On a recent Friday afternoon, Anthony Head, author of Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State, is sitting in Warren’s Inn in downtown Houston, ready to talk about his new book.
“Texas A&M (University Press) made me change the subtitle of the book to Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State and not the original title, which was a mouthful, but it was essentially The Bars, Clubs, Watering Holes that Lubricate the Lone Star State and they made me change it 'cause they said lubricate is an off-putting word," says Head. “It sounded sexual, I guess?
“I said: 'Where is your mind?' and then I pulled up all these studies to show them that alcohol is called a social lubricant — why can't we have that but I went with them on that one and now of course I have to write in the back of the book that two of these bars are closed which kind of goes against the enduring part.
"I wish we would have stuck with the original.”
Sadly, the two bars in the book that have closed were local favorites: Alice’s Tall Texan which was in Houston for decades and The Wizzard down in Galveston. Both bars have been immortalized in Head’s book in his carefully crafted words and through great photos by Kirk Weddle, an internationally renowned photographer. (Weddle took the famous photo of a naked baby boy swimming underwater with a U.S. dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach used on the front cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, one of the best-selling albums of all time.)
“I have found when I first put out a bunch of press releases nobody was interested and then when I said I'm a former editor of Bon Appétit magazine and Kirk Weddle took the most famous shot in modern rock'n'roll history and we wrote a book about dive bars and then all of a sudden people paid attention,” Head says.
Head and Weddle worked together on a national industry magazine about the alcohol business called The Tasting Panel and they were the Texas team with their own column called A Lone Star Life where they essentially had the freedom to write about anything related to alcohol in Texas.
“So, after you know so many vineyards and breweries and distilleries and Four Seasons we really realized what we always do after the gig is go to dive bars and just have a drink and relax and so we started going to dive bars and writing about it for the column and that's what we've been thinking about this book for over ten years but yes in 2018 we started serious writing, researching and photography for the book and we finished up in December 2019 and then COVID hit three months later.
"So, there's a bit of a time lag between what we wrote about and what is going on today but everything that's going on in the book is still going on in bars around Texas, so I think the content is still relevant here.”
Looking through the book one of the bars outside of Houston that looks and sounds like a cool place is the Texas T Pub in San Antonio; the bar is owned by Adela Fuller. Her younger sister Terry Loera is the bar’s manager.
“I don't know why this surprised Kirk and I, and I don't know if we should be ashamed that it surprised us, but almost half of the bars were female-owned or female-run so it is as much a woman's game as a man's game now on this side of the bar,” Head explains. “It's skewed very heavily male in terms of customers but on that side of the bar and the people who are running it it's as many women as men and these bars often get handed down on the women side of the family I did not know that and I don't know why I was surprised to hear that but we were really proud to pick up on that and so the Texas T was one of them, Alice is one of them, and The Wizzard was another one”.
Alice’s Tall Texan has been closed for two years now, after 36 years in business; it was a victim of COVID according to former owner Alice Ward. Alice’s felt more like a small Texas town watering hole than a bar in Houston in many ways; it will be remembered as a very friendly, welcoming place no matter what your background or age was. It was the kind of place where strangers offered to buy you beers all night with no ulterior motives and the regulars brought in homemade food to share.
The bar did reopen as the Tall Texan 2 earlier this year under new ownership and the one time I dropped in Alice herself was sitting at the bar having a drink. It’s not quite the same as there have been some design changes and of course Alice is no longer here slinging beers. Also, the bar now has a full liquor license. Head says he has not visited the new iteration yet.
"What I loved about Alice's was the old cowboy wallpaper she had on her walls that was great stuff,” Head says. “I would have loved to have had that on my childhood bedroom. That was a cool place to go.”
It's understandable if a new owner takes over the location of a place he or she would like to put their own vision into what the place will be going forward into the future. And it's better that the place continues on in the same location as a bar with the Tall Texan name rather than it be turned into a mattress store or something.
The Wizzard location down in Galveston has also reopened and is now called The Alibi; A great photo of The Wizzard at night with its distinctive circular window and neon open sign is featured on the cover of Texas Dives. Glynda Oglesby retired from running The Wizzard in early 2021.
“The new bar is the same space. She owns the building, so she has retired from slinging drinks and now she's just enjoying her retirement,” Head says with a smile. “But she is an incredible supporter of this book and she's a real character. I mean that sounds almost facetious in this book but of all the bar owners we met I think she was my favorite because she just let people have it. ‘It's a cash only bar, be a man carry cash, you can write that you can put that in your book.’ I mean she wasn't mean, but she was ornery, and I loved it.”
The Wizzard had a curated CD Jukebox and one CD was of the Texas A&M marching band. I don't know whether that continues under the new ownership. IAlice’s Tall Texan had its own CD jukebox that was legendary for a time as well.
“I have a real fondness for those old CD jukes and always consider that a point in the favor of the bar we were considering if they had a real CD Juke,” says Head. “We never found anybody that played 45s. I don't know if they're still around except in private collections, but I agree with you on your word curated that somebody in the bar took the time to put all those CDs in there so that those CDs represented the vibe that the bar wanted and now it's just game on and I don't like it.
"I don't like it but they say it's very hard to keep those little jukeboxes running and with an Internet jukebox they can have it up and going in a couple hours so it was very sad for me because in the time that we went to a couple bars and then went back they had to get rid of their jukeboxes and it's very sad 'cause that's one of those pieces of — I don't know if they were made in America originally — but that's Americana that is fading.”
Head mentions very enthusiastically the other distinctive features he loved about The Wizzard.
I asked Head if there is a difference between a dive bar and a neighborhood bar in his mind.
“No there's not a difference. The whole idea of using the terms interchangeably is because I believe that our dictionaries have let us down and I believe that the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster have definitions for dive as something of ill repute or disrepute, and if you actually break that word down it basically means we think this place has something bad going on. So neighborhood bars have been called dive bars once people stop realizing what's going on in there and nothing's going on in there.
“Glynda at the Wizzard put it perfectly. She said that people would come by, and they'd look in the window and they just keep walking and she said, ‘It's just an old lady in here come on in and say hi’ but people are scared to walk into places like that,” Head elaborates. "So, no I perfectly stand behind the point that I was just making that it's just a misunderstanding in our language that has failed us.
"Adela Fuller who's the owner at the Texas T, she really did not like the term dive bar and then this book came out and now she loves it! She just, she grew up thinking a dive was a low-class establishment and nobody wants that. You know it's hard to embrace anything low-class, but the misconception is that it is low-class. I'm looking around at just a couple people that are in here (Warren’s Inn) and my guess is that all of them are gainfully employed in one way or another, but they don't work a typical nine to five shift and they just need a place to go.”
Asked if he has a favorite bar out of the 12 across the state that he visited; Head replies:
“You can't ask me that! You can't ask me that.” Head exclaims.” “My favorite bar is the next bar I'm going to and the bar I just came from. I mean really, I love these places I became a bartender when I was 21 and I when I was working at Bon Appétit magazine that's when I started writing about alcohol, so I have been in the industry from various sites for an awful long time and so this is, this is really something that has been passionately growing in me for a long time. If you can be passionate about dive bars, I'm the guy that's that person. And Kirk is too that's how why we're so simpatico and why his photos just, they really fill in the holes of the text. They just go together so well.”
Head adds, “We decided to not call these the best dive bars here and it doesn't matter because every bar is putting out their own press saying we were named one of the best dives in Texas, but we say in the introduction these are not the best dives. That's like saying your favorite place to live in Texas, you can have your favorite but they're all winners. Plus, we haven't been to all of them so we can't compare them. We're just saying these are twelve really cool bars of which ten survive.”
Head even found a blues dive bar in Dallas that looks chill called The Goat.
I shared with Head that at this point in my life, I'm at the age where I like going to bars in the daytime when I do go out because it's more mellow, it's more laid-back and you can have a good conversation with a stranger. For me, when you go out at night sometimes it's too crowded, it's too rowdy for me. I'm getting a little tired of that scene, I don't like being around a bunch of loud drunk people.
“I absolutely agree with you and Kirk and I made a conscious choice that we were gonna look for the bars that opened early because those really helped fill out the category and because you're right, at night time the bar kind of turns into something different, and the glories of being in a dive bar before the sun goes down, it's just a a different place, it's different people, it’s a different vibe, and it's much more enjoyable in my mind. I'm the same way, maybe it's my age but maybe it’s that I lost so much hearing. But I just enjoy being able now to have a good conversation over a drink in a bar versus the other agendas I may have had as a younger unmarried man.”
A common theme of the bars featured in the book is that they are places that value community and friendship, fellowship.
“One of the misconceptions about neighborhood bars is that, and I gotta tell you it was a writer from Houston that really upset me and made me, and Kirk really get determined to get this book out because of too many cliches about dive bars are that they're not filled with good people that they're places of hopelessness. But dives are neighborhood bars, they're way up at the top of charity giving. They put together charity dinners for their old customers, their customers who die. Little League teams, softball teams, these establishments are very involved in their neighborhoods which is why they outlast a lot of businesses.”
Head adds, “When you get a place like Alice’s the patrons develop a sense of proprietary feelings about it and so they feel like the bar is theirs as much as it is the owners and so there's a code of conduct that's different for every bar but it's an unwritten code of conduct and the patrons will enforce it as much as the bartender or manager and that does not include drunkenness. That does not include sloppiness. That is frowned upon and every time we saw that happen, we said that's the system working that's the system working here we didn't see it too many times but when it happened, they said we're sorry about that and I said no that that tells me you care about your establishment.”
Head tells me that many people who are fans of the book have reached out to him and have said they use it as a bucket list of places to visit and the book has been named the number two travel guide for the entire state of Texas on Amazon. Another plus side of the book is the introduction written by Beaumont-born Americana and country musician Jesse Dayton.
“Kirk Weddle knew him and asked him to do it and he said yes right away 'cause he had grown up in places like this where he was playing dive bars so he said yeah absolutely. So, he wrote the foreword and we're hoping to get him to come out for a couple of these shows but the man's blowing up. He was in Australia last week and he's started a new label so he's got like no time in the world but he is surfing on a wild ride of exposure right now that is really great seeing. And his song “Daddy Was a Bad Ass,” there's never been a better song written, it's a great song.”
Johnny's Gold Brick, that's the conversation and you can drop in at any time, pick it up and move on, so you know it's laid back and so am I.”
The Texas Dives Book Tour brings Anthony Head and Kirk Weddle to Houston on September 6 at Johnny’s Goldbrick and Warren’s Inn on September 7 as tributes to Alice’s Tall Texan; the book signing, reading, and talking tour takes them to Galveston at The Alibi on September 13 as a tribute to The Wizzard. Austin singer-songwriter Sid Grimes plays Texas country at all three local tour stops.