Old Quarter in isle’s downtown is among Texas’ favorite listening rooms
Though the walls can’t talk at Galveston’s legendary Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, they speak virtual volumes of music history to anyone who walks through the door, with the finer details happily filled in by owners, Wrecks and Janet Bell. Hundreds of pieces of music memorabilia, posters, photographs, random artifacts and oddities, such as Wrecks Bell’s baby hat from the 1940s, adorn the walls.
The Old Quarter, 413 20th St. in the island’s downtown, is known to some as the “Townes Van Zandt bar,” named after the late, great songwriter who was one of its first regular performers. Van Zandt recorded an album there titled “Live At The Old Quarter,” considered one of the best ever in the Texas singer-songwriter genre. Images of Van Zandt are everywhere.
Wrecks Bell was in his early 20s in 1965 when he opened the Old Quarter in its original Houston location. He didn’t have enough money for a sign, so he kept the one on the building. That sign, found just six months ago and donated back to Bell, now hangs above the door on the inside of the bar.
A lover of acoustic-guitar driven songwriting, Bell wanted a place where a song could be heard clearly and songwriters were respected by an audience there for one reason — to listen. He also wanted a place to play until, in his words, he was “good enough to play professionally.”
Early performers at the Old Quarter such as Richard Dobson, Van Zandt and Guy Clark, helped establish it as a songwriter’s haven. Bell quickly succeeded in his ambition to be a professional and went on to play bass with Van Zandt, legendary Houston bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lucinda Williams. Bell in the 1960s also played guitar in a band with Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, now two-thirds of ZZ Top, all the while keeping the Old Quarter going.
The Old Quarter’s Houston venue went through various changes, including a fire. For a brief period in the early 1970s, while Bell was living in Nashville, his good friend and business partner, Dale Soffar, ran the club. As the building gradually met its demise, a new location was needed. On April 1, 1996, Bell, wanting a fresh start, opened the Acoustic Cafe in Galveston. Because of Bell’s and the Houston venue’s famous names, people continued to refer to his new place as the Old Quarter, thus the longer version of the name was born — Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe.
“It’s so nice, I named it twice,” Bell said with a smile.
Rex was the name he was given at birth. He changed the spelling. A comedic flair was and still is a big part of Bell’s own musical act, now performed with his wife Janet singing backup at most Old Quarter open mics, and on occasion as an opener for some big names that come through the club.
“He doesn’t bring a set list on stage,” Janet said. “He brings a list of jokes.”
Wrecks and Janet have been singing together for 45 years, although married for only seven. It’s a match made in musical heaven as Wrecks backs up Janet on his bass when she performs. While Bell understands musical integrity runs high in the Old Quarter, he still wonders how it’s possible that he has remained in business, let alone how the venue developed a reputation as one of the top listening rooms for acoustic music in all of Texas and one known around the world.
“I really feel like I just got lucky opening the right place at the right time,” Bell said. “I ended up in a royal family of songwriters — with Townes and other great musicians like Richard Dobson, Guy Clark, Lightnin’ Hopkins. Just an amazing group of songwriters — and I got to play with them as well. How this little place has survived next to an alley, I don’t know.”
Hurricane Ike, which struck the upper Texas Coast in 2008, threatened that survival. Ike pushed 12 feet of water into the Old Quarter. But musicians and fans from around the United States, including Willie Nelson, who auctioned off one his guitars, sent in unsolicited donations to help Bell make the necessary repairs to reopen.
Despite its air of invincibility, the Old Quarter may be in jeopardy. The venue has never been a huge moneymaking venture, selling just beer and wine and being open only Thursdays through Sundays. The Bells are preparing for the inevitable day when they’ll retreat to their getaway in the Ozark Mountains and the Old Quarter will close for good. Health concerns have not stopped Bell, but he concedes to slowing down. The 19th annual “Townes Van Zandt Wake” all-day concert will be held Jan. 1, and Bell suggests it could mark the beginning of the Old Quarter’s last year.
Like the fantastic storytelling tradition that exists in the American singer-songwriter genre, Wrecks Bell’s own story is the stuff of legend. Limitless anecdotes exemplify Bell’s serendipitous life in music, but none perhaps so much as his gig at “Carla Gee Hall.” As Bell tells the tale, the person who had booked him for the gig had mispronounced the name of the venue. A week before the show, which Bell assumed was somewhere reasonably close by, he found out he was in fact flying to New York City. When Bell asked why, the booker informed him he would be performing with Lightnin’ Hopkins at Carnegie Hall.
“I was floored,” Bell said.
After all these years, Bell still is amazed that any of it has worked and remains a humble man with an extreme appreciation for a good song.