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Ready for the Country?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

(Photo)
Nikki Mitchell, who runs Waylon Jennings Music as well as the River Cafe in Normandy, has moved headquarters for the late legend's music to the eastern Bedford County community.
(T-G Photo by Brian Mosely)
Nashville may be the center of the country music scene, but tucked away in the tiny community of Normandy is a company representing one of the industry's icons.

That connection has resulted in the little town coming alive on weekends with live performances from some surprising sources (see related story).

From the second floor of the River Café, Nikki Mitchell runs Waylon Jennings Music -- managing everything Jennings related -- his likeness, and the permission to use his music in movies and television.

The country-music legend died in 2002, but his business is still going strong. Mitchell also runs Colter-Jennings -- the firm for Jennings' wife, Jessi Colter, who had the 1975 hit "I'm Not Lisa," as well as albums with her famous husband.

Any business having to do with Jennings, Colter, or Shooter Jennings, their son, goes through her office upstairs from the Café.

Nikki has been running Jennings' company for two decades now, but it was just within the past year that the operation moved to Normandy, bringing with it all the famous faces she has worked with over the years.

In fact, Colter has been spending time near Normandy to work on her autobiography and "has fallen in love" with the small Bedford County village, Nikki said. Colter lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., but flies in regularly to stay at the Cascade Hollow Lodge to work on the book.

Working for Waylon

Nikki's involvement with the music industry goes back some 27 years, back to when she managed an Italian restaurant in her home state of Texas. Being self-employed since the age of 22, she decided that she was too young to be working that hard, and chose "to take a break from my life," moving to Nashville where friends lived.

The first year of her career change was spent as a publicist, but then she spent three years on the Crook and Chase show, serving as the person who would warm up the live studio audience.

Nikki had a friend who worked in Waylon Jennings' office and when he was a guest on the popular show, he took note of Nikki getting the crowd ready for the taping.

Mitchell must have made quite an impression, because in just a couple of weeks she received an offer to work for the country legend.

"They made the offer very sweet, and I ended up going over there," Nikki said, describing the job change as part of the "Nashville shuffle." She worked as the assistant to Jennings' manager for the first two years on the job, taking over the top spot in the company after that.

So for the next 20 years, if someone wanted to use Jennings' music or image, Nikki was the person they'd talk to, with the final say-so going to Jennings, and now Colter. While there's a lot of people involved in the organization, such as the accountants and lawyers, it all goes through the upstairs office in Normandy.

Cancer fight

Nikki bought the building in downtown Normandy in 2009, moving here last year, driving back and forth to Nashville each day, while opening the River Café last summer to get a feel for the business and the area. Her brother Mike also smokes meats for the restaurant.

She then closed the café to finish up the kitchen and expand the business, but a serious roadblock occurred when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last Thanksgiving.

"I ended up taking the bull by the horns," she said, explaining that she immediately planned to take care of the cancer by undergoing surgery and chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins in Maryland.

As of a couple of month ago, Nikki's scan was clear, an astounding result considering that the disease only has a 7 percent survival rate. During that fight, her mother and aunt took care of her (with help from Jessi as well) and the business of Waylon Jennings was moved to Normandy. That move had already been planned, but the cancer battle accelerated that.

History on the wall

One thing you'll notice while in the River Café are a number of guitars on the wall, one that bears the signatures of music icons such as Jennings, Kris Krisofferson, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, the Crickets, George Jones, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, and John Hiatt. Another signature guitar on display is one that Atkins gave to Jennings, and that priceless instrument is heading to a museum.

Then there's the poster and photos of Jennings playing bass for Buddy Holly during his last performance. That friendship ended tragically on Feb. 3, 1959 when a plane carrying Holly, Ritchie Valens and "J. P." Richardson, Jr. (the Big Bopper) crashed, killing all aboard. The crash was later called "The Day the Music Died" by Don McLean in his song 1972 song "American Pie."

Nikki said that the crash always haunted Jennings because he had joked to Holly that he hoped that his plane crashed. Jennings had also given up his seat on the plane to the Bopper because he was suffering from a cold and uncomfortable on the tour bus.

Attracting the stars

The artists who come to play at Nikki's little café in Normandy are the ones that she's met during her long association with Jennings, resulting in "a lot of interesting people," as well as local acts.

In fact, the town has already attracted one big star. Mitchell's connections to the country music industry resulted in Jamey Johnson performing a benefit for the Normandy Fire Hall last October, which brought thousands to the little community.

There's even a strange connection between the establishment of the River Café, Johnson and Waylon.

Jennings had given Nikki his black 1999 Caddilac El Dorado when the star and his wife retired to Arizona, wanting to "keep it in the family" so he could drive it around during visits.

After Nikki and a partner looked at buying the building in Normandy, Johnson, who is also an enormous Jennings fan, bought the car from Nikki, giving her enough money for her part of the payment for the structure.

"Then Jamey turns around and does this incredible concert," she said. "It's just this ongoing thing ... Waylon just keeps on giving."

Add the fact that Jennings' wife has picked Normandy to pen her life story speaks to how the small community seems to attract music legends -- both classic and those starting their careers.

"Waylon would love this place," Nikki said of Normandy. "If he were here, he would come down and perform."