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The Last Dance for Blanco's: Houston's Only Old-School Honky-Tonk Closes Its Doors

After 31 years, the River Oaks bar and music venue says good-bye.

Turn on the lights, the party's over.

MissLeslie: "I'm frustrated as hell it's closing."

When the lights come up at Blanco's at 2 a.m. Sunday morning, that will spell the end of Blanco's, the River Oaks bar, restaurant and music venue that already seems transplanted from another time and place. With its low ceilings, hardwood dance floor and unelevated bandstand, Blanco's is much closer to a traditional Texas honky-tonk than any other venue in the Houston area. Since it opened, in 1982, Blanco's has hosted hundreds of acts from all over the country-music spectrum, but mostly local and regional artists who don't put too much pop or rock in their country and whose rhythms seldom get more complicated than two-step or waltz time.

Its closest counterpart in the state is probably the Broken Spoke, the South Austin staple that also seems threatened by the pace of life in the 21st century. But the end of Blanco's was spelled out not by new high-rise condos or pricey townhomes, which would be believable enough considering its ritzy ZIP code, but by a new landlord that was also an old neighbor.

On December 31 of last year, elite Houston prep school St. John's (where Rushmore was partially filmed) bought 13-plus acres due west of its South Campus from the Henry J. Taub family, heirs of late Houston businessman/philanthropist Ben Taub. According to the school's Web site, the addition, on which Blanco's happens to be sitting, will increase the size of the St John's campus by 33 percent.

"I tell you what, it's just so sad, because we've been here for so long," says Blanco's co-owner Karin Barnes, who manages the bar. "We have such a steady regular clientele. It's very sad for everybody.

"Of course, it's been really busy right now, so that helps ease the pain," she ruefully laughs.

Blanco's cultivated a large crowd of regulars over the years, who came to love the bar as much for its home-cooked lunches and greasy burgers as for the live music at night. Some of its most loyal patrons were members of various Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo committees, who held meetings at the bar and often stayed to dance to the evening's entertainment.

"They're devastated, too," Barnes says. "We've had several parties already, the rodeo people, and we'll have another private party next Thursday. This is part of their lives."

Traditionally, Blanco's reserved Saturday nights for private parties, but this Saturday it will sign off with a 2 p.m.-2 a.m. multi-band blowout that promises to leave not one full longneck unconsumed. But on most Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, the dance floor was open for business. A short list of the acts that appeared on Blanco's stage includes Chris Wall, Cooder Graw, Hollisters, Jim Lauderdale, Jesse Dayton, Jason Allen, Derailers, Cornell Hurd Band, and locals like Kenefick (who plays Friday night), Amber Digby, Snit's Dog & Pony Show and Mike Stinson.

"Oh, they're all very sad," says Barnes of her musicians. "There is not another venue [in town] where the bands can play like they have here. Gary P. Nunn, Dale Watson, we've even had Cory MorrowRoger Creager, Kevin Fowler in their earlier days, when they first started."

Musicians are certainly less than pleased with the situation.

"I'm just frustrated as hell that it's closing," says local country singer Miss Leslie, whose band the Juke Jointers have been regulars at the bar for years, and whose father, Country Jim Sloan, hosted open-mike nights at Blanco's for a spell.

"It's like, how many millions of people do we have in this town, and we can only have one?" she adds. "And now it's going away?"

Barnes says she hasn't even had a chance to consider what she might do once Blanco's closes. It sounds like she hasn't had time.

"You can see how much people like it, because our business has been booming," she says. "But I really don't know yet.

"I still wish we could find a place that would fit our venue," adds Barnes. "People are still looking."

 
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