Understanding Todd Sniders “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern”
As the pickup meander slowly into the deep valley, we cross the Guadalupe River more times than I can remember. Featured dizziness and concrete cap to spite it’s a pleasant trip in the shadows of the large oaks. My imagination drifts away when I see the landscape.
I gaze at the narrow hollow between the mountainsides and the river pulling up from the bottom like a snake in the shining sun. Along the narrow road lies a spread of houses. Some are bigger, more luxurious creations with their own piers, but most of them are simple cottages made of wood with roofs made out of corrugated tin.
One’s mind can easily spin off with fantasies of moonshiners and outlaws keeping themselves away from the law in this remote area. Charlie confirms my thoughts by telling me that not long ago this area was the haunt of shady people making shady deals. Nowadays it’s predominantly a recreational spot for vacationers who want to spend sunny days off, floating down the river on the inflated inner-tube of an old tractor tire. It is teeming with remnants of inner-tubes and campsites. Nah, I’d rather picture outlaws than vacationers.
We pause by an old icehouse. Externally, the building looks like a common old barn dressed in the Texas patented corrugated tin. The ceiling is painted as a giant flag with the obligatory Lone Star. The parking lot is completely deserted and I would have been sure the place was closed if not for Charlie jumping out of the truck and opening the door for us. The big hall is completely empty of people except for the bartender. There are high ceilings and the spacious bar is centrally located along the long-side like a separate building inside the barn. Behind the bar I spot a lot of ice-embedded beer bottles in top-loaded refrigerators. I figure an icehouse like this still consumes a lot of ice.
It’s still early afternoon, but the temperature is already around 90. I ask for an ice-cold beer and get exactly what I ask for, a well-cooled lager with a big plug of ice in the middle of the bottle. I get brain freeze for every sip I take. I put the bottle to my forehead to cool down and regret I didn’t take a Chaser earlier this morning. The woman behind the bar looks at me and asks if I think it’s hot today. We answer simultaneously, “It’s been a hard day,” and she replies with laughter, “Been there!” She rounds the bar, walks across the room, opens up large parts of the walls and light fills the barn. Now we’re sitting in a large, wall-less room, with a cool breeze blowing through. Sipping a cold beer while looking straight out on the road, the parking lot, and the valley, adds to the day’s overall feeling of surrealism.
It’s a peaceful feeling being the only guests under a tin roof in the middle of nowhere on an early afternoon, and I quietly ponder life’s chance meetings. Eventually we return to the truck and our journey continues up from the riverbed past Canyon Lake. The car slowly climbs the top of the ridge, just wide enough for a two-lane black asphalt snake. The view is spectacular as we look far into the mountains and the valleys that make up the Texas Hill Country.
Beside the road, with a small gravel parking lot in the front, sits a humble little cottage built of stone. The Devil’s Backbone Tavern. We step inside and exchange polite nods and greetings with the group of people sitting at a table close to one of the front windows. The old tavern isn’t any more than a narrow room with seating by the windows along the short-side. The bar occupies half the long-side, and beyond the bar is an open door leading out to the backyard, permitting air and daylight to seep in. Along the other side people are playing shuffleboard. The atmosphere is calm. I order a beer and continue into the room to the far side of the bar to feed the jukebox with a few dollars. Next to the jukebox is a large fireplace, and above the mantel–piece a Devil’s face grimaces evilly at me.
The music starts and my thoughts of evil things dispel. I return to my beer at the bar and it doesn’t take long before the people at the table invite us over, and ask if we’d like to sit down with them. We accept. After a short introduction, the chat is in full swing and I am pleased to note the absence of any questions about the weather, age, profession, or other topics that really say nothing about who you are. Instead, the talk is all about Texas, and those who live here. We talk about the pride of being a Texan and of course, music.
Suddenly I notice that both the photographer and Charlie are gone but I have no worries, I am delighted with the company at the table who I have come to know as Darlene and Fatboy. Fatboy asks me if I know that the tavern, and the whole area for that sake, is haunted. I answer that I heard some rumors about various paranormal phenomena reported from the area.
He laughs loudly and says, “Paranormal phenomena?! This place is haunted, boy! It’s a fact. The Indians knew it. The Spaniards knew it too. You can ask anyone you want in here. They’ll all tell you their own experience of it. If you stay until the evening when the wind dies down you’ll hear the doors to the dance hall slam, and that part of the honky-tonk isn’t in use anymore.”
I try to change the subject and ask why the dance hall is shut down. Fatboy tells me there aren’t so many visitors at the tavern these days. The area is slowly being depopulated. Young folks move out and the coyotes move in. The Backbone consists mainly of old regulars and some bikers. If you aren’t a regular or if you aren’t a biker you’re a newcomer, for a fact. The photographer suddenly joins the table with a round of beers for everyone and I ask where he’s been. He responds with surprise, “What? I only went to the bar to order another round!” I smile and say, “Ok!” I guess I’m not on top of my game today.
The conversation continues and we keep talking about Texas. More regulars drop in and sit down at the now rather cramped table. A man who introduces himself as John asks if we’ve been to Fisher Hall. I reply that we were there earlier on our tour with Charlie. Unfortunately, the dance hall and the old bowling alley were closed. The only activity we saw was the construction of a new ultra-modern gated community just behind Fisher Hall. John nods and tells us that he liked the good ol’ days better. It was a bit wilder, though. More firearms and such. But also a greater understanding for the hard rural life and a more cultivated family tradition. Without further elaboration, he continues and tells me where the key to Fisher Hall is hidden just in case we ever want to visit the place.
It’s my turn to buy another round so I walk over to the bar. While ordering a couple of longnecks I ask the bartender about her experience with the haunting of the tavern. She says it’s most obvious in the southern end of the room near the fireplace, where tables and chairs are found at different places from time to time despite the fact that no one has been there to move them. She tells me things usually fall to the floor for no reason and she adds, “I ain’t talkin’ about beer bottles or guests here”.
Upon returning to the table with a round, I feel a visit to the men’s room is in order. The bathroom is no more than a small shed halfway out in the backyard. It’s crooked and slanted with substantial gaps between the wallboards. Standing inside in front of the shabby enamel, a much-needed fresh breeze blows in the window that permits a view of the vegetation behind the shed. The backyard consists of a single long table with a few benches and a bunch of weed and brushwood. It isn’t used for much more than a smoking area, even though smoking is allowed inside the bar in these parts of Texas. My gut tells me not to get stuck out here in the dark, all alone with just the company of unquiet spirits and howling coyotes.
After another breath of fresh air I hear the sound of Hank Williams singing “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” from the jukebox inside the tavern. It’s a sad song, but it still gives me some kind of comfort in this shabby shed. Feeling a little melancholy, I return to the table and my beer. When I arrive, there’s an ongoing conversation and no one reacts to me being gone, or even coming back. There are abrupt shifts between topics and nothing seems too big nor too small to be laid out across the table. What is being built here is a sense of community. A community carefully cultivated if you want to wash away your odor of a newcomer.
The photographer and a mustached man carrying a small Chihuahua in one hand, and a Bud Light in the other emerge through the back door. David, the man with the dog, is dressed in a large white hat, ragged jeans and boots. He looks like he’s been out building fences in the unforgiving heat for a couple of days, and I soon learn that’s exactly what he’s been doing. The photographer’s gaze is absent, and I feel his personality has changed. He reports that following a conversation with David, he was admitted to the abandoned, haunted dance hall to shoot a few shots. Now he just wants to sit down, set aside his camera and have a beer.
I’m puzzled…I wonder to myself what could have shaken him so? We’ve had many beers, no food since breakfast, and the heat has taken its toll, but what could make him seem so unnerved? Is the place really haunted? I finally caught sight of Charlie through the window facing the parking lot. I wonder where he’s been. He waves at us to come out to the truck and says it’s time to go otherwise we’ll have to spend the night here.
Despite our hasty departure, my heart remains at the The Devil’s Backbone. I think a part of me will always be here. The Devils Backbone Tavern is a meeting place for people who value easygoing moments with friends, old or newfound, in a secluded and quiet location. One of the last outposts of shared privacy in a world that rushes on at a furious tempo.
The sun sets low over the hills and the air quivers from the heat of the asphalt. A thin veil of clouds passes between the twilight sun and us. The hazy light dissolves the otherwise strong contours of the landscape. Charlie starts the engine, turns on the radio, and to the sound of Jason Boland and the Stragglers ”Comal County Blue,” we quietly roll away and leave the tavern behind us. A mythical place where the question marks still linger like a thin strand of smoke.
Almost Out of Gas is a platform for projects surrounding Texas culture. Wine, spirits, beer and cook-offs with great food bring people in communities together, and we are compelled to seek out and document the social and cultural impact of the true “social networking” of the common man—that is the lifestyle we feature. We know the host of these get-togethers is the main draw, and we are intent on bringing you the same beauty we see in the rickety, creaky and sometimes forgotten gathering spots: the Texas Honky-Tonks.
Y’all welcome by to visit http://almostoutofgas.com