There are older bars in Little Rock. Certainly prettier ones. Bars with better sound systems, better acoustics. Bigger crowds. Most definitely wider drink menus. But no bar in Little Rock — hell, probably in the entire state — is as storied as White Water Tavern, this year’s Toast of the Town winner for Best Bar.
Don’t believe me? Read on as the people who shaped the bar over the years narrate its history in their own words.
James “Jet” Talbert (regular, sometime door man): I started coming here in 1971 back when it was called The Pitcher — it was The Pitcher going all the way back to the ’40s. It was a beer joint then, and back in the early ’70s, beer joints were redneck joints.
Paul Black (original co-owner): I was waiting tables at TGI Friday’s when me and Mike Galbraith decided to lease the bar in September of 1976.
We were both into whitewater paddling. We had our first meeting with our lawyer to incorporate the business, and he was a big paddling guy and a kayaker, too. We were just sitting around having a couple of beers — maybe more — and the “White Water Tavern” came out of it. The old canoe that’s still hanging in there now was our canoe.
At first we just served beer. At one time, we were the number one on-premise beer sales in the state, and the building was less than 1,500 square feet. They had people come down from the breweries to try to figure out what the hell we were doing to sell that much package beer.
Our big deal was bottlenecks. That was one of our demands from the distributors. We were environmental types, so the returnable bottles were a big deal.
When we opened up, Michael and I spent every dime we had, and we had $175 dollars left over for the first night when we opened. And we bought beer. The next night we had $350 left over. And we bought beer.
We had a lot of bikers, a lot of doctors, a lot of lawyers. The Clinton crowd. And quite a few med students, newspaper people and advertising people.
We never had the hardcore Bandidos [Motorcycle Club]. But we had the independents. Boy, if I ever got in a fight, those boys were right behind me. It was a pretty good safety blanket.
Matt White (current co-owner): Last year, Davis Clement, who was cooking for us at the time, and I met Bill Clinton at Vino’s. As he’s leaving, Davis said to him, “Hey Mr. President, you should come eat lunch tomorrow at the White Water Tavern.” Clinton stopped and put his hand on Davis’ shoulder and said, “You guys still open down there? When I was attorney general, I used to tell my staff if they worked hard all week, on Friday we’d go down to the White Water Tavern for a three-hour lunch.”
Talbert: When Paul Black and them took over the crowd all became hippies. In the mid- to late-’70s the rock ‘n’ roll era, locally, exploded. Greasy Greens, Cornbread, The Cate Brothers, Burger, Sweet Magnolia — they all played White Water.
Black: We were basically doing music similar to what they do now. Back in those days, we called it the White Water Shuffle. It would be so crowded you had to shuffle around to get between people.
Larry “Goose” Garrison (former owner, current land owner): I started out by opening Slick Willy’s in the train station in September of ’77. I sold Slick Willy’s in December of ’79. A week later I bought into White Water. Originally, a double door where the kitchen is now faced Seventh Street. Inside, there was black and white tile on the floor. Where the bar is now, there were booths, and up against the wall, an old potbelly stove. The bathrooms were about the size of a phone booth. And there was a pinball room and shuffleboard — the current bar is the old shuffleboard top.
Thirty days after I bought into the business it burned. It was Ron Oneal from the Wine Cellar. [Oneal is currently serving life in Cummins without parole for capital murder.] He put a fusee flare in the wall. Then he goes to Bennigan’s and pours gasoline and burns it down. He got all the fire trucks here and then he goes over there to burn Bennigan’s.
It took two years before the insurance company paid. If you burn, the insurance company always thinks you did it. But you don’t burn a bar that makes money; you burn a bar that loses money.
Black: I rebuilt it myself after the fire. But we had some really difficult zoning problems and went through a battle with the insurance before finally opening back up again around Christmas in 1981. We started selling mixed drinks the second time we opened.
Garrison: People who don’t know me call me Larry. I got my nickname from a goose hunting experience. I killed some tame geese on a farm. I’m not proud of it — it was scounderlous. But it was raining that day and we didn’t really want to get wet. I was drunk, and a drunk will do anything.
Black: Galbraith and I left the business, probably over a combination of partner problems, having too much fun and dealing with the aftermath of a shooting at the White Water Tavern we owned in Fayetteville and having to borrow money at 24 percent during the last economic collapse to get the White Water Tavern in Little Rock rebuilt.
Garrison: When I bought the building, I inherited a dog, Rachel. She was a good guard dog. We never kept her in a fence or on a chain. Sometimes we’d let her stay in here.
Garrison: The second fire was around ’82. It was exactly the same thing: Ron Oneal put a fusee in the wall. He tried to burn down Slick Willy’s and about six or eight other bars. The second time he thought he was going to be the only place in town serving drinks.
I was closed about two years. Again, you just can’t get an insurance company to pay you off. And after two years, your crowd is gone. They’ve found some other place. It’s like opening up a goddamn new bar after two years.
But I’ve had some of the same customers since my Slick Willy’s days.
I had people working for me for years and years, too. I used to have people coming in and asking me if they could get a job. I’d say, “Yeah, when one of these motherfuckers dies. Cause they won’t quit.”
Todd Johnson (former bouncer, bartender): Whatever happened to Sweet Sweet Connie? It was the hardest to get her out of the damn door when I was kicking her out. She’d have all four limbs spread.
Garrison: Connie’s barred. Personally, I like Connie. I’m a whore myself. But I’d have restaurant people in here and she’d be showing her tits. And when she’d get mad at you, she’d go to the ABC and the sales tax people; she’d go to everyone trying to get you in trouble.
Greg Spradlin (musician): The last time Lucinda Williams played in town, she and some mutual friends had asked about coming out after the show and having a band to play with. So, I set it up at the White Water Tavern. She was a no-show (another story, another time), but it was cool to look out in the crowd to see Pamela Des Barres hippy dancing the night away at the White Water. If only Connie hadn’t been banned, we could have had the two most famous groupies in the world under one roof at the White Water Tavern.
Garrison: The third fire was an accident. It was in the late ’90s. A guy on a motorcycle who was real drunk ran into the back part of the storage room. I had just put a new gas hot water heater in because everyone told me how much money I was going to save with a gas hot water heater. It busted the gas line and when the hot water heater kicked on it burned the front side of the bar.
Garrison: When I first opened up back up in ’99, Johnny B [of Mojo Depot] did my open mic on Wednesdays. People started coming. Another night we did rockabilly. We did all these things on off nights. That’s how Tuesday nights started.
TJ Deeter (former promoter, manager): My original goal was to do something that was free, consistent and a mix of all different Arkansas music.
At the time, there were all these groups of people who didn’t mix: the punk rock kids, the hip-hop people that did Under the Ground, the established groups like your Ho-Hums, the North Little Rock sludge metal folks, and the Conway and Fayetteville crowds.
I knew everyone, so I decided to invite everyone I knew from these different crowds because I wanted to kill cliques. I would try to put together the most random acts — say a folk singer with a rap group and a metal band.
Garrison: TJ came up to me and asked, “What’s your worst night?” And I kind of laughed at him and said, “Tuesday night, motherfucker, it’s everyone’s worst night. You can do anything you want to on Tuesday. You’re not going to scare me. And not only that, I’m going to give you free PBR — draft.”
I got with my beer guy and told him I needed to give these kids something they could afford on Tuesday nights. So we did $3.50 PBR pitchers. And after 30 days, it was fucking packed. And it just got better and better.
He got the bands that would never get to play anywhere else. I thought they were the weirdest and most fucked up people in the world until I got to know them, and shit, I loved them. I loved them.
Deeter: It’s hard for people to realize now because there’s like a band playing every second in Little Rock. At the time, Vino’s, the Belvedere or a punk rock house were the only places local people could play.
Eventually it turned into its own scene, with all these people who weren’t actually part of a clique. People started to think of it as “the White Water crowd.”
Talbert: I was one of the ones who encouraged Goose to lease the place out. He’d been talking about it forever, and he had had diabetes and the stress was getting to him. One night, after we closed, we were upstairs playing pool, drinking. And he started talking about it again and I told him, “You need to quit talking about it and do it because if you don’t you’re going to die.” The next day he put a sign in the door.
White: We saw the sign and joked around about trying to lease it, but then the more we — there were four of us initially: me, Sean [Hughes], Nick Coffin and MC Ferguson; we were 22-24 at the time — thought about it, the more serious we got. We talked to TJ and he said, “If it was anyone else, I’d tell them it was probably a bad idea, but I think you could do it.”
So we met with Goose a couple of times and then wrote him a letter, where we outlined that we knew it would require taking our lives over, that we weren’t into drugs and we weren’t going to drink ourselves to death. That we had clean noses meant a lot to him.
Garrison: They had a good fucking plan.
Sean Hughes (co-owner): After we agreed to take over the bar, we trained at night for a month with Goose. So we didn’t meet the regulars who came in during the day. They didn’t know us, and they figured we were going to mess up their favorite bar. Come in and sheetrock the walls and paint ’em purple. So during the month leading up to when we took over, the regulars started coming in and literally unscrewing things off the wall. Personal mementos — pictures of people who’d passed, signs they’d brought in.
Garrison: When they were training, Sean and Nick had big beards and wore those Castro caps. And one of the old guys, a regular, said, “Goddamit, Garrison, you’re leasing the bar out to Palestinians. Those are terrorists. I said, “Motherfucker, they’re from Conway.”
Hughes: Probably 60 percent of the mementos came back. It took months, a year in some cases.
White: The first thing we did when we actually took over was to bring in two leaf blowers and blow dust off the rafters for hours.
Hughes: You couldn’t see across the bar. It was disgusting. I got sick.
White: Cosmetically, we didn’t do much to change the place. We took some dead animals off the wall. The only thing that we painted was the bathrooms — which have since been graffiti-ed over; the absolute best one: “Fort Sumter was an Inside Job” — but a few small things we removed caused a bit of a stir. I would secretly remove stuff, like this old, weird, arbitrary monkey that was on top of the bar that was made of coconuts that just kind of freaked me out. I think it was the very next day that one of the regulars came in and said, “Where’s my monkey!? Where’s my monkey!?” I just played dumb. He still asks about it.
White: The first night we opened it was snowing and the city was basically shut down. Ben Nichols and Cory Branan were coming from Memphis to play, and I was so nervous they weren’t going to make it and that no one would be out. But they did and the bar was packed.
Ben Nichols (lead singer of Lucero; White Water’s national ambassador): I hadn’t stepped foot in White Water until that concert. For a long time, I spent most of my time in Memphis. And I didn’t know how welcome I’d be. I figured it was a neighborhood bar that was probably pretty close-knit that might not appreciate young folks messing up their thing. But since then, it’s 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.
White: Shortly after we took the place over there were a couple of days in a row when these train hopper kids from out of town were here every night and one always had a rat on her shoulder. She would come in with a rat, and drink with the rat —
Hughes: — and get the rat drunk —
White: — and Jet in his infinite wisdom said to me one night, “You know Matt, some people walk around this world with a rat on their shoulder. Woo-hoo, like I give a fuck.”
White: A few months after we took over, Nick got upset and left the bar on a Friday night. That Sunday we got an e-mail from him that said, “By the time you get this message, I’ll be on a plane to New Zealand. My car’s at the airport parking lot. You can sell it and have all my stuff.”
Hughes: I’ve still got his boots.
White: Michael Inscoe and I sold his car and went on vacation in San Francisco.
White: A few months later, MC left when she got married.
Hughes: We are very much a PBR and Jameson bar. We sell more PBR than anything, but I also got a letter from the Jameson Distillery with pie charts showing how much we order, and it was 400 times what it was before we took over.
White: Some people who’ve never been in here before are obviously dismayed when they try to order something we don’t have.
Lizzie Ferguson (bartender): This guy asked for a strawberry daiquiri the other night and I laughed in his face. I thought he was joking.
Marianne Taylor (bartender): We don’t have a blender. Never have and probably never will. It’s too frou-frou.
Hughes: We have whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, tequila and Jaeger. It’s real simple. It’s the White Water Tavern. That’s my favorite excuse. My other excuse is, “I don’t know, talk to Matt.”
White: I personally felt that being a smoking venue kept a lot of people from coming. This was one of the most notoriously smoky bars. It stayed with you the next day — going home with smoke in your hair, in your clothes, in your lungs.
Hughes: The regulars didn’t like it all when we went non-smoking. We lost some of the really older guys. Just a handful of people.
White: As a result of going non-smoking, we built the fenced-in area out back. I think it makes the show experience better. We’re able to comfortably fit more people. If it’s an act you’re not really feeling, instead of leaving, you just go outside and chill a bit. For the non-smoker, to be able to watch someone you like without being physically affected has been big, I think.
White: Very shortly after taking the bar over, I developed this cough. Like the whooping cough, with regular gagging. It didn’t dawn on me until the other day that my cough was gone. After three years.
Mary Chamberlin (bartender): I travel a lot and see a lot of places. I’ve never experienced a place like this where there’s that cohesiveness between the regulars — the people who’ve been hanging out here for 30 years — and the younger generation. A lot of the people who’ve been here for 30 years will stay here through happy hour and all night, and they’ll be the ones dancing up front to, say, a punk rock band from Ohio.
White: We’ve had several weddings. One was a zombie wedding. Everyone in the wedding was in crazy tuxedos with zombie make-up. The zombie bride came down the steps walking like a zombie. The groom came from the backdoor walking like a zombie. All the bridesmaids and groomsmen were dressed like zombies. They grunted their vows. And we had one, where after the vows were finished, the couple broke a bottle across the pole up front and cut each other in a cross and put their bleeding arms together. They were punk rock leathered out.
Garrison: One of my best buddies is up there [pointing to a shelf above the bar]. His ashes are in a Busch bottle. In high school, I bit part of his ear off. We got in a fight — that’s how we got to be friends. There are several other things in the bottle, too —
Talbert: — four women’s pubic hairs. Three reds and one black. A line of cocaine. Some good kine bud.
Garrison: His favorite things. I hope I’m up there one day.