The Best Bar in Austin Is Sam’s Town PointApril 4, 2019
The first thing you need to know about going to Sam’s Town Point (2115 Allred Dr) is if you blink you just might miss it. Austin's best dive bar and juke joint is also relatively little known, at least compared to other venerable Austin dives—Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon, Deep Eddy Cabaret, Carousel Lounge—perhaps because the 31-year-old institution resides far south of the city, away from its ever-growing spotlight.
You know what they say about that city, Austin—it was always way cooler at some other time in the past, some time around the day the person you are hearing about it from got there, but long before you arrived. Maybe it was the 1960s when the 13th Floor Elevators began rearranging minds with their lysergic, howling, psychedelic proto-punk on whatever stage was controlled by people brave enough to host them. Or maybe it was the early 1970s, when Waylon and Willie forged that peace treaty between hippies and rednecks over clanking Lone Star longneck bottles and beneath clouds of Mexican shake weed at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Or maybe it was Clifford Antone’s first iterations of Antone’s—where Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds rose from bar bands to classic rock staples—or still later, when places like Club Foot and Raul’s incubated Texas punk via bands like the Dicks, the Big Boys, and Butthole Surfers.
It’s at places like Sam’s Town Point where you can begin to cotton on to what the fuss over the Austin of yesteryear has always been about.
Getting there is a trip, in the 13th Floor Elevators sense. One second you are in Austin-style Brady Bunch suburbia and then you take a turn back into the Austin of, well, shit, the only word is yore. Meaning like 1979 yore. Allred Dr., Sam’s home, is still quasi-rural, a landscape of vacant grasslands and little groves of bent, twisted oak trees. Once inside you'll find wood-paneled walls, a prominent stage for live music, a pool table, dusty 1980s beer decor, and Texas Longhorns bling. And chances are good you'll meet the dive's owner, singer-songwriter Ramsay Midwood. With his longish gray hair, slightly shaggy beard, kind eyes, and bandana tied around his head Apache-style, he’s a dead ringer for Willie Nelson circa 1975 or so. That association grows stronger when he tells you about the origin of the bar’s name—how it came to be “Town Point.”
“A long time ago the city limits ran right through the property,” says Midwood, who took over ownership of Sam's in late 2016 from Penny Grossman and her family, who'd run it for 30 years before gifting it to Midwood by signing over the bar's LLC. “The parking lot was in Austin, and the bar was in Travis County. It was ‘Austin city limits’ for real.”
Those days are long gone. The City of Austin has annexed all of the property on which the bar stands—a four-plus acre compound including a pristine outdoor stage, an assortment of decrepit vehicles ranging from cars to school buses, and several houses, some of them home to Grossman family members. Even before dusk, deer gingerly roam the property, munching on corn from several feeders, and Midwood tells me they are invaded nightly by legions of raccoons from the nearby woods. Again—you don’t feel like you are in today’s Austin, but the Austin of a long time ago, the one that seduced the Republic of Texas’s second president Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar into moving the nascent nation’s capital from malarial Houston to edenic Austin.
“Sam’s is the kind of place you’ve seen on the side of the road that makes you shudder to think of what might be going on behind those walls. [But] You won’t find David Lynch and David Allen Coe playing dominoes with teeth and bones. Sam’s Town Point is a portal to another honky-tonk dimension. There is nothing ironic about the Spuds MacKenzie that hangs in this bar. He’s been there all the time waiting for you to walk through that front door and into a room full of hot shit dancers swinging and flinging all around the floor. Sam’s is where new Austin dances with the old. Lone Stars and Topo Chicos chink to the rhythm of the American songbag broken open like a piñata, spilling out into the wood panels and pool tables.”
That vibe is getting harder to find in today’s Austin. When those snotty relative old-timers tell you to enjoy your stay and then hit the road, they are kind of right. Austin is full, crammed to gills, stuffed to the gullet. Back in the year of my birth in this city—1970—back when Roky Erickson was still caterwauling Tommy Hall’s messianic acid-drenched rock and roll testaments with the Elevators, Austin was home to about 250,000 people. Today, it’s fast approaching a million. With miles and miles of tract homes, strip malls, fancy condos, traffic jams, and expensive restaurants, it’s taken on more of the character of the state’s true metropolises—Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston—than locals like to admit.
Unlike those larger cities, live music built much of Austin’s mystique, and today musicians are having a hard time finding places to play. Just parking downtown at their local haunts can eat up much of what meager pay the relative few remaining club owners there are willing to cough up.
“Bless its heart, the city is stupid,” Midwood says. We’re sitting in the bar’s office, itself wood-paneled and haphazardly decorated. Midwood has plucked his favorite guitar off the wall and is gently strumming blues licks as he grieves what inner-city Austin—with its shining residential towers, high-end restaurants, and velvet rope clubs—has become. “What does a musician need? When you go downtown to play a show in one of those venues—and they are great venues—it’s so hard," he says. "I remember one time I went down there to do a gig and I was so excited, and it cost me $15 to park, and you try to say something to the club owners and they have zero concern. And I’m sure they are under tremendous economic pressure themselves. I don’t want to have to pay that as a club owner either, but as a city, it seems like they could figure out a way to voucher it, or give passes to performers, or something. But they haven’t, so maybe it’s just the way city has developed or emerged or whatever, so it’s not really on them.”
Way out here on what used to be Austin City Limits, that isn’t a concern. Even though it’s early on a Thursday night, and even though the sun is still high and scorching in the Texas sky, the dance floor is already filled, lots of "hot shit dancers swinging and flinging around," to borrow a phrase from Russell. It’s that way every evening. On this night, the walls resonate with the sounds of Speedy Sparks & the Koolerators—who ease the hard-partying middle-aged crowd in the mood with Horace Silver’s Latin-tinged, pop-jazz, sax-led instrumental “Song for my Father.” After that, Sparks’s band moves toward twangier stuff, albeit with a Fats Domino-style Gulf Coast flavor. Jazz, roots-rock, country, blues: You’d expect that from a band led by Sparks, a Houston-bred former sideman of the late Doug Sahm, a Texas musician who absorbed all the sounds of this bewildering (at least to outsiders) state.
“Oh man this is my favorite bar, this one and the Skylark Lounge” says regular Caroline Estes. “It’s downhome, laid-back and tolerant of diversity. There’s all kinds of people and all kinds of music here. Not just one kind—there’s a variety, because it’s Austin.”
That Austin Estes speaks of, and that Midwood hosts, is getting harder and harder to find. But it’s still out there. You might just have to head out to what used to be the Austin city limits.
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