The tens of thousands of music fans who have gone to concerts at Stickyz and Rev Room over the last 20 years likely consider it a basic business transaction: Factor in the ticket price, what you’ll spend on drinks and food, and hope the experience is worth the outlay.
Most people likely think it’s the same basic business transaction for Suzon Awbrey and Chris King, owners of the two premier music destinations in the River Market District of downtown Little Rock: Factor in how much they have to pay the band, what extra expenses are in their contract “rider” (green TicTacs, maybe?), what the market will bear on ticket price, whether it will be a big drinking crowd, and then hope a bunch of people show up … and that they’re thirsty.
That’s clearly the nuts-and-bolts realities of operating a music club. But the collateral beauty of being in this business for the long haul is the relationships — with musicians, road managers, their crews. There are acts many fans have seen over and over at Stickyz or Rev, sometimes as often as three times a year. And that frequency means Awbrey and King have that same number of opportunities to build and nurture friendships and create memories that last forever.
After a rocking two-hour show for screaming fans, musicians rarely can just turn it off. So once the club closes, there are often “after-parties” that create as many or more memories as the shows themselves. And you never know how those might play out.
Like the time after a show Awbrey and the members of Cross Canadian Ragweed decided it might be fun to climb up the crane being used to build the First Security building across from Stickyz and hang a CCR flag at the top.
Another fun fact of the business is that a certain number of bands that play a 200-capacity club like Stickyz will get more popular and can sell more tickets everywhere they stop, including Little Rock. King freely admits that one of the main reasons Awbrey and he decided in 2006 to accept the deal to lease the former Pour House space and create the 600-capacity Revolution Room at the corner of Cumberland Street and President Clinton Avenue was to sell more tickets to shows featuring two very different but very popular bands that routinely sold out Stickyz: Cross Canadian Ragweed and B-Side, which later became known as Boom Kinetic.
“You could call Rev, ‘The House That Cross Canadian Ragweed Built’,” King said. But beyond the financial allure of packing more CCR and B-Side fans into Rev Room, “We knew the city needed a ‘middle ground’ room,” in terms of capacity, Awbrey said. The ability to sell more tickets attracts a different level of bands in terms of popularity and thus ticket sales.
And then there are the bands you might be lucky enough to catch on the way up. Some of those bands’ next logical steps don’t take them from Stickyz to the Rev Room, but maybe from Stickyz to … Soldier Field in Chicago, opening for the Rolling Stones.
Yes, that is just a small part of the story of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who as on-the-way-up relative unknowns played for about 40 people at Stickyz in 2013. And then they were the opening act for the Stones on June 21, 2019, the first date on the legendary band’s U.S. tour.
And who did Mick and the boys choose as the opening act on June 25, the second show on the 2019 tour, also in Chicago? Well, that would be Whiskey Myers, big buddies of King and Awbrey. Whiskey Myers is one of the rare groups to play multiple consecutive nights at their clubs, as the “red dirt” band from Texas played the Rev Room on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday in 2019.
Thinking Whiskey Myers might be ready for a bigger venue, after one of the shows King and Awbrey walked the band’s tour manager down to First Security Amphitheater, just a couple of hundred yards behind Rev’s back door. After surveying the space, the tour manager said, “Nah … I think next time we’ll just play four nights at Rev.”
Add in Gary Clark Jr., the Revivalists and Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk, and realize that five of the 15 bands that opened for the Stones on that 2019 tour previously played at one of Awbrey’s and King’s clubs in Little Rock.
And who else might music fans be mad they missed in the intimate confines of Stickyz or Rev? Well, there’s the time in 2008 the Zac Brown Band played a Wednesday night at Stickyz for about 40 fans and later on the same tour sold out (then) Alltel Arena on its way to three Grammy Awards. “We got a shoutout from Zac from the (Alltel) stage,” King remembered.
And what about Eric Church? Heard of him, he of 10 Grammy nominations? Well, you probably hadn’t when he was playing Rev Room.
When you look at pictures of King and Awbrey with some of the artists who’ve played their clubs, you see these are not perfunctory “grip-and-grin” shots. These are pictures of friends so happy to be together again, cheek to cheek, with wide smiles.
So how did a girl from Jacksonville and a boy from Little Rock end up chummy with artists as varied as Coolio and Luke Combs (who got paid $500 as an opening act at Rev way back when)?
It’s probably not coincidental they both grew up in families that loved music. “I got my dad’s skill of not being able to play an instrument, but he was a huge Motown and R&B guy, and I grew up with a lot of those sounds,” Awbrey said. An only child, King said his parents “always had music playing around the house, some I liked and some I learned to like, and I was actively buying music by the time I was 11 or 12.”
When Awbrey was a sixth grader, her mom took her to her first concert, Lionel Richie and the Pointer Sisters at Barton Coliseum. “I clapped so hard my hands were swollen.”
The pair barely overlapped at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “My last college class was her first college class, geology lab,” King said. “At the end of the semester, we went on a field trip to look at rocks. But that was it.”
King was social chairman for his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and one of his duties was booking bands to play at fraternity parties. When he turned 21, he went to work at JR’s Lightbulb Club right off the square in downtown Fayetteville. When the older student booking the shows at JR’s was about to graduate, Jimmy Rapert, the club’s owner and namesake, asked King if he would take on that duty.
“He said, ‘Here’s your budget. Use your taste, but don’t lose money,’” King said with a laugh. There was a restaurant above the club that JR had always leased to an outside operator, but at one point he decided to take it over and put in a pizza restaurant. King had worked at U.S. Pizza when it first opened in Fayetteville, and his grandparents — Leita Mae and Ed King — for decades had owned and operated El Cena Casa, a Mexican restaurant on I-30 in Benton. King had worked in that kitchen off and on for years growing up.
Meanwhile, Awbrey had been a hostess at Hoffbrau, a popular Fayetteville restaurant, and after turning 21, she went to work at JR’s Pizzeria. “They said, ‘We want you to be a bartender,’ so I got a lot of on-the-job training. I finished school and ended up managing the pizzeria.”
The Lightbulb Club/Pizzeria colleagues decided they were pretty fond of each other and began hanging out 24/7. The house they shared was where many of the special friendships with musicians and their crews were forged.
An important part of the Chris-Suzon story — and thus the Stickyz story, primarily — is that they were experienced restaurateurs. And they knew the first restaurant/bar they owned would never survive as a music venue only (though Rev Room essentially has done that), and they had some ideas on what they might serve when they had their own spot.
“We had heard about a place that served only chicken fingers, basically, and that stuck with us,” King remembered. “We were eating a lot of chicken sandwiches at the time, and our creative juices just started flowing. If the foundation was chicken fingers, we figured we could do a lot with that. If you can have different flavors of chicken wings, why not different flavors of chicken fingers? We were playing around with ideas, having people over to our house, cooking up different recipes with a close group of friends.”
One of those friends was Charlie Robison, a Texas musician of considerable renown (Google him). Charlie and his band happened to be at Awbrey’s and King’s the night some magic happened.
“Charlie was at our house in Fayetteville the night we finalized the chicken recipe,” Awbrey recalled. “Back in those days, we used to have a lot of house parties [after concerts at JR’s]. The bands would stay over with us. They weren’t on a bus back then; they were in a van. They’d spend the night, eat breakfast in the morning and then get in their van and go. Then they started driving buses, so we moved the parties to the buses.”
Being from Central Arkansas and having family here — and being fun, hip, music-loving youngsters — Awbrey and King came home often.
“We had some interest in the River Market, and we were also coming down a lot for shows at Juanita’s,” King said. Watching from afar as momentum began to build in the River Market, he added, “Another catalyst was they had just announced the site of the Clinton Presidential Library. We knew that was going to happen in 2004,” and they foresaw how that would accelerate the growth of the district.
“We decided we were interested in moving into this area if anything became available,” King said. That “anything” was Six Bridges, a bar/restaurant on Commerce Street (now River Market Avenue) that featured live music.” They closed the deal, did some remodeling and opened in 2000. (The COVID-19 pandemic knocked a hole in their 20th anniversary party plans.)
They were careful how they programmed their new club because it was a restaurant, too.
“We knew we didn’t want the music to be too heavy — because of the restaurant component, we didn’t want to be over the top with the volume — or have lewd content,” King said. “Once the smoking rules changed, we knew we had to go no smoking, because we had to let in people under 21. Kids love chicken fingers.”
They got in a groove with bands that drew big crowds — bands that became their friends. In 2006, they got the chance to open Rev Room and have that larger space they needed for Cross Canadian Ragweed, B-Side and all the other bands too big for Stickyz but not so big that they made sense for Robinson Center.
And along the way their relationship changed from romantic/business to just business. Awbrey’s and King’s engagement ended in 2002, but their relationship and friendship never will.
“I couldn’t do it without him,” Awbrey said. “We are good business partners.”
The pair’s relationship with many of the bands they’ve worked, hung out and partied with over the years are also forever special to them. These days, some of their friends stop to see them even when they aren’t playing in Little Rock. That’s one of the benefits of living near the confluence of Interstates 30 and 40.
Awbrey: “They’ll say, ‘Can we park our bus and come eat? We decided to do a layover in Little Rock tonight. What are y’all doing?’ We’ve got 22-to-25-year relationships with some of these guys. We’ve literally seen each other grow up.”
Outlets for ‘Outlaw Country’
While Stickyz and Rev Room have always featured acts representing a wide range of musical genres, those who are fond of the style of music known as “red dirt” or “outlaw country” have more reasons than most to flock to the clubs Suzon Awbrey and Chris King own and run.
Listeners to Outlaw Country (Channel 60 on Sirius-XM satellite radio) are certainly familiar with these artists who have played for (and hung out with) Awbrey and King:
• Guy Clark (RIP)
• Shooter Jennings
• Alejandro Escovedo
• James McMurtry
• Drive-By Truckers
• Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
• Blackberry Smoke
• Randy Rogers Band
• Cross Canadian Ragweed
• Reckless Kelly
• Jason Boland and the Stragglers
• Brent Cobb
• Whiskey Myers
• Joe Ely
• Hayes Carll
• Robert Earl Keen
• Turnpike Troubadours
• Ryan Bingham
• Justin Townes Earle (RIP)
• Chris Knight
• Whitey Morgan
• Derek Trucks
• Son Volt
• Billy Joe Shaver (RIP)
• Pat Green
• Elizabeth Cook
• Cody Jinks
• Leon Russell (RIP)
• Wade Bowen
• Will Hoge
• Ward Davis
• Paula Nelson
• Sunny Sweeney
• William Clark Green
• Stoney LaRue
• Mike McClure
• Micky and the Motorcars
• American Aquarium