Travis Hill wasn’t in the market to buy a bar. Far, far from it. But the White Water Tavern, which reopened in August, isn’t your run-of-the-mill bar. Far, far from it.
“This is like a church for me,” Hill said as we sit at a table in the venerable tavern at Seventh and Thayer in Little Rock. The White Water, which closed for 17 months in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been around so long there was no such thing as “zoning” when it opened as The Pitcher in the 1940s. Thus, its position as the only commercial establishment in a humble residential neighborhood hard by the railroad tracks.
“I heard the White Water was for sale; I got a note from a friend of mine,” Hill said. “Word was an investment group wanted to buy it and knock it down.” That worrisome news lit a fire under Hill, but, “I thought the buck would stop when I went home, but within an hour my wife [Natalee Miller] said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Matt [White, the co-owner at the time] took me to lunch and said, ‘Do you know what you’re getting into?’ But this place has given me so much, I felt like I have to give back.”
A long time ago in a life far, far away from the one he leads now, Hill — single at the time — lived “at the end of Dennison,” a short walk from the WWT, a Little Rock institution. He was there often, he said. And he got ingrained in the fabric of the place, what he calls the “Mattmosphere,” in homage to his friend, Matt White.
Long before he became the owner, Hill was famous for his three-day “Holiday Hangout” festivals at the WWT, which bring artists it’s hard to believe would play 79-person rooms. (Keep reading for more on Hill’s background and the HH shows.)
Hill knew the only way he would undertake this project was as the majority owner — “outside people wanted to be partners, but I’ve been in business before, and 505 partnerships mean the boat is going to sink” — and only if he could build a world-class team.
That starts with Matt White, who wasn’t prepared to remain an owner but whose heart is still very much in the place and who continues to book the stellar music the WWT is famous for.
Says Hill: “Matt is handling all the music; Jordan Trotter is our sound man; Kevin Creasy is the bar manager; and Mike Meza, who has bartended all over town, is going to be the main guy behind the bar.
“Shane Clinton, who was at Four Quarter, [on Main Street in North Little Rock] will be running the kitchen. So, if we’re open, people know they can get a really good cheeseburger.”
Besides resurrecting the kitchen as an in-house operation, Hill knew there were several other things he needed and wanted to do differently than past owners. For one thing, he really wanted to be the “owner.” The last several operators — every one of them since Larry “Goose” Garrison left — only leased the place, first from Garrison and then from his family. So, Hill met with the Garrison heirs, and he now owns the place.
Past owners, even Garrison, leased the gravel parking lot across Thayer from the WWT. Hill now owns it. He’s also bought the grassy lot just behind the WWT, where a Saturday farmers market is now held. He envisions a beer garden there if/when he can get the zoning changed to commercial.
The White Water Tavern was a dive bar before that was considered cool. Its history reads like a country song that Billy Joe Shaver might have sung here. Launched in 1977 with the float-trip-loving co-owners’ canoe as the primary decoration, closed twice by arson (committed by the same guy) in 1980 and 1982 with another non-arson fire closing it in 1984, and surely the most bizarre fire ever shutting it in the late 1990s, when a drunken motorcyclist crashed into the building, bursting a gas line and causing the blaze.
And just when it looked like that was the end of the WWT’s very long road, Hill stepped up to buy it. And what’s the first thing he has to deal with other than getting ready to reopen? A raging recurrence of COVID-19, of course.
But at least the first WWT owners’ canoe survived and still hangs from the ceiling.
That canoe, cold beer and fantastic, can’t-believe-this-famous-guy-is-playing-in-a-place-that-holds-79-people live music are the three constants that have always defined the White Water Tavern. Fabulous, greasy, well-griddled cheeseburgers were a highlight from time to time, and now that Hill is in charge, they’re back!
The WWT was one of the city’s first hot spots for live music in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, with legendary acts like the Greasy Greens, Burger, Sweet Magnolia, even the Cate Brothers playing there. So, it’s not surprising that upgrading the sound and the stage lights were one of Hill’s first projects.
The list of notable artists who have played the White Water is impressive, especially considering how tiny the place is and thus the small number of tickets that can be sold. For instance, the late, great Billy Joe Shaver, the famed Texas songwriter who provided the largest-selling album in Waylon Jennings’ career by writing or co-writing 11 of the 12 songs on 1973’s “Honky Tonk Heroes.”
The WWT got in a bidding war with another local club owner to get Shaver to play there. They won, and then promptly lost money since at $25 a ticket there weren’t enough available to cover Shaver’s fee. But they didn’t care. Shaver played there three times before his death on Oct. 28, 2020. That’s not the first or last time the WWT lost money on a show.
“We lost money, but it was [always] a cool show,” Hill said of shows he promoted at the WWT before he ever dreamed he’d own the place.
Other big names who’ve graced the bar’s tiny stage: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dale Watson, Billy Bragg, Hayes Carll, Dan Baird (first famous as the leader of the Georgia Satellites) and all the luminaries who’ve played the Holiday Hangout. (In 2020, Hill even “did an online Holiday Hangout to raise money for them, helped them pay some bills.”)
The first time Leon Bridges, winner of a Grammy Award in 2018 and four-time nominee, ever played outside his home state of Texas was at the White Water Tavern on a Monday night. But with just two songs on the internet and no recordings issued, Bridges still packed the place, Hill said.
Another very popular band that has played the White Water several times is Lucero, with Little Rock native Ben Nichols on lead vocals.
Nichols has been quoted as saying the White Water Tavern “has been a big reason I’ve come back to Little Rock as often as I have. It’s definitely the bar I feel most at home at.”
Former owner White noted that, “Lucero was our first show. And they’ve played here many times after they were too big to play here. Ben has done a lot of really sweet things for this bar. He’s an amazing ambassador, name dropping [the WWT] in songs.” When he plays one, “You can hear the whole crowd sing ‘White Water Tavern!’”
The Story Behind the Music at WWT
The story of Travis Hill is almost as interesting as the story of Little Rock’s White Water Tavern. And even before he bought the WWT in August, those stories were intertwined.
Hill was a regular at the White Water when he lived nearby, and then he got involved promoting shows there, most notably his Holiday Hangout, a three-day early-December festival that sells out almost instantly and brings people from around the country and the world to Little Rock.
Hill moved here from Fayetteville in 1992. “I was going to start a band. I moved to town, and then the guy I was going to start the band with bailed on me.”
So, he enrolled at UA Little Rock and planned to be a music major. “Then I saw you had to be proficient in classical piano,” so he changed majors to radio, TV and film with a music minor. And he started working at KUAR, the public radio station housed on campus.
“I did a lot of IT work there, and then I was encouraged to apply for a job at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in medical simulation. I knew nothing about that but was told, ‘We can train you.’” At that time, Hill lived on Dennison Street and became a regular at the White Water Tavern.
Fortuitously for Hill and for many musicians he hadn’t yet met, Hill bought an interest in Last Chance Records, which was a distributor of “cutout” records. Since CDs had become the music format of choice — and vinyl hadn’t made its resurgence — many record labels chose to ditch a percentage of their vinyl catalogs. Distributors like Last Chance bought those up and then sold them, in Hill’s case through a relatively new channel called eBay, which debuted in late 1995.
“We were selling about 300 albums a week out of this 40,000-square-foot warehouse.” Hill later took Last Chance Records in a different direction.
A band named Glossary is a Tennessee-based group that Hill estimated played the White Water about five times a year.
“I saw Glossary wanted to do a vinyl release, but the guys told me, ‘We really don’t have the money.’ Glossary needed to get their record pressed,” he said, and Last Chance made it happen. Hill also had become friends with B.J. Barham, the leader of American Aquarium, a band that also was playing often at the WWT in those days (and really IS too popular to play there now).
“American Aquarium had played here on Friday, in Oxford on Saturday, then they drove back here Sunday, and Monday we hung out,” Hill remembered. “We were drinking pitchers of PBR, and I asked B.J., ‘Why don’t you let me press your new album on vinyl, and you can sell it on the road and then pay me back?’ I invested $12,000 in that record, which was a lot of money to me. My girlfriend, now my wife, said, ‘You’re crazy, you’ll never get that money back.’ But I did. B.J also asked, ‘Why don’t you be our record label?’ and I was too naïve to know what I was getting into. But we did it.”
But an even better, more heartwarming story is how Hill helped brilliant Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland, who had “bought a ticket to the White Water fifth anniversary show in February 2012,” which celebrated the fifth anniversary of Matt White and Sean Hughes owning the WWT. “I asked if he’d be interested in playing a couple of songs, since he’d driven over from Oklahoma. He did, and I was floored” by how good he was. Later, “I told John, ‘Stop playing free shows; let me help you.’” That help came in getting “In the Throes,” Moreland’s second album, pressed, distributed and publicized in 2013. Moreland since has gone on to record five more acclaimed albums.
That was significant help in and of itself, but another break for Moreland came about through pure happenstance.
Hill remembered, “I was driving home from Lowe’s one day when Cory Branan [a notable musician himself] called and said, ‘Can you take some beer and wine to Lonoke? The 400 Unit [Jason Isbell’s backing band] is broken down there.’ Cory was friendly with those guys. Jason was in New York and was flying to meet them in Oklahoma the next day. So, I took a copy of ‘In the Throes’ and gave it to Amanda [Shires, Isbell’s wife and fiddle player in the 400 Unit]. The very next day, Amanda tweets about it. Then Jason tweets about it. And then they want John to open shows for them.” (Indeed, this reporter saw Moreland open for Isbell and company at Cain’s Ballroom in Moreland’s hometown of Tulsa in July 2015.)
Besides Isbell and Shires, another musician who became a major John Moreland fan was Miranda Lambert.
“John called me and told me that Miranda had asked him to get reserved seats for her at his upcoming show at the White Water,” Hill said. “John didn’t tell her that wasn’t the way things worked here, but she showed up, and nobody bothered her. She sang every word to every song.”
Hill has no trouble explaining what Last Chance Records is all about:
“My goal was always to help hardworking musicians I thought needed wider exposure and deserved to make a middle-class living.”
While that commitment shows Hill’s selfless attitude, he freely admits there was more of a selfish reason behind the advent of the Holiday Hangout concerts at the White Water.
“There was a tour called ‘This Is American Music’ with Two Cow Garage, Glossary, Centromatic and the Drams [Brent Best’s other band besides Slobberbone]. I couldn’t make any of the shows on that tour, but I thought, if I can get the Drams, Glossary and Two Cow Garage as well as [local musician] Kevin Kerby, that would be great. We did two nights in 2009. 2010 was the second year, and it was my birthday show. The third year, I said, ‘Let’s get stupid,’” and the number and fame level of the acts increased.
“We’ve done three days for a decade, and the last time, we had people from 21 states and two or three foreign countries,” Hill said. “We have three people from the UK who come every year.”
A few years back, Hill was working to get the Bottle Rockets, the famed American outfit from St. Louis, to play Holiday Hangout, but he couldn’t get the booking agent to reply to him. Turns out the agent was responding to the wrong email address. “Three weeks out, he finally gets me and says he’ll throw in Marshall Crenshaw for free.” (The Bottle Rockets were backing Crenshaw on his tour at that point.)
The Legendary Shack Shakers is another band Last Chance Records has worked with, and one year when they were at the Holiday Hangout, “five people from California flew in to Little Rock to come to a Shack Shakers show. When they learned the show was sold out, they just looked crestfallen. So, I took five passes and gave them to them and said, ‘Have fun.’”
‘Raw… As Honest As it Gets’
The White Water Tavern has been featured in several prestigious publications, including Southern Living, Garden and Gun and Esquire, the latter of which named the WWT as one of the best 24 best bars in the country in May 2017.
Said Esquire: “The White Water Tavern is perched along railroad tracks in a forgotten part of town. Streetlamps cast a movie-set glow onto a ’40s Oldsmobile in the parking lot, where cars are parked like dusty fixtures that never left.
“A string of lights tossed in a bush and a cat greet you at the entrance. The tap and the jukebox are both down. But for a sum total of nine dollars, you get a stiff drink and admission into a room with red canoes suspended from the ceiling and a retro bearded guy with cuffed jeans and slicked-back hair unloading his original songs with the help of an old acoustic guitar, his voice enchanting, the poetry of the South.
“There are no singed orange peels held over pretentious glassware here. This is Americana as it should be — raw, a little ugly, but as honest as it gets.”