Brian Mays, the friendly owner of Sam’s BBQ, is used to people showing up at his legendary East Austin restaurant to snap photos.
Inside, the restaurant is an Austin time capsule: the walls are plastered with yellowing photographs of long-gone locals, Texas politicians, and famous musicians, many of them looking decidedly well fed. The building’s exterior, with a Martin Luther King Jr. mural and trademark motto—“you don’t need no teeth to eat my beef”—is a common sight on local Instagram accounts.
So it wasn’t surprising, Mays said, when a group of musicians, the Grammy-nominated country music band Midland, asked to use the front of his BBQ joint for a photo shoot last year. But he did not expect to find an image from the shoot in the July 19 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. Even more surprising, he said, was the fact that the image had been digitally altered. His legendary restaurant—one of the few remaining Black-owned businesses on East Twelfth Street—had an entirely new name: “Playboys,” a reference to one of the band’s ballads about delayed adulthood.
Sam’s BBQ is an iconic East Austin landmark. For longtime residents of the neighborhood, a white band using the venue for clout, and then erasing the restaurant’s name, felt like desecration.
“They said they weren’t gonna change the name,” Mays said by phone on Monday in between taking customer orders. “I’m really upset with them because I thought I could trust them with their word, but their word wasn’t good.”
The Washington Post Magazine’s photo director, Dudley Brooks, said in an email that the band had provided the altered images. “These were Public Relations photos that we received from representatives of the band Midland. We had no part in the production of the imagery whatsoever. They were free handouts for our usage.”
After an inquiry from Texas Monthly questioning the photo’s authenticity Monday afternoon, the magazine updated the image online to include the restaurant’s proper name, and appended a correction.
Midland did not respond to a request for an interview. The doctored photo is credited to Harper Smith, a fashion photographer who is married to Cameron Duddy, Midland’s bass guitar player.
Mays wasn’t the only one who was upset by the altered image, which went to print amid a nationwide reckoning with racism that has touched country music and major media outlets like the Post. On Instagram, Midland shut down comments beneath the doctored photograph and removed another image of a band member outside the restaurant Monday afternoon. They had no such luck on Facebook, where a furious swarm of Austinites descended to admonish the band, often with the aid of unprintable language. Many have lamented a missed opportunity to offer publicity to a cultural landmark surrounded by an encroaching tide of gentrification.
“WTF? Using an iconic black business and trying to capitalize on a city’s culture without any acknowledgement,” one commenter wrote. “Midland your caucasity is showing.”
“Sam is a legendary spot run by a good man who’s given back to his community for years, y’all are so gross,” another wrote.
“Y’all thought nobody was gonna notice, huh?” a third commenter added. “This is exactly what’s wrong with Austin.”
Nelson Linder, president of Austin NAACP, said he agrees with the last poster’s sentiment. He said there’s a lack of awareness about the history of East Austin—developed in accordance with the city’s 1928 segregation plan and now the beating heart of Black Austin—and the decades-long displacement of its Black and Hispanic residents. Gentrification isn’t just a process of physical displacement, Linder said, it’s also an entitled attitude. There’s nothing wrong with outsiders coming to take photos of an iconic institution, he continued, pointing out that Stevie Ray Vaughan and other well-known white musicians have made the pilgrimage to Sam’s over the years.
“It’s a matter of respect and understanding,” Linder said. “But this group temporarily erased the whole idea that Sam’s exists. It’s like a metaphor for how the East Side has been treated over the past few decades—like it doesn’t exist!”
When reached during his Monday lunch service, Mays said he was frustrated but isn’t the type to seek revenge or unnecessarily prolong confrontation.
“I ain’t trying to hurt nobody” he said, noting that he’d recently gotten off the phone with his lawyer and was mulling his options. “We can straighten it out with $2,500 and an apology. That should do it.”
Update, July 23, 2020: In a statement published on Austin360.com Thursday morning, the band said it had apologized to Mays and his family and agreed to compensate them for the photo shoot. “We have reached out to Brian, the owner of Sam’s, and his family to apologize for the editing of their sign in a photo we used. We admire Brian and his family for everything they do and stand for,” the statement said. “When we went to Sam’s during our photo shoot, we were honored to shoot at their iconic, locally Black-owned business that has been an Austin institution for over 60 years. We had a wonderful time with Brian and are thankful for the time he spent with us.”