Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club. Courtesy of John Scoles.

Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club: Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Scene magazine once described it as “a Tom-Waitsian masterpiece of honky-tonk glitz and grit.” To locals, and artists, who have played The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, it’s simply their home — a place for drifters and dreamers, misfits, and musical souls to congregate and find a supportive community. “I have never been a religious person, but Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club became my church and I followed its gospel,” says JUNO-nominee Romi Mayes. “Without it, I would have never proudly become the award-winning touring musician I am today.”

COVID-19 has taught us venues like the Times Change(d) are essential to the larger music and cultural ecosystem of our cities. These rooms are where artists develop their sound and grow their audience. Situated at the corner of St. Mary’s and Main in the Fortune Block [1], the venue, which celebrates 20 years in 2021, is the cornerstone of Winnipeg’s live music scene. From its famed rubber chicken tosses [2] to surprise appearances by famed bearded bluesmen, the bar is where everybody knows your name. The little d in brackets is a nod to how things changed once John Scoles took ownership. Formerly the Times Change Café, the bar was a staid blues bar for a couple of decades. After soaking in the Austin, Texas scene — and spending time at legendary clubs like Antone’s and The Continental Club for several years — Scoles found himself in Winnipeg just as the new millennium began. The self-described drifter discovered a burgeoning roots scene without a home. First, he took a job bartending at the Times Change Café. Then, he took a gamble and bought the bar. “I gave it more character,” Scoles says. “We stripped all the carpet, removed the false ceiling tiles, and basically deconstructed it to create a new vibe.”

Credit: Jenny Ramone

Scoles brought the right skill set to The Times Change(d). He had previously managed Sue Foley’s career, the pair also dated on and off for a time, and he is a musician. After he and Foley split, Scoles arrived in Winnipeg, looking for a new start. He found exactly what he was looking for in Manitoba’s capital city. He started playing in some local bar bands and quickly discovered a roots music scene waiting to be realized if just the right person could give it a permanent home. Backed by a simple philosophy, “We Gotta Lotta Livin’ To Do. Let’s Do It Together,” Scoles was that person. The entrepreneur was also instrumental in making sure local musicians were paid a fair wage. The Times Change(d) introduced a cover charge at the door, which was non-existent in Winnipeg until the venue started charging a toonie. Other venues followed. “I built it and they came!,” Scoles recalls. “We’ve been together now for years … into the second generation, our kids are playing there now. All the pieces of that puzzle are extraordinary.”

The Perpetrators were the first piece of the puzzle and the first band that played the newly christened Times Change(d). Jay Nowicki was the leader of this blues fusion band that did not really suit the vibe of the old bar, but was the perfect fit for the new venue. The Perps, made up of sidemen from Big Dave MacLean’s band, played its first gig just before New Year’s Eve Y2K. Nowicki recalls how he learned about the change in ownership that resulted in the creation of a brand-new roots music scene in Winnipeg. The guitarist was playing at the bar one Sunday afternoon as part of the regular weekly blues jam he did with Big Dave McLean. “As we finished our set, Shirley, the venue’s owner, lined up all of the bottles on the bar and told us, ‘Help yourself boys!’ We were used to her not showing us a lot of hospitality over the years and having to buy our own drinks, so this was a surprise. We quickly realized they were closing down.”

Twenty years on, The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, thanks to Scoles passion, devotion, and vision, and the support of local artists, is a cultural hub. The good-time, welcoming vibe is present from the moment you walk through the door, catch a glimpse of a smiling Scoles behind the bar, and read the hand-painted sign on the wall: “You’re all good people.”

Courtesy of John Scoles

Alexa Dirks, aka Begonia, is one of those “good people.” She grew up in a sheltered environment, over the Disraeli Bridge, on the other side of town. The artist found a home at the Times Change(d), not long after she turned 19. “I felt like when I heard stories of this mysterious, mystical place, I was being exposed to a new universe that I didn’t even know existed before,” says Dirks. “There was something so intoxicating about the energy in that place … rough around the edges and so full of joy, like you could just show up there and be whoever you were that night and people would rejoice because you showed up.”

Besides Begonia, performers who have showed up and graced the small stage over the past two decades include everyone from JUNO-award winners (the Sheepdogs and William Prince) to up and comers (The D. Rangers) and Manitoba legends like the late Reverend Percy Tuesday and yodeller Stew Clayton. Flash back to 2002. Romi Mayes, had been living in Vancouver for a couple of years and returned home for a visit to the Times Change(d). “I was greeted ever so graciously by owner John Scoles as he stood behind the bar with a witty sloganed trucker hat, a purple ribbon pinned to his shirt that said ‘participant’ and in one hand he was holding a megaphone, preparing to introduce the band,” she recalls.  

“He treated me as one of the family with a complimentary rye and ginger and an offer to come play the club anytime I was in town. It was then I realized how much I missed the heartbeat of Winnipeg’s music scene. I knew this place was my home and where I needed to be to hone my musical skill set. One month later, I was back in Winnipeg living in Corydon Village and practicing my songs in the hopes of soon impressing Scoles for a gig. Since that time 19 years ago, this humble little honky-tonk on Main and St. Marys has offered me the opportunity to not only grow and learn, but to thrive.”

Mayes is just one example of the myriad of artists who have thrived at the Times Change(d). While the venue has hosted many big-time musicians over the past two decades, Scoles stresses it is not about the names on the marquee. “We built our own thing, like the places I’ve strived to emulate did 40 to 50 years ago,” he says. “It’s a small stage, and a small space, and from the beginning, we said, ‘We are going to make our own stars here.’”

Still, some stars from afar, have come. One of the more memorable nights, for those lucky enough to attend, was when The Flatlanders — the famed country music group from Lubbick, Texas (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock) — showed up. The trio was in town for a roots festival down by the Red River. Producer, poet, artist and songwriter Scott Nolan acted as the host for the informal jam. “That night was the first time in the history of the bar that we ran out of booze!” Nolan recalls.

On another memorable evening, Scoles opened up the bar (which was usually close on Mondays) for a few select friends to play cards and enjoy some old acoustic-blues tunes from ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. This night is one of Nowicki’s favourite tales about the bar. The musician was sitting at home when Scoles called and said there were a bunch of them playing poker at the bar and Nowicki might want to come on down. “I walked through the door and my jaw dropped,” he recalls. “On the stage, in the nearly empty bar, was Billy Gibbons playing some old blues tunes by Hound Dog Taylor on one of my guitars, along with Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson.”

Not wanting to exclude those who came before, Big Dave McLean still performs his blues jam every Sunday afternoon at the Times Change(d). A turning point for the honky-tonk came in 2015. Thanks to the work of local businessman John Pollard, the entire Fortune Block where the venue is located was saved from being sold to a real-estate developer looking to build a luxury hotel, when it was given Heritage designation by the local city council. This designation allowed the beautiful building to be restored and expanded the club capacity, nearly doubling it from 80 to 150.

Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club exterior marquee. Credit: Jenny Ramone

As the venue celebrates its 20th anniversary throughout 2021, Scoles is beyond grateful to the Winnipeg community who embraced him and helped him make this drifter’s dream a reality. Thanks to a $20,000 grant from Safe at Home Manitoba, Scoles is not just celebrating the past via a feature-length documentary he made about the club, and a planned book of club history, but he is also investing back into the arts and artists giving them money to perform virtual concerts. After all, they are the ones who keep the Times Change(d) alive, even throughout a pandemic.

“I just try to be an inspiration and a leader to keep people’s value up,” Scoles concludes. “Your value, as an artist, is always fragile. It’s a rare, feel good story for run-down places that often never works. This time it did. You open up the wall and leprechauns pop out … it’s a special place. It rubs off on me. And, it rubs off on our customers and musicians. We all feel valued and protected. It is like raising kids. If they are raised in a way where they feel like anything is possible than it probably is.”