ed. note–In 2017 we aim to hit up venues that are oft-overlooked, forgotten or unknown. Special, quaint, unique places that support music in their own way. While places like Gruene Hall get all the glory, there are countless other structures just as sacred across this state. This is the first in a new series we’re going to call (very creative name) Visiting Venues.
The year was 2001. I had learned enough chords to begin writing my own tunes and performing them amid drunken covers of Pat Green, Slaid Cleaves, Chris Knight, Ryan Adams, Sublime, Tom Petty and other frat daddy jam musts. We had a big rager one night at apartment 713 of the Meadows apartments in San Marcos…affectionately referred to as The Ghettos. One of the dudes in a local rock band said “Hey man…you’re good enough to play out somewhere.” Powered by the fuel of 12 Lone Stars…I figured he was right. One of my best friends, Justin Dickey, had been the McCartney to my Lennon. If Lennon and McCartney were focused on GCDC bangers about rivers, Texas and copping melodies from anything Lloyd Maines produced. Dickey was better on guitar and quicker with a melody. I had a knack for lyrics. Together we formed a duo. We called ourselves South of Town. We named ourselves that after the Adam Carroll record. We even emailed Adam to get his “blessing” to use the name. He was gracious, but in hindsight had to be thinking who are these clowns?
Many weeks and months of the couch circuit of San Marcos, Austin, New Braunfels, Waco, Stephenville and DFW had fortified our foolishness. We cut a demo on the most cutting edge software available to our Acer with dial-up internet access. You remember the kind. The kind that gave your PC cancer as you downloaded Limewire or Kazaa. One song would sometimes take 30 minutes or more…but totally worth it. How else could you add Coldplay “Yellow” to your mix cd? We even got the best cd labels Office Depot had to offer (see above).
Anyhow…I’m going off on Bill Simmons tangent.
Situated nearly smack dab in the middle of the backroad route FM1102 that connects San Marcos to New Braunfels is Hunter. TX. This is where you’ll find Riley’s Tavern. Riley’s was the first bar in Texas to get its license after Prohibition and it is rightfully proud of this fact. It exudes more vibe than just about anywhere else I’ve visited. You can feel the ghosts of the past drinking at the bar with you. For the complete and very cool history of Riley’s Tavern, visit this Comal County historical page: http://www.co.comal.tx.us/Historical/Markers/Rileys-Tavern.htm
Therein, you’ll find such gems as:
-On September 19th, 1933, Texas became the first state to legalize alcohol sales after the repeal of Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, 17 year old J.C. Riley drove to Austin with his uncle in a Model T to get a permit for a liquor license. They arrived early and waited on the steps of the capitol for the doors to open. They were the very first in Texas to get a liquor license after prohibition and the license number was No. 00001.
-Riley’s Tavern was alternately a tavern, then a house and then a package store and tavern. It was first the Galloway Saloon, then the home of the Bernardino Sanchez family in the 1920s and early 1930s and then became a Package Store and Riley’s Tavern. , On one of the original signs for Riley’s Tavern, you can see the imprint of a previous sign for Riley’s Package Store.
-The bar back is still original and the (original) coolers are still there along with the old cash register. ed. note–I’ve never had a colder beer anywhere than from those vintage coolers.
When you first pull up to Riley’s you notice that it is situated in a large grove of trees and much like the Rose Bowl rises out of a Pasadena, CA neighborhood as a beacon of majestic glory, so does Riley’s Tavern. A beacon of debauched dedication. There’s a nearby railroad, always several cars and bikes parked up front and the feeling that you’re walking into someone’s house to enjoy a good time. You can hear the music the moment you open your car door. And it nuzzles your eardrums tighter as you take each step toward the screen door that adorns the front.
Once in the bar, the first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s the definite smell of an old bar without a funk or must. It’s just cool. The hint of long forgotten ashes and the wisp of sawdust that hasn’t been kicked or swept away. The clanking of beer bottles and the rattling of billiard balls. All the typical bar sounds and smells. Yet, what stands out the most is the place feels like home. You truly feel as if you have stepped into someone’s house. The auditory cue that guides you this way is the fact that conversations are happening all around you, but not at bar volume. At kitchen table volume. Old friends, new friends, bikers, musicians, vagabonds, college kids, haggard farmers and locals mingle longneck to longneck.
Joel Hoffman has owned and run the Tavern for over a decade now. His dedication to improving the joint without losing any of its history or aesthetic is impressive. Even more impressive than his eye for historical detail and preservation is his ear for live music. Hoffman keeps the booking calendar full 7 nights a week most of the time. He features a mix of local, regional and even national acts. You just never know who you might find at Riley’s Tavern performing, drinking, bartending or just passing through.
Which brings me back to the dumb college kids at the start of this story.
We strode in to Riley’s to find Dub Miller tending bar, a baby-faced Brady Black sitting on a bar stool, some nice Baptist ladies enjoying a Sunday afternoon cocktail after a morning spent at church in a neighboring town and a couple Bandido bikers cooling their heels back by the pool tables.
In 2001, we were just young kids who loved this music and didn’t know that many people who were big time into it. So, to waltz in and find Dub Miller twisting lids and running tabs blew our minds.
It wasn’t long before one of the owners came in and began chatting us up. He asked if we played music. We said yes. I’m guessing the fact that we were younger than 70 yet had the not yet ironic attire of trucker hats and aviator shades on tipped him off.
Even though we’d never played outside of our apartment or a late-night campfire jam, he invited us to come back later that night to “perform”. Buoyed by the ego boost and fueled by $1 Keystone Light longnecks, we headed down the road to New Braunfels and began to plan just what we would do that evening for a performance.
Winding our way through New Braunfels, we headed out to River Rd. There was no River Road Icehouse at the start of River Rd just yet. Just an old dump named the Oasis that was in the process of being converted into what we all now know as River Road Icehouse.
Doug Moreland had just recently relocated to behind the bar in a camper and as we were turning right on to River Rd we saw him walking into the bar. We stopped and rolled the window down to see what was up. He invited us into tour the bar that would soon be opening. We met the owner, Ken, and just like earlier at Riley’s…he offered us jobs on the spot. We would be bouncers and barbacks. Even though we already had other jobs and were going to school full time, it sounded great to us.
Getting paid to be at a bar? No brainer.
As we were leaving, we mentioned to Doug that we had a gig at Riley’s later that night. He laughed that patented Moreland laugh and said he had to come see this. With that vote of confidence, we hit River Road and took the scenic route back to San Marcos.
Just one problem.
When we got to the end of River Road we didn’t know where to go. We were lost. This was pre-smart phone. No map in the car. No cell service where we were.
We’ll just “bird dog” it we thought.
Two hours later we were in a place called Airport, TX. I hadn’t been there before and I haven’t been back there since. I probably couldn’t get back there even if I knew Brooklyn Decker was waiting there nude with $7 million dollars.
At any rate, we eventually lumbered back into San Marcos. Cleaned ourselves up, grabbed our guitars and headed back for Riley’s. One of my friends dressed up like an Ari Gold type and placed his cellphone on his hip. He says “I’m gonna act like y’alls agent.”
(photo by AR Boyd)
Whatever that meant.
By now, there was actually a decent crowd. We load in our two guitars. No mics. No amps. No PA.
Several real musicians like Matt Skinner are there now enjoying the fruits of having Mr. Miller behind the bar. By fruits I mean free booze.
Much to the chagrin of 97% of the patrons, the jukebox is turned off and we kick into Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away” completely unplugged. Halfway through the song, Brady Black has joined us on fiddle and people are singing along. This is going awesome we thought to ourselves.
Then, the song ended. About 4 people clapped and out of the back we hear “Turn the damn jukebox back on!” We could take a hint, so after a few more songs I gladly handed my beat up Takamine over to Skinner, my buddy lent Moreland his pawn shop Martin and we headed to the bar to enjoy a very cool acoustic show.
Soon, one of those old Baptist ladies that had been there in the afternoon sauntered up to our Ari Gold rip-off agent and the following conversation takes place.
Old lady: “Those boys were amazing! They must come play at my house. I’m having a huge party next Saturday night and they’d be perfect.”
Ari: “Why, yes I think they are available. It’ll be $300.” He later said that number just came to him and he figured she’d balk at it…well, she didn’t.
Old lady: “We’ve got a deal.”
Ari comes back over to us and says…”Hey guys, just booked you another gig!”
We asked where this mythical gig would be.
Ari says, “Hold on, I forgot to get the details…I’ll be right back.”
Ari shuffles through the smoke and shoulders of strangers to the back corner where the old lady was sitting with her friends puffing on Basic Lights and chugging Pearl from a can. We see them deep in discussion, then all of a sudden Ari gets this odd look on his face and I see him mouth “thank you…we’ll be there!”
“So where is it?” I ask him as he arrives back at our collection of barstools.
His answer: “Airport, TX”
Needless to say, next Saturday night we were performing our new duties at the grand opening of River Road Icehouse and not in Airport, TX at the delusional, obviously deaf woman’s house.
(South of Town aka TBA at an electric gig in Tokio, TX and yes that’s me on the left doing my best Cody Canada impression)