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Meet the bartender: Ryan Thomas talks working the trenches of SXSW

Emma Janzen

Austin hosts its fair share of conventions and events throughout the year, but South by Southwest wins the prize on the volume of people who fly in from all over the world and crowd our downtown streets.

For many, the festival is a chance to celebrate the electricity of live music, discover new films or learn a thing or two at Interactive panels. For others, it's the best time of the year to seek out cheap booze and party for days on end. For people like Ryan Thomas, it's a series of not-quite-so-normal nights at work.

Dealing with hoards of thirsty visitors creates unmatched chaos for Thomas and other downtown bartenders during the hectic days of SXSW. They don't get days off. They work multiple double shifts. They deal with foreigners who are used to drinking obscure liquids and might not speak perfect English. The job also requires a lot of stamina, coordination and patience.

Thomas, a bartending veteran who has worked behind a number of bars in the Sixth Street area during SXSW, has seen more than his fair share of festival madness. Four and a half of those years have been staffing the bar at Dirty Dog, where he currently works. We talked with him about working in the trenches at an official music venue during SXSW, and why he keeps coming back for more.

American-Statesman: How did you get into bartending?

Ryan Thomas: I started bartending while working at the Student Union at UT for a catering company. The first bar I worked at was Fat Tuesdays on Sixth Street, and they furthered my training.

What has compelled you to stay behind the bar for so long?

I went to UT for engineering, I initially just started bartending for money, but after a while it sucked me in and I knew what I should be doing.

What's your favorite part of the job?

I make a living having fun and meeting new people. Many of my closest friends are the people that I have met through bartending.

Least favorite part of the job?

It doesn't leave much time for family functions, since the majority of my shifts are nights, weekends and holidays.

What's your drink of choice off the clock?

My drinks of choice are bourbons, Basil Hayden or Bookers, both on the rocks. For beer, its Fireman's #4 or Agave Wheat.

How many years have you been behind the bar for SXSW?

This will be my 13th year of SXSW, of which 12 years I have been bartending. I worked two years at Fat Tuesdays, one of those years as head of security and one bartending. Then I worked at the Vibe for five years, where I bartended, managed and was co-owner. After the Vibe, I took over Hot Shots Bar as the general manager and turned it into the small music venue the Troubadour Saloon. I was there for a little over two years. I was then hired at the Dirty Dog Bar where I have been for almost four and a half years bartending.

How does a SXSW shift differ from a normal shift?

SXSW differs from a normal shift because it is mayhem. Anything can happen, anybody could walk through your door. Also, the (congestion on) Sixth Street can be a little overwhelming sometimes.

What makes the job harder during SXSW?

The hours during SXSW can almost kill you. It is nonstop with no downtime.

What's one of the craziest things you've seen while at work during SXSW?

Through my years of working SXSW, I've seen a lot of crazy things, I'm not going to mention names or bars, but one that stands out the most is when a famous actor decided he wanted to bartend toward the end of a SXSW night shift, it was like a hurricane, a complete (mess).

Do you like listening to the music at your bar during the fest? What has been your favorite show so far?

While working SXSW, I have been introduced to a wide variety of music and bands, many of which I would of never heard of if it wasn't for SXSW, such as Lucero. But my favorite show I've seen was Hank III at the Vibe around eight years ago during a day show. He came out in an old-school suit and cowboy hat playing some of his granddaddy's songs, then turns it up a notch, pulls off his cowboy hat and his dreads fall out and the show is on, he continues to play his, his dad's and granddaddy's songs throughout.

Any advice for out-of-towners at the fest?

For everybody coming out of town, I know things are different everywhere, but we tip here and for the love of God, quit asking for ginger ale, because all you're going to get is Sprite with a splash of Coke and maybe a lime if you're lucky.