Gazing around the front room of the Hole in the Wall, the Guadalupe Street bar he’s owned for the past six years, Will Tanner assesses its value in metaphysical terms.
"This is a museum," he says. "It’s a pretty sacred space."
Deep talk for a place that sells alcohol and hosts local bands – but 40 years of history says he’s right on target. In a city that has failed to protect major cultural landmarks such as Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Lunch even as it professes to be the world’s live music capital, the against-all-odds survival of the Hole in the Wall indeed hints at some degree of divine intervention.
Only South Austin country dance hall the Broken Spoke, which will mark its 50th anniversary this fall, can boast a longer run among the city’s live music venues. Since opening on June 15, 1974, the Hole in the Wall has been through countless phases and stages: early unamplified shows, an ’80s roots-rock bar-band heyday, a turn toward indie and punk in the ’90s, a near-death experience in the early ’00s, and finally a stabilizing expansion in its most recent decade.
From Thursday through June 28, the Hole celebrates its 40-year run with 40 acts performing over 10 days in what amounts to a massive homecoming party. Bands from various eras have teamed up for evenings that should bring back fond memories of heydays gone by. There’s a roots-rock blowout with Two Hoots & a Holler, the LeRoi Brothers and like-minded groups; a punk-pop party with Fastball, the Wannabes and Sincola; a country Monday with Roger Wallace, Mike & the Moonpies and others; a night of pure mayhem with Mojo Nixon and the Hickoids; and quite a bit more.
If the Hole has prospered in recent years with the addition of an outdoor beer garden and a restaurant space operated by the popular East Side King crew, the owner’s primary goal is simply to persevere.
"I knew it had been around a long time," says Tanner, who bought the place in February 2008. He says the Hole’s history "was something that I just counted in the positive column" when he was deciding to buy it. "Then once I got here, it got a little heavy — because I don’t want to be the guy that messes this up. That’s not something I’d thought about, but it’s been a great motivator."
At a booth along the south wall of the storied front room — the likes of Doug Sahm, Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams have played on the classic low stage framed by a big window looking onto Dean Keeton and Guadalupe streets — Tanner is discussing the bar’s history with longtime Hole in the Wall associate Paul Minor and outgoing general manager Alex Livingstone (who’s moving to North Carolina next month). Of the three, Minor has the longest history with the venue, having first played here with his high school band the Urge in the mid-1980s before hosting a Sunday free show with Superego in the ’90s and booking the room for several years in the 2000s.
Now the club’s production manager, Minor has been impressed with Tanner’s handling of the Hole. "To me, it’s a miracle that a guy can buy a struggling bar and turn it around to the point where it’s basically consistently profitable and sustainable and moving forward without fail," he says.
It’s a tough task, but a simple mission. "I was asked recently by somebody else, ‘What is Hole in the Wall’s mission statement?’" Tanner said. "And I was like, I have no idea."
Minor interjects: "Stay open!"
Tanner laughs. "Yeah, stay open. Have the P.A. work so the bands can be heard. Sell beer. And not much past that."
But there’s also now a booming food operation in the back, thanks to the creative menu East Side King offers from an adjoining structure that became part of the Hole in the Wall footprint a decade ago. The expansion began when Austin Pizza co-owners Clay McLaughlin and James Cashiola took over the place in 2003, after it had been closed for a year when the building went up for sale. In 2005, McLaughlin and Cashiola sold both Austin Pizza and the Hole to J.D. Torian, who sold the bar to Tanner three years later.
Tanner got his initial business experience in El Paso, where he owns a restaurant, two bars and a music venue. Formerly an engineer — not the scientific kind, but the old-school driving-the-train type — he decided to move to Austin after he and his wife had a child. He first visited Hole in the Wall in the mid-’90s, when he was working as a railroad yardmaster.
Down on the Drag
At that time, the Hole in the Wall was still under the control of its original owner, Doug Cugini, who opened it with his family in 1974 "as a restaurant serving truck stop-style food," Cugini says. His parents already owned truck stop restaurants on Ben White Boulevard and U.S. 183, and they wanted to start a third for their 24-year-old son, who recently had graduated from college in Buffalo, N.Y.
The building at 2538 Guadalupe St., on the north end of the stretch known as the Drag across from the University of Texas campus, was an unlikely spot, having previously housed Longhorn Dry Cleaners. "In 1974, the Drag was not a real hot commodity," Cugini recalls. "There were a lot of empty stores there."
One tactical advantage the new bar had was that Travis County had only recently begun issuing liquor licenses allowing bars to serve mixed drinks rather than setups for BYO liquor. "So the Hole in the Wall was one of the first mixed-beverage-serving establishments in the county," Cugini says.
Venues offering live music on a regular basis were similarly rare at the time. "There were only six or seven of them when we opened up," he says, citing the usual suspects such as the Armadillo, Broken Spoke and Soap Creek Saloon. Although Cugini hadn’t intended for Hole in the Wall to become part of that realm, it was an obvious path to pursue, partly because musicians were already playing regularly on the sidewalk along the Drag.
"Some of the local street musicians talked me into to letting them play at night, and that’s how the music started," he says. "They weren’t electrically connected at all; there was no P.A. or anything like that."
Among the first musicians to play the room were John Garza, Frank Zigal, Stephen Doster and George Ensle. A weekly-residency pattern soon developed: "For the simplicity of it," Cugini says, "I would give Frank Zigal every Wednesday, Stephen Doster every Tuesday, John Garza every Monday."
Before long, a promising young talent had claimed Sunday nights. "Nanci Griffith was playing there in the first year," Cugini remembers. "She was a little bit different case (than the street musicians) — she came in and sought to play there just because there were very few clubs."
By the end of her five-year run at the Hole, Griffith had released her debut album, "There’s a Light Beyond These Woods," and was on her way to a Grammy-winning career.
In Cugini’s eyes, the musicians deserve credit for what the Hole in the Wall came to be. "It wasn’t like I had this idea to open up a club that was going to last 40 years and have all these famous musicians start out there," he says. "I didn’t have any idea or vision of that at all. I had these guys coming into me and asking me to play."
If you build it …
This notion of how the Hole in the Wall was shaped by its audience more than its owners is a recurring theme in discussions with those who know the bar best. "Basically," says Cugini, "we opened it up and kind of let the people decide what it became."
Among those who visited on that very first day in 1974 was Debbie Rombach, a new student at UT who decided to skip an orientation session when she heard about the place across the street serving up some grand-opening drink bargains.
Rombach didn’t become a regular right away. "I was really into school," she says, "so for about three years I didn’t really go." Eventually she went to hear a band that some of her friends were in, and soon she was playing softball on city league teams that were centered on the bar’s patrons. She started working there full-time in February 1979, and took over from Cugini for four years after he moved to Dallas in 1998.
Softball and bowling leagues were part of the patrons’ out-of-bar experience. "That was kind of a bonding thing," she says. "We’d play and then come back to the bar. And at least once or twice a summer, we made a trip to see the Astros or Rangers; we’d rent a bus and buy a block of tickets. There were these social things kind of centered around the bar but that didn’t necessarily happen at the bar."
Many of the early regulars had their visages immortalized in framed caricature portraits that ringed the walls of the front room for years. A website devoted to Hole in the Wall history identifies a couple dozen of those portraits. Among them are Billy and O.A. Cugini (Doug’s parents and co-owners) as well as political strategist Mark McKinnon, who played music at the Hole in the 1970s and returned to play the club’s 20th anniversary in the ’90s.
The caricatures have since been combined into two large montages placed where the front room connects with the back room, which now houses a second, larger stage used primarily for weekend shows. In the early days, the back room was filled with pool tables and pinball machines, which were a major draw. "That was the big profitability element in our business" during the first decade, Cugini says.
Changes in the physical details of the space are part of how different generations of Hole in the Wall regulars define their experiences. An office and swinging doors were removed to open up the transition between the front and back rooms; the back room transitioned into a second bar and music room; the side alley became an outdoor beer garden; the back building became a bar and then a restaurant.
Past and present regulars have their own perspectives on what constitutes the Hole’s character. The bar’s collective institutional memory weaves together all of those perspectives across 40 years.
"Anyone who spent between three and seven days a week here for any nine-month period — that’s their snapshot of what this place is," says Tanner. "And those overlap with other groups. So it’s this constantly changing speech I get from people about what this place really is."
Three nights at the Hole
The historical record sometimes turns on pivotal dates that become legend, and the Hole has had its share of such moments. Here are three that stand out:
• On Jan. 25, 1989, Timbuk3, a duo that rose from Hole gigs to the top-20 of the pop charts in the mid-1980s, returned to their home club for a secret show (billed as Fred & Wilma) and invited their old friend Blaze Foley to open for them. An accomplished songwriter who’d recently had a tune cut by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Foley was also troubled, known for drunken episodes and altercations. The show was to be Foley’s last public performance; six days later, he was shot and killed in a domestic dispute.
• In the summer of 1992 — research indicates it likely was July 31 — rock ’n’ roll wildman Mojo Nixon was playing the club when Don Henley dropped in. Notorious for lampooning celebrities such as Debbie Gibson and Michael J. Fox in song, Nixon also had targeted the Eagles singer in a happy little ditty called "Don Henley Must Die."
Henley, in town for an environmental benefit and tipped off by a Hole regular who happened to be a childhood friend, asked Mojo if he could join him on the tune. "So I’m singing the verses, and when it gets to chorus, he’s screaming, ‘Don Henley must die!’ And then he’s REALLY belting out (the next line), ‘Don’t let him get back together with Glenn Frey!’"
Pre-smartphones, the incident didn’t get documented, which has led to tall-tale embellishments. "If you’ve been in the front room at the Hole in the Wall, you know there’s not a lot of room. About 5,000 people said they were there," Nixon says. "There might have been 75 in that front room. They must have all been in the back room!"
• One night in 1995, a band of local scene veterans called Magneto U.S.A. was nearing the end of its set when someone grabbed one of band member Miles Zuniga’s guitars and dashed out the door. Most of the audience bolted after him. "All I knew was we were playing and then the whole bar was running out the door," Zuniga told the American-Statesman at the time. "I thought, ‘We don’t sound that bad.’"
The absconder was tracked down and the guitar was returned, undamaged. The icing came later: Magneto U.S.A. changed its name to Fastball, had a top-5 pop smash in 1998 with "The Way," and got to retell their Hole in the Wall story to a national audience on "The Tonight Show."
‘Nights that everything just felt right’
Those highlights aside, just as the regulars have their own different takes on what the Hole in the Wall is, they also have different favorite memories.
For me, it was a March 2000 afternoon recording session in the back room, with a cast of 11 including Victoria Williams and Mark Olson, Bob Neuwirth and Greg Leisz, members of the Gourds and Old 97’s, and the late Mambo John Treanor playing Mickey Newbury’s "How I Love Them Old Songs."
For Minor, personal high points included an all-star re-creation of The Band’s "The Last Waltz" hosted by his band, Superego, in 2001; a South by Southwest showcase with legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement backed by BR549 plus sets by Andrew Bird and Hamell on Trial; and an early-’90s gig he played with Beaver Nelson that was "a showcase for a record label, and we got signed from our show."
Sometimes it’s the small treasures that stand out. "It’s been constantly refreshing to see new bands starting out," says general manager Alex Livingstone, citing old-time trio the Carper Family as a textbook example. "I saw their first gig, and it was like, wow, that’s magic," he says. "Being a musician, that’s largely what I care about."
For those who have owned the joint, the best nights tend to boil down to a simpler bottom line. Rombach’s 20-plus years at the Hole may blur together, but the great moments produced the same feeling: "There were nights that everything just felt right," she says.
For his sake, Tanner says that the best times are when, "at the end of the night, I kind of think to myself, I wish we could have that night over again. I’m put at ease, the bar’s doing well, so I know we’ve bought ourselves some time. We’re not putting out any fires, the bands are great, no problems with the staff, no problems with customers."
He pauses and smiles. "I feel like I’m being too robotic about it, too pragmatic," he says, almost apologetically. "But those are my favorite nights: When we do well, and the bands seem happy, and I can go home and sleep like a baby."
Mission statement accomplished.