It sounds like the start of a joke; a lawyer, an artist and a restaurateur walk into a strip mall in a city suburb and open a bar. Except this is no joke and there is no punchline, it is the true story of Cowboy Surfer, a new bar and music venue in Memorial.
Cowboy Surfer was the brainchild and labor of love of Houston lawyer and developer Jim Jard, designer and restaurateur Carl Eaves and longtime Houston artist Jack Massing who was one half of the beloved and inventive duo, The Art Guys.
The three creative men met years back through mutual friends and connections in Houston’s busy art community. Massing and Eaves have a long friendship centered around restaurants and the art world. The two worked together to create the impressive interior of Liberty Kitchen.
In 2013, Massing and his Art Guys partner Michael Galbreth, who passed away in 2019, were celebrating their 30th year as The Art Guys. To mark the occasion, the duo set out to perform 12 Events highlighting 12 ordinary and everyday activities in Houston.
One of the events included driving the 610 loop for 24 hours straight. For the drive, Massing cold called Jard knowing he was a developer in the Spring Branch and Memorial areas and Jard provided them with the van used for their event.
From there, all three men met, leading Eaves to share his long time draw to the concept of a surfing cowboy, a name he wanted to use for a project but was never really clear on what to do with it.
In November of 2020, the three opened their cozy bar in the unassuming strip mall off Gessner. They celebrated with a string of grand opening events allowing people multiple opportunities to fill the space and get to know their new, friendly neighborhood bar.
“I think we've created a space that, it's not the fact that it looks great, it’s intimate. If it was twice the size, I don't think it would be anything like what it is right now,” says Eaves of the old school feeling bar.
Behind the blacked out windows, Cowboy Surfer not only serves cocktails and food, but is also filled with fascinating original artwork, photographs, historical artifacts dubbed the “C.S. Museum” and a small yet complete stage.
The bar features large prints of iconic photographs of the famous Gilley’s in Pasadena and an impressive eight foot print by Houston artist Carlos Hernandez. Massing himself pressed and rounded out countless Texas sized belt buckles which are used to line the beautiful bar.
“It’s like a tapestry you're weaving,” says Massing of creating an interactive space for patrons. “I’ve always been a proponent of the art world intersecting with other worlds because too often, it’s separate.”
“We wanted a place where local people could almost mix with arty people,” adds Jard.
All three partners are admirers of music of all genres with Jard having grown up in Houston and experiencing our city's ever growing music scene firsthand as a friend and fan of musicians since the ‘60s.
During the pandemic, they often worried about musicians in the Houston area and brainstormed ways to help out, initially considering offering scholarships or hosting fundraisers.
After using some of his more famous friends like Ryan Bingham and Billy F. Gibbons as a sounding board, they decided that instead of handing out financial help, they could provide a place for artists to play and cut their teeth.
Cowboy Surfer has been hosting open mike nights on Wednesday and the trio has been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest and professionalism that rolls onto their stage on a weekly basis. The venue is equipped with a solid sound system and in house instruments in case a band might need to borrow a guitar or drum kit.
“It’s crazy how many good people play,” says Jard. “They have five or six piece bands but they'll just come with two people cause they just want to get out and play again."
Cowboy Surfer is considering expanding the open mike to another night of the week due to their success. A few months ago, they sunk their feet deeper into the venue world by hosting Sunday night concerts featuring local and out of state artists. They currently have a full line up for the months of July and August with a small number of tickets available for each performance.
All three partners laugh when they recall what swamp pop legend C.C. Adcock expressed in disbelief after playing there saying, “I played in Paris, I played in Rome, I never thought I’d play in a strip center in Houston.”
They also hope to expand to include many genres of music, supporting not only established Houston artists but up and coming talent as well. Beyond music, they hope to host “Culture Nights” where Houstonians can come and learn about various subjects ranging from motorcycles to literature.
All three partners agree on maintaining a firm $20 ticket price to keep the shows accessible, as many small listening rooms often come with a hefty price tag for music lovers but they also pride themselves on paying artists fairly while providing them dinner and drinks.
"It's always a small world and your reputation or your work precedes you in those small worlds so we've all been fortunate in that we keep our word and we are respectful of artists. We may not be respectful of certain politicians or certain business people, but artists we are," says Jard sincerely.
In a city of more than two million people, there is definitely space for a new music venue in town and especially one as characteristically Houston as Cowboy Surfer which reflects the city’s wide range of interests and influences. “You can say this is a regional bar in an international city. It's a regional bar, but we're so international that it's not southern, it's not anything, you're just part of the mosaic of Houston,” describes Jard accurately.
“There's room for everybody,” says Eaves. “In fact, I think it helps it. I think it just opens more people's ears and eyes to live music and then they get to see it more and like it more. A lot of people have never seen a live concert in their life.”
The small space lends itself to listening for the intimate performances where a real sense of respect for the music and the space is palpable between the artists and patrons.
Blending cowboys and surfers is an odd couple for sure, but one that makes sense in some corners of the world, including Texas. Jard remembers a time in his youth when as a long haired surfer, he and his friends would be pushed around by the local cowboys.
Jard saw firsthand how the red headed stranger, Willie Nelson paved the way for pot smoking hippies to sway shoulder to shoulder to country music along with the more conservative cowboy crowd.
When asked what they think the two have in common Massing answers, “A positive attitude and they're all gentlemen. They ride with nature. Ride a wave or a horse, you're connected to nature and that brings out the humanity of man, it really does. It's interesting to think about how different people come from different areas, but they have a sensitivity to what they handle.”
Cowboy Surfer, 827 Frostwood, is open seven days a week. For more information, visit cowboysurferbar.com.
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