Houston's bar world is one notch better lately with the return of longtime Houston barista/scenester Rich Hornbuckle to active duty at Under the Volcano as general manager. After six crazy years (1993-98) as part of the Blue Iguana ownership group, Hornbuckle captained the bar at The Stables on Main for eight years until it was closed and demolished in 2006.
He has the bar from The Stables in his warehouse/home in southwest Houston, and would gladly serve us a drink from it, “Except it‘s completely covered in power tools and junk because I build stuff all the time.”
Hornbuckle, who began working in bars in Austin “the day I turned 21,” also had a long stint at the Gingerman, where he was a bar back in 1988 and general manager until 1991; he was also part of the group that opened Live Bait. This is his second tour at Under the Volcano, where he worked 19 years ago at what he describes as then “a college dive bar.”
Rich Hornbuckle's "National Geographic, The Musical, Part 4: Texas and Surrounding Influences"
On a recent trip to Under the Volcano, we found Hornbuckle clad in a vintage Flamin’ Hellcats “Texas Vato-Billy” T-shirt and engaging patrons in an extemporaneous display of bar knowledge that ranged across time-honored subjects from Heckyll and Jeckyll cartoons to remedial English, the fundamentals of bureaucratic indecision, and the Aldine-Permian state championship football game (I went to Permian, Hornbuckle went to Aldine; Permian won).
Indeed, Hornbuckle is a fount of knowledge on all things Aldine. His mother Cassie retired from the school district and Hornbuckle himself taught remedial English at Eisenhower High School for a number of years. He was known as “the Spam Man” to his students for the artsy stacks of Spam cans that decorated his classroom and often served as the subject when making up examples of sentences during grammar lessons.
In fact, I met Rich Hornbuckle when, for some ungodly wrong-headed reason, I decided teaching high school journalism would be a brilliant career move. We met one day sitting in the back of a long-winded after-school faculty meeting where a gaggle of ex-coaches who became assistant principals because they could spell better than the other coaches and puffed-sleeve world-savers who didn’t believe in sex or drugs or rock and roll rattled on about the rules and regulations of teenager-hood, of which, really, there basically are none - no matter what Palin and McCain say.
During one excruciatingly inane monologue by our Student Council sponsor, I mumbled something about wishing they’d shut up so we could go get a beer, which is what every sane teacher craves at 3 in the afternoon. Hornbuckle’s left eyebrow arched upward in that nasty Jack Nicholson way when Jack has decided to wreak havoc on those witches from Eastwick.
Rich Hornbuckle, "Gulf Shrimp Round-Up"
We went to an “off-limits” bar near the school later and we’ve been buddies ever since: drinking buddies, music buddies, art buddies, literature buddies. Both of us had more business in a bar than we ever had in a parent conference or a PTA meeting.
According to my significant other, who used to be on the board of the Art League of Houston, Hornbuckle is a satirist of pop art (he’s also a satyrist, but that’s another story). And he makes it at stupid speed. He once rented a room from a Stables coworker, who had just gotten married, and immediately rewarded his friend by covering the entire garage -- walls, ceilings, floor, garage door -- with a humungous pop collage.
My significant other opines: “There’s no pretension in his art, I mean he’s painting one minute then he just chucks his paint brush in a can of solvent and hauls ass to the bar to make you the best Gibson you’ve ever tasted. He puts his shit together in a few hours and goes about his business while most of our so-called 'true artists' ponder and self-mutilate for years in order to produce a sculpture of a broken sculptor or an entirely black canvas.”
Some may remember Hornbuckle for some of the edgiest commercial spots ever run on radio in this town. His slice-of-Montrose-life spots for the Blue Iguana were beyond zany. Hornbuckle also has a generous collection of posters from the Iguana that include items touting the earliest Flamin’ Hellcats shows as well as Beat Temple, Southern Backtones, Jesse Dayton and the Sundowners.
Hornbuckle was also an early supporter of Horseshoe, whose Blue Iguana shows are the stuff of legend. But possibly the most important musical accomplishment of Hornbuckle’s long bar career is having a hand in bringing L’il Joe Washington back onto the scene.
“Joe would come in the Iguana and want some money or just anything. So we went to a pawn shop and bought a guitar that we kept at the bar for him," he says. "I told him he couldn’t take the guitar out of the bar, but he could play it anytime we didn’t have a band. He eventually developed a good turnout that put some money in his pocket. And this was before he became kind of a fixture at the Continental.”
What’s been the hardest thing about coming back into the bar world after doing remodeling projects and building decks the past two years?
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“Just doing the homework, for one. We have so many drinks here to remember recipes for," he says. "I was literally doing several hours of homework a night getting some of the stuff back in my head. Also, things move so fast behind this bar, I felt very old the first few weeks, like I couldn‘t keep up.”
“The number of old Stables customers who’ve started showing up here. It’s like finding old family you thought you’d lost.” - William Michael Smith
Find a brief sampling of Hornbuckle’s collage art at www.myspace.com/ricolocodetejas