love to support the local artists,” Caradine said. “Oxford has always had some supremely talented people here, and some have been around longer than Proud Larry’s — folks like Tyler Keith, Laurie Stirratt, George McConnell, The Cooters and countless others that have been around for ages.”

Charlie Mars is another. An acoustic singer-songwriter who has lived in Oxford for 17 years and performed at Proud Larry’s on numerous occasions, Mars feels a unique closeness with the restaurant-venue.

“I have a special relationship with Proud Larry’s because I live right above it,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite spots. The size makes the big bands feel intimate and the lesser-known acts feel right at home.”

That smallness is a defining characteristic.

“With the stage being close to floor-level, you really get to interact with fans,” said singer-songwriter and Mississippi native Cary Hudson, whose band Blue Mountain performed at Proud Larry’s many times over the course of its lifetime. “And sometimes the line between on and offstage gets completely erased.”

And if having a great venue as well as friends in the local vinyl shop, record labels and musicians wasn’t enough, Caradine has something else in his back pocket: agents. In 24 years, he’s formed relationships with a multitude of them.

“They route their bands through Oxford to play at Proud Larry’s or The Lyric Oxford,” Caradine said. “So many great acts come from agents sending along information about their up-and-coming artists as well as availability of established acts that may be coming through the area.”

They — as well as Thacker Mountain Radio Show, Double Decker Arts Festival, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and other Oxford bars that promote live music — all help make it possible for Caradine to book a certain caliber of acts year-round. But, ultimately, the money doesn’t come from the musicians.

“The real lifeline is the people that attend the shows,” Caradine said. “None of it can happen without music fans.”

Photo by Danny Klimetz

And, according to Shapiro, a fan since Proud Larry’s opened its doors, Caradine looks out for those patrons.

“I feel that the way Scott keeps running it, they’re more concerned about providing good music to this community than even making money,” Shapiro said.
Mars, who last performed at Proud Larry’s on April 20, would agree. He has a slew of fond memories tied to the venue below his home.

“I’ve seen so many wonderful shows there — Alabama Shakes, R.L. Burnside,” he said. “I played there once with Dierks Bentley, and Maroon Five opened for me there once.”

Myrick, Butler and Caradine all have similar recollections of the stars they’ve encountered through their work. Myrick, who remembers seeing Sturgill Simpson perform at Proud Larry’s a couple of years ago, enjoys talking to the bands that come through — “that’s something you don’t get to do all the time,” he said.

Butler got to meet Unknown Hinson, a musician he’d been requesting Caradine book for two years.

“I was kind of star-struck, and I was trying not to make it a big deal,” he said.

For Caradine, spending time with such legends as Junior Kimbrough, Mose Allison and Elvis Costello are all bright spots. And Shapiro is just thankful for the way Proud Larry’s has contributed to the town he loves.

“They’re having fun and doing something original, and enriching the community is the main thing,” he said. “This is one of the best music clubs in the country.”

And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Oxford in decades past — nor will it, according to Butler, who sees himself staying at Proud Larry’s for the foreseeable future.

“Looking ahead, I think we’ve got something really good right here,” he said. “Proud Larry’s is working in a way that it’s never worked before, and I don’t see anything but prosperity in the future.”

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Anna McCollum

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