Let’s get one thing straight: Travis Hill and Natalee Miller didn’t buy the White Water Tavern in Little Rock to boost their family’s bottom line, though, of course, they want the legendary juke joint to be financially successful.
They did it to save the White Water from disappearing, from becoming a permanent casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. They did it for the music. They did it for the community. They did it for love.
It’s not mawkish if it’s true.
“If the White Water had closed, I didn’t know if I could remain in Little Rock,” said Hill, who bought the bar with his wife, Miller, last June.
“Truly, White Water is one of the last juke joints in the South,” he said. “It really is, for music, one of the most important places in the South.”
The 2,300-SF bar and live music venue at 2500 W. Seventh St. does, indeed, have a national profile. In a 1981 New York Times article, writer and musicologist Robert Palmer, a native of Little Rock and himself a musician, called White Water “a typical juke joint.” But this is what he said in that same story of juke joints: “these disreputable and often dangerous establishments are the bedrock of American popular music,” going on to note that “rock-and-roll was born in them.”
These days, there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly disreputable or dangerous about White Water, though that probably wasn’t always the case, but it has maintained its national reputation, earning in 2017 a spot on Esquire magazine’s list of 24 Best Bars in America. The Memphis rock band Lucero immortalized the joint in its 2009 song “Darken My Door,” and the tavern has merited an entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Because the White Water Tavern is in Little Rock, a city that sits geographically between live music hubs Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, it serves as a crossroads for touring bands and the people who love to hear them play.
Jimbo Mathus is a Southern roots musician based in Taylor, Mississippi, who’s best known for his work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He’s been playing at White Water for at least 15 years, doing about two shows a year. (He’s also married to a Jonesboro native, actress Jennifer Pierce Mathus.)
Mathus said White Water is special, as is its booking agent and manager, Matt White, who with partner Sean Hughes co-owned the company that operated the tavern until selling to Hill and Miller.
He enjoys playing at the tavern “because of the care and devotion that Matt White and the staff bring. They really make you feel like you’re doing something important. They make it fun.
“And they’re honest, and in this business — he’s a rare person in the business of show for bands like what I have.”
Mathus added: “You feel like you’re going into a place that’s going to still be there the next time you come, which it’s a dangerous business, rock-and-roll and blues and everything.”
‘There Was an Energy Here’
White was 19 when he first entered the White Water Tavern, about 2004-05. “I don’t think I’d ever really walked into a place that felt quite like this one,” said White, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke of White Water in almost mystical terms. “There’s just such a vibe and atmosphere that I don’t think I’d experienced before and immediately met so many characters and friendly people. There was an energy here that was really alluring to me, a creative energy.”
White and his original partners began leasing what were essentially the operating rights to the tavern “from the legendary Larry ‘Goose’ Garrison” on Feb. 1, 2007, which happened to be the night he met Hill.
Garrison, who died in 2014, was behind a couple of other iconic Little Rock watering holes that opened in the 1970s: Slick Willy’s World of Entertainment in Union Station and Buster’s Bar & Restaurant next door. (Buster’s eventually gave birth to the restaurant and entertainment chain Dave & Buster’s.)
“There was nobody else like him,” White said of Garrison. (In an interview with the Arkansas Times in 2010, Garrison, pointing to a shelf above the bar in the White Water, said, “One of my best buddies is up there. 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.”)
Asked about his best year in terms of revenue, White said, “I couldn’t even tell you.” That wasn’t the point. Music and the people who love music — they were the point. “Money was never in abundance,” he said. “That’s for damn sure.” But liquor and beer sales helped.
Paul Black was waiting tables at TGI Friday’s in Little Rock, now home to Cotham’s in the City, when he and Mike Galbraith decided to open a bar and music venue at 2500 W. Seventh.
This was 1976. Black, 26 at the time, and Galbraith were avid canoers and campers, and at a party at which the subject of what to name the new place was discussed, someone popped up with “White Water Tavern. And it stuck that night, right after the police came,” said Black. “We were blasting music out in the neighborhood. And we were serious about live music. And that was one of the key things.”
They leased the building and opened in September 1976. “After we were done, we had $175 to buy beer for the first night,” he said, laughing. “And then the next night, we had $350 to buy beer with.”
For a while there, White Water was No. 1 in on-premise beer sales in Arkansas, Black said, with Budweiser and Miller Brewing sending company executives down to figure out the tavern’s secret “to sell all that beer in that little old bitty joint. They couldn’t figure it out.”
When Bill Clinton was in the state attorney general’s office, Black said, “his entire staff was there every Friday.” And with the tavern’s proximity to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock, it also drew a lot of medical students.
White Water attracted a lot of all different kinds of people, he said, doctors, lawyers, bikers and “various other trades.”
Black bought another bar in Fayetteville in 1979 and joined forces with Garrison in 1980. “Our goal was to have hamburger joints, live entertainment, bars, a chain of bars,” Black said. “That was our dream, but we kind of derailed on recreational activities, let’s call it that.”
Black left the business in around 1983. The economic aftermath of a 1981 fire set by a jealous nightclub owner and a shooting at the Fayetteville White Water that resulted in a curfew, along with “inter-partner problems,” led to his decision to depart, he said.
“It took me a while to dig out of it,” Black said, but he went on to remodel a couple of restaurants and eventually joined best friend Michael Lasiter in the asphalt trade, building up Redstone Construction Group of Little Rock, from which Black retired as president five years ago.
Hill and Miller first began visiting White Water in 2007, and by 2011, he was hosting a birthday show in December at the tavern, later branded to Holiday Hangout, an annual music festival. In December 2019, the festival attracted visitors from 23 states and three foreign countries.
The pandemic shut down White Water in March 2020, and in the spring of 2021, Hill, founder of the Last Chance Records label and executive director of UAMS Centers for Simulation Education, began hearing rumors that the tavern, operated by White and Hughes and battered by the long shutdown, was not going to reopen.
The physical property itself, the land and building, were owned by Garrison’s estate, and his family wanted to sell. Hill learned that a group of investors wanted to buy the property, tear down the building and build houses on the block.
Hill broached buying White Water to his wife, Miller, a school nurse at E-Stem Downtown Junior High School in Little Rock. “She said, ‘We have to do this,’” Hill said.
“It had been such a big part of our lives for over a decade,” Miller said of the decision. “It was a big part of the community and it’s an important institution.”
Hill and Miller paid $106,000 for several lots behind the tavern and the parking lot across the street and $240,000 for the White Water building and the name. They have since made numerous improvements to the property (see Whispers on Page 3), and the tavern reopened on Aug. 3, 2021.
Hill said: “As much as it’s hard work, as any small business is, I think we both feel — I know I do — that it’s a privilege to be the custodians of this era of the White Water.”