ODD COMBINATIONTHE IMPROBABLE STORY OF NITA'S HIDEAWAY, THE VALLEY'S NEWEST MODERN MUSIC VENUE

For two decades, the small, unassuming watering hole nestled between an adult bookstore and a motorcycle repair shop on Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe has served as a place of solace and community for hardworking folks--somewhere to relax with an icy Bud when the dust is still caked on your jeans.

This summer, however, Nita's Hideaway has undergone a radical conversion, emerging as the Valley's latest hot spot for local, original music.

During the daytime and early evening, Nita's is as it ever was. When darkness falls on the desert, though, the bar's ongoing transformation shows its colors: A burly man in steel-toed boots shoots pool with a tattooed bald guy in Doc Martens; a couple of ASU co-eds dressed to kill sit down, order a drink, and make small talk with a man in a John Deere cap; on the jukebox, Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson give way to newly added selections like Flaming Lips and Big Star.

The metamorphosis seems to have reached critical mass, but where did it come from? The answer lies in the unlikely pairing of an ambitious young import from New Orleans and a former Rodeo Queen.

Nita Craddock was a pro barrel rider from 1969 to 1971. She wanted a new challenge after she got off the circuit and decided to open a bar. Craddock was raised on a farm, but her parents owned a tavern where she spent many a happy childhood hour.

Before it was Nita's, the building at 1816 East Rio Salado housed a disco and a topless club. Craddock summarizes the state of the structure when she first saw it as "dirt floors, winos, and dogs . . . you could see daylight through the cracks in the walls." Perfect. Nita lowered the ceiling, fixed all the paneling and the walls, put down carpeting and opened her Hideaway for business in 1975.

Twenty years later, she sits behind a desk cluttered with papers and memories, her blond perm framing a sturdy, wizened face. Curls of smoke dance between her long fingers and pursed mouth as she recollects in a light smoker's rasp. Now in her early 50s, Nita describes the early days of her bar as being like a dream. It seems an eon ago that there was a junkyard behind the building and "summers were hotter in here than it was outside, and in winter it was colder."

Memorabilia is ubiquitous in Nita's. Centered high over the bar is a print of "The Cowboy's Dream," a classic piece of kitschy cowboy art by Lon Megargee that depicts a cowpoke sleeping on a bed of clouds, saddle for a pillow, dreaming of a beautiful woman. The picture is placed out of reach for a reason: "I had a set of longhorns once, probably 'bout eight foot long, and they disappeared off the wall," says Nita. "I don't know how they got out the door with 'em."

Decorations that haven't walked away over the years include autographed photos of the Oakland A's, pictures of famous rodeo stars, and, in Nita's office, a shot of her with Ben Johnson, star of classic Westerns like The Wild Bunch and Shane. Nita's most prized souvenir, however, is her personalized barstool--covered with bright red material, adorned with white cowboy fringe and bold white lettering that commemorates her 20 years in the bar business.

In those two decades, Nita concentrated more on providing a warm atmosphere for her regulars than on booking live music. "Everybody used to call and say, 'Do you have entertainment?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, come in and watch the customers.'"

Then came Charles Levy IV, who approached Nita in May and, in a smoky New Orleans drawl, pitched an idea: live music one night a week at no charge. Nita was guarded at first--after all, if it ain't broke, why fix it?--but Levy's enthusiasm eventually won her over.

And so on June 1, fueled by word of mouth and modest ads in several local magazines, Nita's Hideaway was born again. Giant Sand headlined to a crowd of about 100. Since then, many of the Valley's and Tucson's top bands have played Nita's, including: Hans Olson, members of Dead Hot Workshop, the Grievious Angels, Chimeras, One, and Trunk Federation. Nita's doesn't offer the purse of other clubs, but the bands keep coming for the love of music, the quality sound system, and the intimate setting.

In less than three months, Levy has gone from booking one band a week to music seven nights a week, usually two bands a night. He says he got the idea to turn Nita's into a music venue from Patty Pierson of Tempe band the Piersons. Levy was helping the bands get gigs and "the only place that would allow them to play was Long Wong's, and they wanted to play every week." On a lark, Patty suggested Nita's. "I came down here and looked at it and I thought it was great," Levy says. "I came by every day for two weeks until I finally met Nita."

Growing up in New Orleans made it easy for Levy to develop a keen interest in live music, even as a young teenager. "New Orleans is different than anywhere else because we were 13 when we started to go to bars. Around here, every high school has their McDonald's or something. In New Orleans, every high school had their own bar. We had the Boston Street Pub, where we'd see the Neville Brothers and Dr. John."

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