Before Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters brought together Waylon, Willie, and the boys, it stood south of the river as a National Guard Armory. But it’s not the only Texas nook carved out of something else. Take a closer look at the photo-covered walls or the weathered facades, and you might find that your favorite juke-joint or beloved honky-tonk enjoyed a former life as a mercantile store, a factory, or even a barbershop. In fact, that checkered past is exactly what gives many Texas music halls the authentic, worn-in vibe they still ooze today. Here are three of the state’s most timeless.
John T. Floore Country Store
Today Floore’s is legendary for its down-home feeling, an ability to make even the biggest musical acts seem intimate and neighborly. It has provided a stage for everyone from Bob Wills to Bob Dylan, Elvis to Lyle Lovett. It is a Texas Historic Landmark and was listed as one of TEXAS MONTHLY’s “50 Things Every Texan Should Do” (March 2001). But before it was “The Home of Willie Nelson,” it was indeed a country store.
John T. Floore, a former manager of San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, opened his emporium in this town near San Antonio in 1942 across the street from where it is today, but moved to the current location in 1946. The grocer sold everything from “Alka-Seltzer to fishing rods,” as current manager Stewart Rogers remembers. As Willie Nelson sings in “Shotgun Willie,” Floore even “sold sheets to the KKK.” The store also contained a small cafe, and on weekend nights, Floore started to push the commodites to the side and transform the place into a dancehall.
Since then the market has embraced its musical side almost entirely. Luckily, the owners have done much to maintain the ambiance of days gone by. There is a veritable wallpaper of old pictures and signs, and “the same tables are bolted to the same spots they have been since the 1940s,” Rogers says.
Soon even more of that nostalgia will be revived. Floore’s is hoping to reopen the old eatery, making their own bread, sausage, and trademark tamales. But they won’t stray too far from their musical mission. “As far as the store part,” Rogers says, “I don’t know if we’ll ever bring that back.” 14492 Old Bandera Rd (210-695-8827); www.liveatfloores.com.
The Nutty Brown Cafe
Anyone driving down Austin’s U.S. Highway 290 will recognize the neon cowboy with “Cafe” blazing in his lasso. It tells you that you have reached the Nutty Brown, “where fun is always the order of the day” and where musical acts play several nights a week. But plenty of people remember when the cowboy had rounded up “Howdy” in his rope, a sign that has now become the north entrance to a building that was the original home of Nutty Brown Mills, maker of Nutty Brown Pralines and assorted baked goods.
According to the current owners, in 1932 C. Allen Sears developed the mill, which by World War II was making enough low-starch cottonseed flour to bake four million loaves of bread annually. Over the following decades the factory declined, changing hands many times to become a Cedar Valley Post Office, a Western wear store, and a country home at different points. In 1994 Bob Rotter made the defunct mill into a diner and his home, and then in 2003 Mike Farr expanded the outside patio and constructed a stage where 1,500 people can gather ’round.
Its yesteryear uses are played up by the owners, with the lobby full of vintage photographs and wooden signs from the mill. You can even buy a box of Nutty Brown Pralines on your way out. 12225 Highway 290 W., (512-301-4648); www.nuttybrown.com.
Camp Street Café and Store
“Essentially, it’s really a listening hall; there’s not enough room for dancing,” co-owner Pipp Gillette says of his venue. Together he and his brother, Guy, are the Gillette Brothers, one of the varied musical acts that performs at the cafe they opened in their grandfather’s building in 1998.
This grandfather, rancher V.H. “Hoyt” Porter, bought some property in 1931 in this town north of Houston. He built a structure on Camp Street, where travelers had once overnighted with their wagons. There were three doors into the building, leading to the Starlight Barbershop, a pool hall, and a cafe/taxi stand.
The early days were a wild time in Crockett, with all kinds of illicit activities going on behind closed doors. “It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say there was a little bootlegging going on,” says Gillette. The inhabitants punched a hole in the sheetrock of the bathroom the three businesses shared. Here they stashed dice, knives, beer cans, and all kinds of bottles when the cops came calling. “We’ve got the only walls insulated with wine and beer cans,” Gillette jokes. Some of these artifacts found in the wall are now in a glass display case, recalling the building’s untamed days.
But Camp Street wasn’t just a center for ruffians. The nearby Paradise Inn brought in big-name acts including B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton. “It was part of the Chitlin Circuit, as they called it,” Gilette says. This attracted a group of then-unknown bluesmen who would play in and around the building for tips in the forties. These included Texas blues legends such as Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims. Crockett’s musical vitality and the building declined in the following decades, but recent interest has brought the town’s place in Texas music history back to the forefront. “We were amazed to find out this history,” Gilette says. “We suddenly realized how significant it was. The people who lived here knew about it, but no one else did.”
When the Gillette brothers arrived in 1998, they struggled with the competing interests of preservation and renewal. “We tried to maintain the atmosphere, but we took the walls down and gave it a better format for music.” Luckily, this new format does nothing to hide the building’s history. There is a flyer from the old barbershop promising “hair styled and trimmed to suit.” There are archival photos of Camp Street and Gatemouth Brown. Elsewhere hangs an image of “Lightnin’” playing at Carnegie Hall, a far cry from his pool hall roots. Across the street from the Café is a statue of him sitting on chair in his sunglasses, playing his guitar and smoking a cigar.
Today the fare at the Camp Street Café ranges from blues to Western to bluegrass to Celtic. And, of course, the Gillette Brothers take the stage every few weeks. “We were thrilled to preserve a little piece of Texas music heritage,” Gillette says. “It’s very exciting to feel like you’re continuing this tradition.” 215 S. Third St (936-544-8656); www.campstreetcafe.com.
The Deep Ellum entertainment district was, in fact, born through industry. In 1884 Robert S. Munger set out to produce a revolutionary new cotton gin. In Deep Ellum, he built a factory to fabricate them, under the firm of Munger Improved Cotton Machine Company. Commerce further impacted the neighborhood in 1913, when Henry Ford chose it as the location for a regional Model T plant to boost non-Detroit production.
In the 1920s Deep Ellum began to take a more colorful turn, as the area became home to up-and-coming jazz and blues performers (many of whom also frequented Camp Street Café, above), secret craps tables, and even a red-light quarter.
The next several decades saw years of decline for the district, however. Automobiles took the place of the pedestrian travel that was the lifeblood of Deep Ellum. Local business moved away, and the elevation of Central Expressway (U.S. 75) in 1969 fatally bisected what was left of the community. In 1983, however, local officials devised “The Deep Ellum Plan” to re-gentrify the area and attract a downtown art scene. This was in response to the makeshift parties and clubs that inhabited the vacant, cheap-to-rent warehouses. Throughout the 1980s, according to Barry Annino, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, the trend was to acquire a warehouse, “stick a keg of beer in it and draw a funky band.” By the early ’90s, Deep Ellum had reinvented itself as a hip area where yuppies could gather in legitimate establishments.
Historical highlights include The Gypsy Tea Room, which started as a bar and was everything from an automotive shop to a furniture store before becoming a 1,000-person-capacity music venue. The Uropa Club was a brewery and mechanic’s garage, influenced by the local Ford plant. Part of the Sons of Hermann Hall was once a butcher’s shop, and Club Clearview was in former life an automotive glass company.
If you’re looking for Dallas nightlife with a historical twist, look no further than Deep Ellum. www.deepellumtx.com
Undoubtedly Austin’s wittiest new bar, Mean-Eyed Cat is more than just a hipster hangout with a funny name. The owners recently converted it from a Cut-Rite chainsaw shop, installing a bar in the main room and pool tables in the side halls to create a layout just awkward enough to work.
It also doesn’t hurt that Mean-Eyed Cat has not shed much of its former skin. Saw blades and components adorn the walls, and the owners incorporated another thematic element to round out the picture: Johnny Cash. References to The Man in Black are everywhere, from murals to regular appearances by A Band Named Sue, a Cash cover group. Surrounded by Cash memorabilia, it’s hard to resist singing along in your best gravelly impersonation. (The men’s room even says “Johnny,” and the ladies’ room is christened “June,” after Cash’s wife and fellow performer.)
Take a load off on the pebble-laden beer garden to enjoy a Meanchilada, your beer of choice with a shot of Tabasco sauce resting at the bottom of your mug. And if you spot a rusty truck with a bumper sticker that reads “CASH” or “MEAN” in big, white block letters, you know it’s en route to Mean-Eyed Cat. 1621 W 5th St (512-472-6326)