Once called “Hell’s half-acre” by barbecue chef Christopher B. Stubblefield, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q now anchors Austin’s Red River Strip music district
By John Nova Lomax / Photography by Merrick Ales
There’s a certain bewitching magic to the city of Austin, an ineffable feel you can find nowhere else on the planet. The craggy, cedar- and cactus-studded hills, crowned in violet by dusk. The chain of lakes in the western hills that flow all the way downtown, fed by the ravined creeks that streak downtown Austin. The breezes, so welcome on scorching summer nights, that carry both the sweet smell of hundreds of slow-smoking beef briskets from mesquite-burning pit barbecues all over town and the sounds of face-melting guitar licks from hundreds of venues in a city that claims the title of Live Music Capital of the World.
Maybe there are venues in Austin that offer better sound and sightlines, and more intimacy, and there may be better barbecue to be had mere blocks away, but Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, the anchor of the city’s Red River Strip music district, best captures and bottles every element of the pure essence of Austin in one sprawling, labyrinthine, 19th-century package.
Catching a show under the stars outside is akin to a scaled-down version of Denver’s Red Rocks experience. No, the geography is not as dramatic, but you do get a feel for Austin’s dry and hilly environs — the 2,000-capacity, standing-room-only audience area slopes upward from the low-stage, offering somewhat better sightlines than similar venues on flat land. A single, somewhat obtrusive oak tree typifies Austin’s flora, while the barracks-like, tin-roofed limestone structure opposite the club feeds a sense that you are behind the walls of Fort Apache. It’s oddly pastoral, given that you are smack-dab downtown in a city of 885,000 people. (A few pro tips: Wear sensible shoes; you are going to be standing on dirt or maybe mud all night long. Arrive on time, or early, because Austin’s noise ordinances force the stage to fall silent by midnight on weekends and earlier than that during the week.)
The multilevel club-restaurant — its brick walls festooned with posters of the bands that played there over the past 20 years — has a small stage and a cramped viewing area. If you need to get right with God after a sinful Saturday night, Stubb’s indoor stage jumps every Sabbath morn with a gospel brunch, a revival for body and soul featuring a Southern/Southwestern buffet (garlic cheese grits, migas, nopalitos, fried catfish, spinach enchiladas and barbecue), a build-your-own Bloody Mary station, and the sanctified, joyful sounds of Texas gospel groups. Church with barbecue and a bar? You can’t beat that, especially at the price of $25 for the best seats.
In that sense, Stubb’s reverts to its original holiness. Co-founder John Scott believes that the structure at 801 Red River St. was built by Mormons in the 1850s. But if you zoom ahead to the 20th century, the stories these walls would tell would definitely be NSFW, even if they are of vital importance to the development of Austin’s now world-famous music scene. From 1970 to July 4, 1976, the building housed a rowdy blues dive called The One Knite, the earliest nexus of Austin’s roots music milieu. It was on that same stage you see today inside that the likes of Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Lubbock Warblers Mafia (Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) honed their chops in a thick haze of marijuana smoke, playing only for tips, girls and the sheer devilry of it all.
The One Knite closed when the motley clientele — law students, outlaw bikers, flower children and often LBJ’s Secret Service detail — were ready to go home and not one minute before. And that was not midnight, then Austin’s official last call. “Once an hour, they’d open the coffin-shaped door and let people in or out,” remembers Eddie Wilson, who was then running the Armadillo World Headquarters and fostering the Cosmic Cowboy scene across downtown Austin. “There were a few times I would miss the cattle call and get stuck there all night.”
After the One Knite shuttered, 801 Red River re-emerged as an antiques store. By the 1990s, that respectable facade concealed Austin’s version of The Wire’s Hamsterdam. Behind the building, in what is now the amphitheater area, sprawled a drug-fueled, clapped-together village of cardboard box huts and tents made of mattresses.
That was the scene that greeted Scott and the restaurant’s namesake, Lubbock-bred barbecue chef Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, when they first assessed the place back in 1994. By then, his now-renowned sauces had started to sell, but Stubb, a former cook and artilleryman in America’s last all-black army unit, had tried and failed to resurrect his famous Lubbock barbecue joint in Austin on several occasions. He was ready for one more try and in spite of the medieval squalor behind 801, Stubb saw only potential. “Boys, this is hell’s half-acre,” he told his fellow investors in his famed rumbling bass. “But it’s the perfect place for Stubb’s.”
And as the venue closes out its 20th year, it’s clear that Stubb was right. (Sadly, Stubb passed away just before the club opened and decades before his line of sauces, rubs and marinades sold to McCormick Foods for a cool $100 million.) Since then, his visage, that million-dollar smile underneath that 10-gallon hat, has looked down on shows ranging from James Brown to Iggy Pop to Chance the Rapper to Of Monsters and Men, his having restored that old Austin magic to the backyard stage in what was once hell’s half-acre.