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In search of the Real Texas Experience in Austin's clubs

Dave Thomas
dthomas@statesman.com

I'm no meaner-than-hell, sweat-in-the-sun, hard-as-a-hammer, Marlboro-man cowboy drunk.

No, I'm a college-educated, 8-hours-at-a-computer, white-collar, responsible husband and dad.

But for a whole pre-marriage, pre-kid decade, from 21 to 31, I stood Lone Star beer to Lone Star beer with every brawler, biker, boozer and bad man who would tolerate me. I drank deeply in every cowboy bar, dive and tavern from San Angelo to Beaumont and back again.

And if I never was a real honky-tonker, that's not for lack of effort. For 10 years I gazed into the abyss until ...

I grew up.

What happened? At 31 I got married. I got fit. I got fat. At 35 I had a son, then another at 39. The kind of bars I go to now serve buffalo wings. I don't think I've seen a real dive since Beverly's closed a few years back.

But I think I still have what it takes to judge what's a real Texas bar, and what's all hat and no cattle.

And that's important. As South by Southwest gears up, Austin will be aswarm with Yankee hipsters, California techsters, Southern scenesters and foreigners, too. Some of these folks are eager to seek out a Real Texas Experience. Something they can soak in, then tell the folks back home just how we are.

How do I know? The first place a thirsty visitor will turn offers a clue: beer.

At Austin's Twin Liquors, co-owner David Jabour says Texas-brewed beer is in demand during SXSW. "We especially see a spike in sales of Texas-brewed beer sold to the bars and restaurants during SXSW." And that's to be expected. After all, Red Steagall didn't name one of his albums "Gonzo Imperial Porter and Bob Wills Music."

But getting a Real Texas Experience isn't so easy as getting a Texas beer. There are plenty of places looking to cash in on the "Texas" brand that have peanut shells on the floor and country music in the air, but you can't find a soul there who could name two people who died at the Alamo or even a George Jones song.

With all that in mind, here's a look at a selection of Austin honky-tonks, dives and dance halls. Each rated, not on how good or popular they are, but on how close they are to a Real Texas Experience.

Broken Spoke

3201 S. Lamar Blvd.

$3.75 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 100 percent

I'm about two seconds inside the door and two steps from the bar when I hear Dale Watson say "thank you and good night!"

The bartender frowns at me and pointedly says "This is the last beer."

But one is enough. There's no need for me to linger and take notes to be able to tell you about the Spoke, where Austin's honky-tonk soul has resided for decades.

With its gravel parking lot and picturesque exterior, rustic right down to the rusting Texas Top Hands tour bus, a smartly framed photo can still make the Broken Spoke appear to be on the edge of town. (Trivia time: Johnny Bush, whom you can still see perform, once rode on that bus as a member of the Top Hands.)

Pass through the restaurant up front (one of the few places in Texas where the chicken-fried steak is a decent meal and not an extravagant showpiece in gravy-drowned breading) and you'll find a bar on your right, a museum of sorts on your left.

If you turn to the right, don't expect your beer to be cheap (the emphasis is on dancing, not drinking). On the left, the "Tourist Trap" is well worth a gander. Look for the Bob Wills poster, the LBJ hat and the original menu (you can pause for a moment to think about 45-cent beers).

The dance hall proper is straight ahead, a narrow strip of concrete under low ceilings in front of an equally low-key stage. On both sides, two flights of checkerboard tablecloth-covered tables, almost every one with its own neon sign.

Some say the Broken Spoke is too rustic, too run-down, too steeped in the decay of age. Not me. I see a venue that's welcomed Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Roy Acuff and Don Walser (to name a few), and is still going. Even on this Wednesday midnight, some are loath to leave, happy to mingle just a bit longer in the neon glare.

They know as well as I do that a little age is a small price to pay where time has otherwise stood still.

Mean-Eyed Cat

1621 W. Fifth St.

No cover, $3 Bud Light

Real Texas Experience: 90 percent

Real Austin Experience: 110 percent

Hipster ratio: At least 50 percent

In the parking lot, I'm looking at an old wooden building and a train rolls by, squealing and clacking, not far off to my right. For a minute it feels like there should be cotton in a nearby field and dirt beneath my feet.

But there are no Southern Pacific boxcars, just containers that say "China Shipping," and I'm standing in the shadow of the Capstar Partners Building, which looks like somebody threw up architecture all over it.

If I'm discouraged, it only lasts as long as it takes to walk through the front door and into the Mean-Eyed Cat, where Tom T. Hall is on the jukebox singing "I Like Beer."

Just like you can't appoint a legend, you can't invent an old bar. In both cases, you have to earn it. But when you start with an old chain-saw shop and fill it floorboards to rafters with Johnny Cash memorabilia, references and salutes, you're cheating the system ... in a good way.

The homages would be way too much if there were for anyone but Cash, who was so much the man that he turned Emo's into the Center of the Universe for a night during SXSW in 1994. How cool was Cash? You didn't hear it from me, but if you do the research, you'll find that the "Most Interesting Man in The World" didn't get his title until a couple years after Cash died and left the position open.

The Cat, named after a Cash song, has expanded since the last time I've been here. In a bizarre stab at the nature of progress (when it comes to bars), it has actually gotten better by getting bigger. A new room houses the old jukebox (20+ Cash CDs keep jukebox rarities Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver company). The old back porch is now a new beer hall of sorts.

What hasn't changed is the big square bar dominating the front room. On a Wednesday midnight, this room is fairly empty, but every now and then a yuppie appears from somewhere, looking to refuel. The Cat has what they require, from Yellow Tail wine to Woodchuck Cider, in addition to the more common beers.

As jaw-droppingly cool as the Mean-Eyed Cat is, I imagine it's often packed with hipsters, which is the only real strike against it. Still, it's hard to fault a place for its success. On my visit the Texas music flowed (Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, pre-Nashville Pat Green) until I felt like I was back in some West Texas haunt.

And then, a cover of "Long Black Veil" by ... the Dave Matthews Band.

Well, no place is perfect.

Midnight Rodeo

2201 E. Ben White Blvd.

$5 cover, $1.75 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 70 percent

Hipster ratio: Less than 5 percent

I was in that part of my third beer where the neon gets a little shinier when it happened: The DJ, who had been playing pop-country since I got there, played Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

The dance floor empties, save for two couples who go with the flow and an awesomely stubborn pair of two-steppers who give it one last lap before bailing out.

The DJ, perhaps realizing he'd gone too far, cuts it short and segues into a dance-club song that brings out a quintet of women. Then a Run-DMC song. By the time we make it through Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and return to country music, Jason Boland has never sounded so good, name-checking Shiner beer and I-35. The dance floor fills up again.

This sort of musical detour is de rigueur at these sorts of establishments, as inevitable as "Cotton-Eyed Joe" at a Texas wedding. I didn't clock it, but I'd be willing to bet every hour, it's 50 minutes of country and 10 minutes of rap/rock/dance, just to cater to everyone.

Midnight Rodeo could be any one of a couple of dozen such urban dance halls I've been to across the state, perhaps only differentiating itself in that there were more cars than trucks in the parking lot and more baseball caps than cowboy hats.

The cavernous joint (boasting as many bars as it has pool tables — five) is sparsely populated by neon signs, the resulting darkness drawing all eyes to a fair-sized dance floor under a giant disco ball.

And they were there to dance, all sorts of 'em: The little old man, the girl teaching a friend, the nonchalant cowboy with beer in hand, the reluctantly dragged boyfriend, the serious dancers (but just a few) and the Jesus-and-Johnny-Cash-we-can't-wait-to-get-out-of-these-clothes overly amorous couple.

No fights, no stuffed shirts, no pretense. Just folks having a good time, listening to the sort of music where George Strait classifies as "oldies."

Ginny's Little Longhorn

5434 Burnet Road

No cover, $2.75 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 95 percent

Hipster ratio: Under 5 percent, though I'm not sure what to make of the people wearing Snuggies on this cold night.

Ginny's is hardly bigger than the dance floor of Midnight Rodeo and is the sort of joint where a regular will casually push his empty bottle off the back end of the bar because he's been there long enough to know there's a trash can just on the other side.

Bathed in an amber neon glow, bar smooth from wear, men's room made unique by a bit of framed graffiti, it's the type of place that brings to mind when Luckenbach management voted in the mid-1990s to make the official town color "dust" so as to save work in the beer joint.

When I walk in, Willie Nelson is singing "I Can Get Off on You" on the 8-Track player in the corner of the bar. (Yes, 8-Track. No, I have no words for how cool that is.)

But it quickly becomes apparent that the Waylon and Willie album is not holding up to the demands of the decades. It is skipping all over the place, from "It's Not Supposed to Be This Way" to "Good Hearted Woman" and back again like some sort of odd honky-tonk dance remix.

Nobody else in the bar seems to notice, but a fellow from Two Hoots & a Holler releases the 8-Track from its Sisyphean efforts as the band sets up to play. The older crowd is as friendly as can be, but the everyone-knows-everyone scene can be uncomfortable for the odd man out, especially when the bar's not big enough to retreat to a neutral corner.

One beer and I move on, satisfied that Ginny's is winning the fight against progress.

Poodle Dog Lounge

6507 Burnet Road

No cover, $2.75 Lone Star in a can

Real Texas Experience: 70 percent

Old hippie ratio: A good 20 percent

What seems to be the world's most spacious dive bar is substituting for the Dry Creek Café, which was a late scratch owing to the fact that the Dry Creek was closed and on a road that could defeat the most designated of drivers.

I walk in to Metallica on the jukebox, cigarette smoke everywhere and a blue heeler vigorously shaking to death the remnants of a Coors Light cardboard box. The band is setting up where anyone coming in the front door will walk in right on top of 'em. Shiner beer is an "import," at least in price.

But the spacious, C-shaped bar is comfortable, and the joint, which opened in 1964 and apparently hasn't seen a drop of paint since, is ... broken-in. The entire room is ringed by framed pictures of long-ago movie stars, most — all? I didn't inspect them — of Marilyn Monroe. I don't imagine she visited. The "poodle dog" motif looks as if it was chosen randomly and then promptly forgotten.

There's not a thing that's country about this place, either. Not a drop of honky-tonk to be had. But the fact that the Poodle Dog is so aggressively unmoved by time, disrepair, fashion, expectation or a stranger in the corner scribbling notes ... well, that makes it pretty Texas if you ask me.

Coyote Ugly

501 E. Sixth St.

No cover, $2 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 10 percent

Cliché businessman ratio: About 10 percent

I've never seen the movie, never been to the New York original, hadn't even been to Sixth Street after dark for several years. But I knew what to expect: A raucous, packed joint full of rowdies and beauties and boozy to excess. An endless sea teeming with jiggle. The website even said Thursday was biker night. Great.

I walked up to the doorman, wallet in hand expecting to pay a cover, or at least to have my ID scrutinized, but he just looked at me like I was stupid. I shrugged and went on in to ... you could've heard crickets chirping if not for the generic din of the Eagles on the jukebox. There might have been a dozen people in there. After midnight. On Sixth Street.

The place bore a pretty fair resemblance to something Texas: Concrete floors, a massive wood bar, decorations both cowboy and kitsch, including several signs welcoming the bikers who were not there. Really — so far — all that gives it away is bras hanging by the scores above the mirror on the back bar and a T-shirt vending machine in the back. More than $6 for a Coyote Ugly koozie.

But it wasn't long after I sat down that a few more people began to trickle in, including a young woman celebrating her 21st birthday. The microphone came out, the performance began, with our MC and chief bartender exhorting the meager crowd to donate money for a "body shot."

To quote the birthday girl, who is standing unsteadily on the bar: "Whooooooo! Body shots!"

Later, a new birthday girl and her three friends have taken to the bar top to dance briefly. It's an unnerving experience to see eight legs parading past one's beer, all belonging to women of uncertain sobriety and bar dancing skill. I retreat to a table.

By this point the crowd has doubled to just over 20 people. Half the women in the place are on top of the bar, but it's neither sexy nor exciting. The whole scene, at least on this night, is a little sad. The crowd only really comes alive to sing along briefly to "We Will Rock You" on one of those digital jukeboxes that have all the soul of an empty bucket.

I had come to Coyote Ugly with the intention of documenting how it wasn't very Texas. Turns out, it wasn't very much of anything.

Donn's Depot

1600 W. Fifth St.

No cover, $3 Shiner draft

Real Texas Experience: 85 percent

Oldster ratio: At least 50 percent

The converted rail station and adjoining box cars is as Texas as can be, but on a quiet Thursday midnight I'm not inspired. The lighting in the front room makes me feel for all the world like I'm in a Spaghetti Warehouse, not at a historic bar.

It's not until the band — Murphy's Inlaws, clearly enjoying themselves despite the sparse crowd — plays Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" that I get it. The band sings, "There's a lot of doctors that tell me / I gotta start slowing it down / but there's more old drunks than there are old doctors / so I guess I better have another round."

And I'm thinking, "hey, look at all the silver hair in here." Even the youngsters are my age. This is where the grown-ups are. It gives me hope that if they let me out in 20 years, I might have somewhere to go.

I venture around the corner, and the bar turns darker, but in a comfortable way. The dance floor is the most crowded spot in the joint, dancers shuffling to Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakum songs.

Don't mind the Stella Artois and the Steed pinot noir; the bartenders are just as happy to hand out Miller and Bud, and friendly, too.

A bonus: Other reports about Donn's invariably mention the women's restroom is a caboose with red shag carpeting and is groovy.

Rebel's Honky-Tonk

305 W. Fifth St.

No cover, $3 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 50 percent

College student ratio: I'd guess 75 percent

If you squeeze through the crowds on a Friday midnight, shimmy all the way to the back and squint real hard in the direction of the mechanical bull, Rebel's just might look like the hippest place in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

But of course, the Stockyards are the real deal, a Sixth Street for cowboys, hicks and rednecks. At Rebel's, you only need to open your eyes fully to realize that a deer mount with a good-sized rack could hang every cowboy hat in this joint.

The place is jam-packed with youngsters, many of whom are gamely two-stepping to generic country-pop. The telling detail, however, is this: When the rap music kicks in, the dance floor fills up, rather than thins out the way it does at Midnight Rodeo or Dallas.

At some point after the Black Eyed Peas' "The Time," the dance floor stands still for what seems to be (from my vantage point at the bar) a hip-hop dance battle. It'll be 20 minutes before country music returns. Sort of.

In the meantime, the bartenders are hypnotizing. These 16 words mean my wife will never let me return, but ... you are essentially being served beer by a farm girl pin-up calendar come to life.

Not as riveting, the mechanical bull looks pretty tame by "Urban Cowboy" standards. That doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of the would-be honky-tonkers lined up to fill out the waivers and put their brains on the spin cycle.

After paying $7 for parking not-so-nearby and braving the downtown madness, I had secretly hoped Rebel's would be, if not all that authentic, then at least a lot of fun. Instead I come away feeling older than Methuselah.

Dallas

7113 Burnet Road

No cover, $1 Lone Star

Real Texas Experience: 20 percent

Hipster ratio: I don't think a hipster could tap enough irony to make it 5 minutes in here.

I hadn't yet sat down before the music switched from Travis Tritt to "Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me."

Let's get straight to the point: There's nothing Texas about Dallas beyond the occasional George Strait song. The first word I wrote in my notebook was "preposterous."

The place is huge, all right, with a half-dozen bars and a large dance floor, but it feels like a convention hall dressed up for a hoe-down. Every time the DJ mentioned it was somebody's birthday, I half-expected the waitresses to gather 'round and sing to them. The place smells good.

The dance floor had three giant posts in the middle, each covered in stone, and I have to wonder how many dancers under the influence of $1 beers have crashed into them. As a man who once dropped a dance partner on her head in front of Don Walser at Jovita's, I speak from experience.

This night, there is no impending sense of dance disaster. The crowd here is well-practiced save for one fellow in a UT engineering T-shirt dancing stiffly with his date.

After nearly 10 minutes of dance / rap / hip-hop, with a ring of cowboy hats patiently encircling the dance floor, the DJ brings us back to country (sort of) and the floor fills up with Kenny Chesney look-alikes and meticulously groomed older folks and all manner of men and women looking for each other.

Finding the right words for this urban marvel is difficult. But it's easy enough to say that what the Broken Spoke has in soul, Dallas has in sheen. It's a far piece from an even trade.

If you think I'm being too hard on the place, don't fret. When I left at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, the crowds were pouring in. I'd go line dancing before I'd go back. But they won't miss me.