The Off Beat: Hole in the Wall Celebrates 50 Years of Being an Austin Music Incubator

The Drag’s final girl plots a monthlong golden anniversary celebration

Hole in the Wall owner Will Tanner insists, “Live music is art.” (photo by Jana Birchum)

Townes Van Zandt drank there. Spoon got their start there. Hell, Courtney Love (allegedly) smoked crack there. Everyone’s heard the stories, but it took Will Tanner about a year as owner of Hole in the Wall to realize the weight of the job he had accepted. By the time he took the reins in 2008, the Drag restaurant/arcade-turned-dive bar/music venue had already closed once, and Tanner didn’t want to be the one to close it for good.

“I had a hard time thinking about being the one to lock the door for the last time,” he says.

There have been a couple of bumps in the road since then. Tanner’s lease nearly expired without a renewal in 2015, and COVID-19 put a months-long pause on operations in 2020. Still, the proprietor aimed to get Hole in the Wall to its 50th anniversary, and come June 15 – the day founder Doug Cugini first opened the bar’s doors in 1974 – he’ll have done it.

He’s celebrating all month, though. With the help of general manager/music booker Austin Leos, Hole in the Wall will mark its semicentennial with 30 days of shows that traverse the venue’s storied history.

“Hole in the Wall has always been a space that’s welcoming of creatives, where artists can get together and feel safe and comfortable,” says Emily Whetstone, who will perform for the festivities with her projects Van Mary and Harry & Emmy. She started going to shows at the club before she began writing her own music, and even when working through “a lot of iterations” of her sound onstage, “I’ve never felt like I wasn’t cool enough to be there.”

Though he used to bristle at the characterization that Hole in the Wall was where bands got their start – “No, we’re pro! We have big shows!” he’d insist – Tanner says now, “We’re comfortable being an incubator in that part of the ecosystem.

“I’ve watched people get so good on that stage,” the owner says. “It’s shocking. You can play on the couch [for] a million hours, and it’s not worth five hours onstage.”

“This is the harder way to go. But it’s the way I like to go.”  –Will Tanner, Owner of Hole in the Wall

It helps that the stars want to come back. Leos says the duo didn’t intend to organize a monthlong celebration, but artist interest inspired them to keep the party going. Here are a few of the scene veterans slated to take the stage in the coming weeks: Beaver Nelson, Intercom Heights, and L.A. transplant/X singer John Doe, performing as part of Nick Tangborn’s Secret Handshake Party on June 11; former Hole owner Jeff Smith’s cowpunk pioneers the Hickoids, playing June 28; and the revived East Cameron Folkcore, featuring on a bill with Ben Ballinger, Clyde and Clem’s Whiskey Business, and Dylan Disaster & the Revelry the next day.

On the contemporary side, Pelvis Wrestley, Magic Rockers of Texas, S.L. Houser, and Tearjerk plot their own shows at the venue. Harry & Emmy, Whetstone’s country project with Good Looks bassist Harrison Anderson, plays the venue on June 17, while Van Mary – along with TC Superstar and Batty Jr. – performs two days later, on a bill organized by former Hole booker and Howdy Gals co-founder Bel Luevano.

Peppered among the 90-plus names on Hole in the Wall’s multicolored June calendar are the conspicuously vague words “Special Guest.” The leaders won’t budge when asked to hint at the unannounced acts, but Tanner offers, “If it says 'special guests’ on the calendar, come out.” (That would be June 12, 21, and 23, for the curious.)

Hole in the Wall likely wouldn’t have made it to this milestone if it weren’t for the city of Austin and the Austin Economic Development Corporation, which awarded the club $1.6 million in aid from the Iconic Venue Fund in 2023. The money allowed Tanner to re-sign his lease at 2538 Guadalupe St. for another 20 years and introduce some long-needed improvements to the building’s plumbing and electrical systems. Other changes include a better sound system and garage-style back doors that allow patrons to watch music at the venue’s big stage from outside.

After years of various scrapped campaigns to “save” local cultural institutions, Tanner and Leos are grateful, if not surprised, that the city followed through with the financial aid. “You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked out and never kissed,” Tanner says.

The owner knows it’d be easier, and more profitable, to run a bare-bones dive bar without any live music – the spots with “a horror movie on the TV, cheap drinks, and two people working” consistently outsell the Hole.

“This is the harder way to go,” he says. “But it’s the way I like to go.”

Leos is equally optimistic. He recalls Jeff Smith declaring at the club’s 40th anniversary show that a place like Hole in the Wall wouldn’t exist in another 40 years. Yet 10 years on, with another 20 locked in, the booker hopes future Austin will still find the place vital.

“I hope live music and people watching bands on that front stage still matters,” he says.

See the Chronicle's Club Listings to find out who's playing at Hole in the Wall tonight.

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