by Jeanie Riess
People spilled out of a packed Mother-in-Law Lounge this afternoon, making their way between the bar and the sunshine on the sidewalk outside. They were there to hear music at the reopening of Ernie K-Doe's historic Treme bar and venue, but around 4 p.m. before the bar's new owner, Kermit Ruffins, took the stage, the focus was on barbecue, drinking and the occasional selection from an old corner jukebox.
Ernie K-Doe opened the Mother-in-Law Lounge in the 1990's. K-Doe died in 2001, but his widow, Antoinette, continued to run the establishment and invite musicians to its stage until her death in 2009. Antoinette's daughter, Betty Fox took over until 2010 when she finally closed its doors.
"It's a good feeling," Ruffins told Gambit, leaning against a black truck outside the bar. "Ernie K-Doe and them set this all up, so I'm just lucky enough to jump on board before somebody else got it."
Ruffins says he kept passing by the shutdown music venue on North Claiborne until he finally got in touch with the building's owners to see about buying it. "There's nothing worse than an abandoned building, and nothing worse than an abandoned bar, let alone Ernie K-Doe's bar," he added.
Linda Lewis, a Treme resident who used to come to the lounge before it closed, said everything looks the same, "except Ernie K-Doe's not here." She was referring to both the man himself and his life-size replica, which used to adorn the bar's entrance. Ruffins said that must have been auctioned off when the Mother-in-Law closed a few years ago. Still, Lewis said she was glad to be there. "It's good for the Treme," she said.
When he took the stage a few hours later, Ruffins wished everyone both a happy Martin Luther King Day and a happy Mother-in-law Day before settling into a smooth "We Shall Overcome" and inviting everyone to sing along. After that the music didn't stop, with James Winfield - a.ka. the Sleeping Giant - taking the microphone and Glen David Andrews waking up the whole club with both voice and trombone. Everyone sang along to "Lil' Liza Jane" and "Blueberry Hill."
Ruffins has a simple plan for the Mother-in-Law, and it's inspired by an ethos he's carried with him ever since he was a kid. "For the most part, I'm a people-lover," he said. "Anybody who opens up a goddamn bar better love people with a passion. So I love people to death. It comes from all the backyard barbecues we had in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was always a bunch of people in our backyard every goddamn weekend. And I couldn't tell what the hell was going on when I was a little kid. I think it's that same feeling. I always tell my kids and my family that every day is a picnic. The best time you always have is when you have your whole family around you, barbecuing at City Park.
Same thing with a bar."