Armington, IL. — The Outpost, located in what was once an American Legion hall, is a history maker of sorts: It’s tiny Armington’s first – and only – tavern. In the realm of alternative country music, The Outpost may not have as much historical significance, but it’s definitely making its mark in a growing segment of the American music industry.
“We’re getting to be pretty well known in several music circles, especially in the Austin, Texas, scene,” bar owner Rick Tackett said during a band break on a busy night a few weeks ago. “Everyone who plays here tells me they really like what I am doing here.”
That is quite an accomplishment, considering Tackett’s business in this small Tazewell County town has only been open a few years. He also has what’s known in the music business as a day job, working as an IT/network technician in the corporate world in Bloomington-Normal. Although it doesn’t take much more than a five-minute conversation with Tackett to gauge his dedication to The Outpost, owning his own bar and music venue isn’t exactly a dream fulfilled.
“Opening a bar has not been a life-long ambition,” he said. “It just came up. I’m not sure why. Apparently I think too much. I’ve played music my whole life with a pause for a few years. I got together with some friends to play music as ‘a group’ again, and when the idea of a bar came up, I saw it as more of a place to play music than a place to sit and drink. Maybe the ‘sit and drink’ part could help pay for it.” For now, Tackett labels The Outpost as “a struggling vision.”
Armington, with a populating teetering on either side of 350, was a “dry town” for a century and a half. Back in the 1980s, a local businessman who sponsored truck and tractor pulls in town, lobbied for the community to finally sanction liquor sales so he could serve beer at his events. And, he also wanted to open a bar. But opponents were vocal enough that the village board never ventured into that territory. Several years later, the town opted to allow liquor sales, but by then, the businessman was no longer interested in obtaining a license.
“The town has had liquor licenses available since the mid to late 1990s with no one showing any interest,” Tackett said. “I’m sure some people didn’t even know the law had passed, and were surprised that a liquor license was even available.”
Tackett had originally thought about opening a restaurant and bar in the old Armington Grade School, which he owns. He thought the closed school’s cafeteria would be an ideal spot for the business. (Incidentally, Tackett grew up in rural Armington and attended the old school he now owns.)
But Tackett soon discovered his plans faced “many roadblocks, including objections from the neighbors. I really didn’t want to cause that kind of animosity from the town folks. I knew there were some objections, and didn’t want to rub salt into the wounds of those who really didn’t want a “tavern” in town.”
Tackett had hoped for quite the opposite. His intentions were to do something that would benefit his hometown. After all, Armington – like many rural communities – over the past decade or so has lost most of its businesses, including those that generated tax money for Village Hall. Undeterred, he went shopping for another location and finally settled on the town’s former American Legion post home, which had been vacant for about 25 years. The decision meant lots of work had to be done before a business could open in the deteriorating building. Windows were broken out, there was no heat, the plumbing was in bad shape and the septic system serving the building was deemed unusable. Step by step, projects were tackled and the building was put back into usable condition. That included making the old Legion post handicapped-accessible and moving restrooms that were once in the basement onto the first floor.
“Then there was the whole decision about how to lay out a bar,” Tackett recalls. “I’ve never done that before. That is when my son Chris decided I was serious, and started seriously helping. … With his help, and many other friends and family, we built what we thought was a good idea. We salvaged boards from the basement to build the bar. That is why it looks like it’s been here forever – the wood that it is built from has actually been here forever.”
When The Outpost finally opened in 2012, Tackett advertised his establishment as home to the “longest bar in Southeast Tazewell County”. It dominates the building on Armington’s main drag, on the southeast side of town.
The Outpost’s other dominant feature is the music stage and its state-of-the-art house sound system on the west wall. The accommodations draw high marks from the many musicians who have played there during the past few years.
There’s little doubt that having his business serve as a music venue was high on The Outpost’s priority list. After all, music has been part of Tackett’s life since childhood. It all started when his brother Larry began playing guitar.
“He was very good at it when we were kids. He could also sing; I couldn’t,” Tackett said. “Anyway, we all decided we wanted to play, and my dad accommodated. My mother could play a little piano, my brother Mike took drum lessons, and I took trumpet lessons in grade school. My younger brother Tim started taking piano lessons at a young age. We all had some idea of how to read music, and my dad encouraged all of us because it was just a fun and wholesome thing to do. I remember him saying he couldn’t play anything but the radio. We all settled in to our own instrument with emphasis on the country music that my mother loved. In our family practices, Larry played lead and rhythm guitar, Mike started learning the lap steel, and I played bass. We had a lot of fun.”
Decades later, the fun in music remains for Tackett. In fact, it’s intensified greatly over the years and is a driving force behind The Outpost operation. Like most bars that host live music in central Illinois, Tackett relies on local musicians and groups for a bulk of the entertainment. But, he’s also stretched into booking bigger acts that are on the road across America.
“I played in a local band. We didn’t play top 40 country. We played non-main-stream country,” Tackett says. “There is a whole other story and some controversy surrounding the direction of ‘country’ music these days, and that is not something I’m prepared to discuss in a public forum, but my views about what music I book was, and is, rooted in the type of music I played in the group that I play with. I started out trying to book the bigger acts whose music we play, and that I had seen locally.”
His first major booking triumphs were two Austin, Texas-based acts – Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Dale Watson.
“Surprisingly, I got both of them fairly easily. That encouraged me to thinking maybe we can book others who influence my musical tastes. We got The Derailers, The Black Lillies, Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys (formerly BR549), Sturgill Simpson (yep, he’s played here) and Bob Wayne,” Tackett said. “Then I started becoming fairly well known in the Austin, Texas, music booking scene. … Booking agencies started calling me. We have booked some great acts from places like Austin, Nashville, Denver, California, Connecticut, Seattle, and believe it or not, even Belfast and London, UK.”
Tackett concedes that many of the bands and performers he gets are not household names,” but they play some great music. People don’t hear them because they are not played on national radio and most people who love music don’t have the time or the passion to seek them out.”
But Tackett said he also truly enjoys the local talent that graces The Outpost stage. “We present a lot of local artists. And believe me, there are a lot of them (with) some very astonishing talent. I’d start naming local groups, but I’d miss somebody and everybody that I’ve had here has been good. My criteria is this – if I like your music, I’ll give you a place to play it, and there’s not much that I don’t like. We are not limited to country music. I have some favorite hard rock groups. One of my very favorite local rock groups is comprised of guys who all live within 10 miles of The Outpost. How’s that for local? I love it.”
Tackett has also mulled the possibility of bringing in some bigger acts with the potential to draw much bigger crowds to his hometown – at least big enough that The Outpost couldn’t handle the crowd. He’s discussed that possibility with members of the local park district, which owns the old high school gymnasium with a seating capacity of 500 to 600. So far, that hasn't materialized.
Tackett has taken his business in a step-by-step progression, and one of those steps is offering food service, including breakfast, fried chicken nights twice a month, and an occasional fish fry.
“I’ve tried to make this as positive as possible for the town,” Tackett says, referring to his success in opening and operating The Outpost. “Some may not believe it still, but this adventure has really turned into my personal quest to revive this town somewhat. That quest continues, and is seeing some success because of the music I am able to bring here. I still plan to offer some sort of a mini grocery outlet like a real ‘outpost’ would, but that takes more money to do, and my main goal has been simply focused on just keeping it open.”
For now, Tackett is savoring his successes. He particular embraces a quote from one of the traveling performers who has played on The Outpost stage: “This feels exactly like the kind of place Hank Williams would have played,” said Nashville-based Chris “Moondawg” Hall. “I can’t say enough about how great we were treated. … They really care about music. The place is just outright cool.”
To say Rick Tackett is flattered is an understatement, particularly the bit about Hank Williams.
“This brings a tear to my eye,” he said. “My mother would be proud. She loved Hank Williams.”