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Ray Hennig, Heart of Texas music store owner, dies at 91

Peter Blackstock,
Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas music store was a fixture on South Lamar Boulevard for decades. [Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman 2004]

Ray Hennig, whose Heart of Texas music store was a fixture on South Lamar Boulevard for decades, died Thursday, Sun Radio DJ and former KVUE-TV weatherman Mark Murray noted in a social media post on Friday. Murray wrote that Hennig’s son, Steve Hennig, called to tell him of Ray’s death at age 91.

“Ray Hennig was a father figure and a great friend to many Austin musicians,” Murray wrote. “His son says that a celebration of Ray's life will be held at an appropriate time in the future.”

Hennig’s store was an anchor of the Lamar Square shopping center from 1974 until the early 2010s, when it was torn down to make way for a new residential complex and a redesigned Alamo Drafthouse theater that currently occupy the location.

In Hennig’s memory, we’re republishing this profile of him that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman in April 1998.

By Abby Kaighin

He is the man who sold Stevie Ray Vaughan his guitar.

In Austin, where a life-size bronze statue of the late hometown blues icon stands somber watch over Town Lake and music is not merely something to listen to, but a way of life, that alone is enough to raise Ray Hennig to legend status for some. But Hennig and his music store at 1002 S. Lamar Blvd. have become much more than that.

Shiner beer lovers have the Spoetzl Brewery. Texas history buffs can remember the Alamo. Music and guitar aficionados have Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas Music store.

When broadcasters and music critics come to town, they often do interviews at Heart of Texas Music. When guitar slingers from around the world tour Austin, many stop in their version of Mecca.

“We’ve had tour buses of foreigners come here,” Hennig said. The international visitors know of the place from articles like the one in a European music magazine that featured Vaughan, relying heavily on quotes from Hennig as well as Vaughan’s brother, Austin musician Jimmie Vaughan.

Yet 69-year-old Hennig, with his curly gray locks and grandfatherly smile, downplays any brushes he has had with fame. “This is just a salesman job,” he said. A salesman job he and employees at Heart of Texas Music are apparently good at.

“Ray was the No. 1 Fender dealer in all of Texas and probably the Southwest,” said Howie Friedman, the Dallas-based representative of Fender Musical Instruments Corp. Fender includes among its products the signature SRV Stratocaster made famous by the late Vaughan.

For the most part, Heart of Texas’ competitors are mainly other mom-and-pop shops. But that may soon change. Just as neighborhood five-and-dimes were overrun by the WalMarts and Kmarts of the world, Hennig’s store soon will face a Goliath-sized music chain from Florida.

Mars Music and Recording Super Store, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., plans to open a 35,000-to-40,000-square-foot store in Austin at 2000 E. 41st St. by the end of the year. The chain, started by a former president of Office Depot, opened its first store in Tampa in March 1997 and has been expanding at the rate of one store per month. It already has one store in Dallas and two in Houston.

For now, Hennig isn’t worried. “I’m too busy taking care of my own business,” he said. “I don’t worry about my competition other than I’m going to kick their butts."

Hennig’s business started almost by accident.

In the 1950s, when Hennig owned a lumberyard in the Texas town of McGregor (population 5,000), he used to play in a band on weekends. One of the musicians he played with wanted to teach guitar lessons. Hennig bought a little building and “made it fancy” so his friend could teach there.

Soon, people would stop in wanting to buy guitars. Hennig drove to nearby Waco, bought a guitar for $129 and resold it at a profit. He ended up buying the guitar store in Waco in 1962 and built a devoted clientele by helping struggling musicians.

During nearly four decades, he has loaned his fair share of guitars. He recalls a time when he had to give the fledgling Stevie Ray Vaughan a set of $6 strings.

“I was raised as a very Christian person, so I operate the business in a Christian manner,’” he said. “I helped a lot of desperate musicians. There's nothing lower in life to a banker than a musician.”

It wasn’t just lending instruments that made Hennig a favorite among musicians. “They’d come in with traffic tickets and I’d promise to pay them,” he said.

Eventually, Charles Hatchett, an Austin attorney who also had a promotion and booking agency, said, “Why don't you just come to Austin?” He did.

Heart of Texas Music has been at its current location — “South of the river with the prettiest neon sign” — since 1974. Hennig’s brother Tommy runs the Waco store, and a friend manages another store in Temple. Hennig’s son Shane and wife, Mary Jo, help run the Austin store.

Hennig said he relates to the superstars more on a “personal basis than as musicians.” Once stars have made it big, it’s often their roadies who come to the store. “If you're big enough, the companies will send you guitars directly,” he adds.

Hennig has sold countless guitars over the years, but none more famous than the 1959 Sunburst Fender Stratocaster that Stevie Ray Vaughan bought there and later modified.

When asked how Vaughan’s success helped Hennig, Fender representative Friedman suggested reversing the question.

“Stevie’s talent got him where he was,” Friedman said. “But his No. 1 Stratocaster was an old beat-up beast he bought from Ray.''