Friday, January 03, 2014

The remarkable Nikki Mitchell

The world said goodbye to a remarkable lady in 2013.  Though I only chatted with her briefly, I feel privileged to have met her.

I was introduced to Nikki Mitchell in 2011 by phone.  A college buddy of mine, Norris Carden, called me and said he was visiting the River CafĂ© in tiny Normandy, Tennessee.  He had noticed the restaurant featured live music, and kindly thought to recommend me to fill an open date.  He had no doubt decided to pursue this idea in the middle of a conversation with Nikki, the owner, because after a brief introduction he put her on the phone with me to book the one open date they had.  Past experience with Norris indicated to me that he had probably not left her with the option to decline politely, which worked out fine!  Thanks again, Norris!

Anyway, I got to meet this sweet lady in person when I played the gig in November, and got to hear a little about her life, including her battle with cancer, her work with Waylon Jennings, and her adventures in flight in the former Soviet Union.  I still remember how her eyes lit up when I mentioned my own visit to Minsk, Belarus, to do mission work.  I think it was also this conversation when she mentioned her plans to spend a couple of weeks with a hunter-gatherer tribe in Mongolia…you know, “as one does!”

So after playing solo to a small crowd (it was post-Thanksgiving weekend, she explained) with much encouragement from the staff, all the while feeling I had stepped through a special portal into a saloon in the middle of Texas, I resolved to return if at all possible, and bring friends.  I did that the following July, bringing Charlsey Etheridge, Kim McLean and Devon O’Day to do a fun show.
Nikki is the one on the far right, in the funky apron.
Though Nikki is gone, the restaurant is still in operation, and more importantly, through the Nikki Mitchell Foundation (actively pursuing early detection and cure of pancreatic cancer), her visionary life continues to have its impact, especially on all those who were as fortunate as I was to cross paths with her.

Below is a tribute to her from the December 26 issue of the Nashville Scene


1954 -2013
Waylon Jennings' business manager; pilot; adventurer
By Kim Green

Nikki Mitchell fell in love with things. A lot. First, it was horses; then drawing and painting; then flying.

In 1991, Russia ensorcelled her. She learned that three regiments of Soviet airwomen had fought in World War II. Knowing no one, Mitchell visited the USSR to hear the women veterans' stories and find a way to honor them.

In 1998, Mitchell, a private pilot, and Rhonda Miles, flight instructor, corporate pilot and confidante, flew Mitchell's hardy little single-engine Maule to Russia. They traversed Siberia with a team of Russian airwomen and airplanes to commemorate a famous 1938 flight by pioneering Soviet aviatrices. Many things went wrong. One day, a Siberian fog clung so low that a controller guided Miles (without radar) to land by listening to the sound of her engine. "I drank a bottle of Champagne that night," recalls Miles.

While president of country artists Waylon Jennings' and Jessi Colter's enterprise for 20-plus years, she co-founded a women's fly-fishing club and annual fishing retreat for breast cancer survivors, and bought a historic building in Normandy, Tenn., opening her dream restaurant, the River Cafe. All while plotting her next journey — to Mongolia.

The Mongolia adventure was not to be. Last summer, Mitchell called her friends to the cafe to say goodbye. After 31 months of treatment for pancreatic cancer, she told Miles — her caregiver those last months — that she wanted to disconnect her feeding tube. "Are you doing this so I don't have to decide?" Miles asked her. Mitchell just smiled.

The day before Mitchell's memorial service, Miles quit her flying job to pilot the Nikki Mitchell Foundation, which supports research into early detection of pancreatic cancer.

"She left me a notebook full of stuff to do," Miles says. "She was my adventure soul sister."