Editor’s Note: The Saxon Pub in Austin celebrated its 30th anniversary in March. This story, written just prior to the pandemic, was scheduled to run in our Spring 2000 issue, but COVID prevented publication of that issue. We’re running the piece now so readers can appreciate the venue’s history and longevity. The Saxon Pub has been closed to audiences since mid-March but has hosted some of its artist friends for livestream performances. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates on how you can support the venue and the Austin music community.
It’s a cool February afternoon at Austin’s Saxon Pub, and all is quiet, save for the venue’s founder and manager, Joe Ables, pawing through a large storage case. In that container sit three decades worth of Saxon-related documents he’s saved—for reasons he’s never quite been able to articulate.
“My wife has always wondered why I’ve kept all this crap.” he says in his signature Texas twang.
With his venue’s 30th anniversary celebration a few weeks away, perhaps Ables is feeling nostalgic. Across tables, chairs and the floor rest these loose papers—blurry disposable camera photos of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, news articles from long-defunct local publications and more gig posters than could fill a museum. They’re laid out with little rhyme or reason, forming a comprehensive mosaic of Texas music history. Suddenly, Ables lights up: “Oh, here’s a fun one.” He stretches out a large Winston cigarette poster-ad that reads “Rock Like They Do at The Saxon!”
“That was from way back—when you could smoke in here”
Below the poster, something catches Ables’ eye, a baby blue weekly planner—the Saxon’s master schedule from its 1990 opening. He opens it to April and points to the venue’s soft opening, “Stephen Fromholz’s full-moon birthday celebration.” He pauses, as if the gravity of 30 years is hitting him all at once.
“Thirty years,” he says, softer than his booming voice normally allows. “I never imagined I’d be here this long.”
To his credit, when Ables and his two business partners bought a dingy debt-ridden bar on the city’s South Side, it would have been impossible to foresee that space growing into one of the Live Music Capital’s most enduring symbols—a place where juggernauts of Texas’ music scene unwind, and Austin’s newer generation of performers cut their teeth.
Even today it seems curious the venue has weathered the unstoppable tide of Austin’s development. Where such historic venues as Armadillo World Headquarters, Liberty Lunch and Threadgill’s have long since shut their doors, somehow the Saxon still stands as a shining beacon of old Austin.
For the hundreds of artists and staff who’ve stepped through the venue’s wooden doors, it’s easy to see why the spot has enjoyed such longevity. Ables is a businessman who prioritizes building relationships and caring for his artists above all else. It’s with these guiding principles that Ables—alongside his wife, Judy, and their loyal staff—created not just a business but a home on South Lamar.
“The Saxon feels like a clubhouse for Austin musicians,” says Jeff Sandmann, director of the 2019 documentary about the venue, Nothing Stays the Same. “That’s because of its owners. Joe and Judy Ables treat their musicians well—they pay them well. Plus, they have concert-level sound quality in that space. You can’t put a value on how important that is.”
Adds musician Patrice Pike, “Saxon has become like a second home to a lot of artists. I always say it’s like playing in your living room—you get to be yourself on stage.”
For Austin’s ’90s babies, it may seem the Saxon’s familiar wooden exterior has been around forever. Austinites from the ’70s and ’80s, however, will remember the spot as housing an array of strip clubs and dive bars before it did the Saxon. When a young Ables—who ran an accounting practice auditing bars and venues—came across the space’s latest failed dive bar, Madison’s, he had an idea. Having been involved with the Steamboat, the former downtown venue, Ables felt there was a musical need in Austin beyond honky-tonks and rock clubs. “I wanted something quieter,” he explains. “At the time, there was just the Broken Spoke and Horseshoe on this street. I pictured a little bar with folk music.”
While Ables and his partner, former Jerry Jeff Walker guitarist Craig Hillis, were able to secure the spot “for a hell of a price,” there was still a long way to go before the Saxon became a comfortable listening room. “It was ugly as hell,” admits Ables. “The walls were completely lined in mirrors. Craig asked me, ‘What the hell do you see in this place?’ I told him my vision, to which he said ‘That sounds a lot like the old Saxon Pub.’”
That Saxon Pub was a small cafe in the ’60s and ’70s located at the American Hotel on 1-35 and 38 ½ Street. The spot was a breeding ground for inventive singer-songwriters, and its closing left a hole in Austin’s progressive country community—leaving such artists eager to play the new Saxon. “During construction Rusty Weir walked through the doorway,” Ables recalls. “There wasn’t even a door yet. He walked in, stood on top of the half-built plywood stage and said ‘Yep, this’ll work.’” Weir would go on to become a fixture of the club, playing the Saxon’s Thursday residency for 16 years.
Following a few soft opens, the club began receiving good press, with one write-up calling the venue “the coolest bar in town.” Ables remembers, “That first year we had a pretty good run. By year two, though, I had the opportunity to book a little band by the name of Badfinger for $1,000. Then it all changed. We realized we could get away with loud music! So we started booking everything — blues, country, rock, you name it. I was eager: ‘Let’s see who we can bring in.’”
Says Richard Vannoy, the Saxon’s sound engineer of almost 30 years, “I vividly remember the nightmare that was Badfinger. At the time, we only had a PA system setup for acoustic duos.”
Technical limitations aside, the band packed the place and inspired record bar sales, convincing Ables there may be something to his side business after all. In ’95, Ables dedicated himself full time to the venue, buying out his two other partners and completely immersing himself in the local music scene. “I was learning as quickly as I could,” he recalls. “I started building my own relationships, some with players as they were just getting started. They thought I knew everything. They didn’t realize I was learning from them at the same time.”
One of the owner’s most important relationships began in 1995 with Steven Bruton, who was known at the time for backing such artists as Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt. “He’d moved to Austin wanting to be a front guy,” Ables says. “So, he came over one day with little jogging shorts on—he’d been running around Town Lake —and said ‘Hey man, I wanna play here.’ So, I threw him a key. Right then and there. ‘You wanna play here? Here’s a key to the place.’”
While that level of trust may seem odd to outsiders, you need to understand that for Joe Ables, trust and loyalty go a long way. Such was the case with Bruton, whose group, the Resentments, would consistently bring in famous guests to sit in. These special appearances soon earned Ables’ venue a reputation as a hang for Texas’ musical elite, where a weeknight show could become Austin’s hottest ticket on a moment’s notice.
“Bruton was so connected,” says Ables, gesturing to the Saxon’s back wall behind him, upon which hang images of Bonnie Raitt, Ian McLagan and Kris Kristofferson. “Once I was relaxing at a Bonnie Raitt show at the Backyard. Bruton was doing a song with her, after which Bonnie announced, ‘After this show, I’m gonna be rocking the house with Stephen over at the Saxon!’ That was scary. I started sweating, then calling everyone. ‘Hey, everyone be ready! We’re gonna be jammed.’ Sure enough, we got smoked that night.”
Along with the star power, Bruton and the Resentments—whose current incarnation continues to play Sunday nights—helped shape another Saxon tradition, the venue’s long-standing residencies. These weekly arrangements, which some artists hold on to for decades, not only create diehard followings, but they also give younger musicians the chance to come into their own as performers. “I didn’t have confidence in myself as a solo artist—the Saxon gave that to me,” says iconic Austin performer Bob Schneider, who at the time was known primarily for his work with the funk-rock group the Scabs. “At the time, I didn’t even want to call it ‘Bob Schneider,’ so I named the show ‘Lonelyland,’ which ended up becoming the title of my first solo record.”
For the Saxon’s loyal regulars, the shows have become a chance to share one-of-a-kind experiences with these established artists. “Lonelyland,” Schneider explains, “is different from an 18-song Bob Schneider show. It allows me to play a lot of material I wouldn’t normally play. It’s hard to describe the excitement of hearing songs I wrote played live for the first time, right alongside my audience.”For Patrice Pike, who’s coming up on 10 years with her Thursday residency, the magic behind these shows, unsurprisingly, begins with Ables. “He builds these trusting relationships with the people he’s booking,” Pike says, “and as a result [Saxon residencies] give us an opportunity to go out on a limb and be vulnerable. One reason I chose to keep Thursday nights going for so long was the time I came off the road during a family crisis. When Joe found out what I was going through, I knew that—though it mattered to his bottom line—he wouldn’t let me go, even if things got hard for me … or if he could make more money booking someone else. I felt this extra layer of tenderness and love between us—like family.”
Pike isn’t alone in that feeling. Over the years, Ables’ “people first” approach has provided invaluable support for Texas’ music scene. “When I say they have a music community there, I really mean a community,” says Sandmann. “When somebody needs something, the Saxon is there. For example, the Resentment’s drummer, John Chipman, needed back surgery. He couldn’t hardly afford it. Sure enough, they threw him a fundraiser. Same deal with Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Everybody was playing for free at the Saxon. My wife Judy even made her famous homemade chili.”
Says Ables, “It’s important to me that artists know somebody actually owns the venue—that there’s a human behind it all.” It’s for this reason that, in the back janitorial closet of the Saxon’s greenroom, Judy Ables has stashed away three acoustic guitars, covered in dozens of musician autographs—from Gary P. Nunn to Tom Johnston—which she plans to auction off the next time a friend is in need.
It’s that uncertainty the Saxon crew knows all too well. In 2016, it seemed the venue would meet the same fate as such shuttered Austin institutions as the Armadillo World Headquarters or Threadgill’s. The Pub’s landlord was set on selling the property to a buyer who wasn’t enthused about keeping the Saxon around. “They wanted to put a ‘For Sale’ sign out there,” Ables says. “I wouldn’t allow it, so I started planning an exit strategy.”
Begrudgingly, Ables planned to relocate the venue further down south, to a much larger venue. While the new spot would have been grander in scale, with a larger sound system and a bigger greenroom, the Saxon family saw the writing was on the wall.” I was about as scared as I’ve ever been in my career,” Vannoy says. “I knew it wasn’t going to closely resemble the spot I’ve worked at for 30 years. There’s no way a place that big could support music seven nights a week.”
Says Sandmann, “The original place just has a vibe to it—a soul. You can’t bottle that up and take it down the road. It doesn’t work like that.”
Regardless, the move seemed inevitable. The contracts were all drawn up and ready to be signed, which the buyer planned on doing once he returned from vacation. Miraculously, in that brief window of time, the Saxon salvation came in the form of one Gary Keller—entrepreneur and founder of Keller Williams Realty. “As luck or fate would have it,” recalls Sandmann, “Gary just happened to call the owner asking if the place was still for sale. He bought it right there over the phone.”
In hindsight, the businessman’s last-minute save makes sense. Keller had long proven himself as one of Austin music’s greatest advocates. For years, he’s helped run ALL ATX, an institution dedicated to steering money toward local music charities like HAAM and the SIMS Foundation. Still, that didn’t make the news any less of a shock.
“I’d never even met Gary,” says Ables. “But I’d heard rumors of Keller working with the city to preserve venues. When we finally met, he told me, ‘I’m in a position to help venues, and yours was a prime one.’ Now he’s my new best friend.”
It’s been nearly four years since the buyout, and the so called “Keller era” looks good on the Saxon. Not only has the entrepreneur kept the property deed restricted and rent-controlled, he’s also paid for much-needed renovations. With Saxon’s future now secure, Ables has been thinking about his own future, specifically his long-awaited retirement. For those involved, this comes as no surprise — Ables has been prepping his daughter, Jodie Ables-Witherspoon, to fully take over the Saxon’s managerial duties for years. “Now that things are going really well,” he says, “it’s only natural we’d keep it in the family.”
Though Ables has spent years building his relationships, he recognizes that live music is an ever-evolving industry—one best suited for someone like Jodie. “She’s younger, she relates to these people. That’s what’s important. This is a young business. I need to get away from it. Besides, I just want to take some time off. I think my role now is to go out and be the Saxon greeter. Kind of like Walmart.”
If there ever were a perfect candidate for the job, it’s Jodie. Before stepping into her current role as the Saxon’s talent booker seven years ago, she’d worked as a bartender for five, slowly getting a feel for the people-centric operation her father has built over 30 years. Taking over, she says, “feels natural to me, only because my father has made it so easy. He’s taken me under his wing and showed me everything. I love working with artists. Especially bartending on the nights I’ve booked the band, so I can meet them and put a human face to the name.”
Adds Pike, “I can’t see this place without one of [the Ables] in charge. This thing they’ve created is in their blood—literally and figuratively. Markets change, but they’ve created a blueprint that’s translatable as artists get older and move on. Jodie has a sense of what works here.”
It’s now 3 p.m. at the Saxon. Guests are already flowing in, and Ables has yet to put away the mess of documents littering the Saxon’s back room. Under a signed poster of Kinky Friedman, Ables finds blueprints for the Saxon’s proposed 2016 relocation. Attached is a large, photo-shopped poster, which the building’s architect designed to showcase how the finished venue might look—even going so far as to Photoshop in images of Saxon regulars.
Within the image, Hayes Carll performs onstage, and Patrice Pike and Hector Ward sit in the audience. “Look, they even put me in there,” say Ables, pointing to his likeness situated at the bar. In hindsight, it’s an odd image, with its heavy spotlights, fancy bar stools and giant stage. Ables eyes the picture for a good few minutes, as if he’s figuring out an optical illusion. Finally, he chuckles, “Thank God we didn’t move there.”