White Water Tavern
The White Water Tavern is a two-story bar and music venue located at 2500 West 7th Street in the Capitol View/Stifft Station area of Little Rock (Pulaski County). White Water, as it is usually called, has become one of the most beloved and respected music venues in Arkansas. Run in the spirit of classic southern juke joints and honky-tonks, it has hosted many of the best musicians working today, especially those in the country and alt-country or outlaw genre. Over the years, White Water expanded its roster to include hip-hop and heavy metal acts.
The history of White Water dates back to the late 1970s, when it replaced the Pitcher, a bar that had been at the site for decades. In September 1976, Paul Black and Mike Galbraith took out a lease on the bar. At the time, Black was working as a server at TGI Fridays. As Black and Galbraith were outdoorsmen who enjoyed canoeing, they decided to name the bar after the White River. A canoe they placed in the bar remains there.
In 1979, Larry “Goose” Garrison also became a stakeholder in White Water. Garrison had previously been a co-owner of Slick Willy’s World of Entertainment in Little Rock’s Union Station. Garrison helped run the bar until 2007. Garrison briefly operated another White Water Tavern in Fayetteville (Washington County), but the venture was not successful.
White Water management opted to keep drinking options simple, offering mostly beer, whiskey, and basic mixed drinks. “We were the number one [for] on-premise beer sales in the state,” Black remembered of the bar’s early days. The owners liked serving longneck beer bottles, because Black and Galbraith were “environmental types” who believed returnable bottles were a “big deal.” Furnishings were also minimal. Even so, a variety of oddities have been featured on the walls over the years, including a monkey made of coconuts and a beer bottle containing the ashes of one of the owner’s friends.
Throughout its history, the bar has attracted a diverse customer base, from bikers and struggling musicians to journalists, professors, and local celebrities. In the first few years of its existence, White Water attracted the “Clinton crowd,” consisting of politicians, lawyers, doctors, medical students, and members of the media. Bill Clinton himself would reward staffers with a long lunch at the White Water. By the late 1970s, the bar became so crowded on certain days that management referred to “the White Water Shuffle,” meaning it was so packed people had to shuffle around the bar. One of the more memorable events in the 2000s was a zombie wedding, in which the bride and groom performed their vows made up as the undead.
The bar’s appearance has changed little over the years. In 2004, one Little Rock writer described White Water as “a hole in the wall downtown on the side of the freeway where bikers hang out. It’s one of my favorite places in the world….Our biggest sellers are Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can and Jack Daniels up, and there’s parking at the front door for Harleys only.” The walls of the bathrooms and upstairs pool room are renowned for their wall-to-wall graffiti.
From the beginning, the bar has attracted roots and blues musicians. In October 1981, Little Rock musician and journalist Robert Palmer wrote an article about White Water for the New York Times, calling it a “typical juke joint.” Palmer described a show featuring blues musician CeDell Davis, who played his guitar with a table knife, producing “some of the grittiest music imaginable.”
White Water benefits from Little Rock’s location between Austin and Nashville. Musicians traveling to Nashville from Texas, or vice versa, will often stop at the White Water for a gig. Performance space at the White Water is small, providing musicians with virtually no stage. Musicians set up in the corner, which usually has just enough space for a drum set, guitar players, and a keyboardist. Despite its small stage, White Water has attracted many nationally known acts over the years, including Levon Helm, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Slobberbone, Billy Joe Shaver, Jimbo Mathus, and Billy Bragg. It has also attracted Nashville acts such as Bobby Bare Jr. and the Secret Sisters as well as Little Rock staples such as Iron Tongue, Jeff Coleman and the Feeders, Bonnie Montgomery, Adam Faucett, the Salty Dogs, and Kevin Kerby.
White Water has suffered various catastrophes. In December 1980, the bar was burned by arsonist Ron O’Neal and did not reopen until the next year. In 1982, O’Neal again set fire to the building. In April 1984, White Water was damaged yet again by fire. In the 1990s, a drunken motorcyclist ran into the building, which burst a gas line and caused another destructive fire. The bar’s gravel parking lot, located at the bottom of the Capitol View area, is prone to flooding, which can bring water up to the front steps of the building.
In September 2014, colorful former co-owner Goose Garrison died at the age of sixty-three. A natural gambler, he was well-liked and remembered fondly as a “wild-eyed child of a man” who treated musicians with respect. By 2020, White Water was being run by Sean Hughes and Matt White, the latter of whom has taken hundreds of photographs of performers.
White Water continues to win fans and gain popularity. In 2017, Esquire magazine called it one of the best bars in America. Travis Hill, owner of Little Rock’s Last Chance Records label, said that White Water is “a unique magical place. I used to go there when I was going through a personally rough time…and I swear the place has some kind of healing powers.” Arkansas writer Kyran Pittman wrote that the Whitewater Tavern “is the blues.”
White Water closed its doors to the public in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the closure continued so long that the owners were forced to sell the venue. Some potential investors wanted to buy the site and tear down the building in order to construct houses, but Travis Hill and Natalee Miller purchased White Water in 2021 and reopened it in August, while previous owner Matt White stayed on to manage live entertainment. In February 2022, the building’s old pine siding was replaced with kiln-dried Arkansas cypress planks.
For additional information:
Cottingham, Jan. “White Water: What They Did for Love.” Arkansas Business, May 30–June 5, 2022, pp. 1, 8.
Harrison, Eric E. “Little Rock’s White Water Tavern to Reopen Aug. 6.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 22, 2021. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/jul/22/little-rocks-white-water-tavern-reopen-aug-6/ (accessed July 22, 2021).
Millar, Lindsey. “Goose, Remembered.” Arkansas Times, October 16, 2014. Online at https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2014/10/16/goose-remembered (accessed November 6, 2020).
———. “Wild Days at White Water Tavern.” Arkansas Times, October 14, 2016. Online at https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2010/10/14/wild-days-at-white-water-tavern (accessed November 6, 2020).
Morell, Paula. Broken Water. Victoria, BC: Tafford, 2004.
Palmer, Robert. “The Pop Life; Juke Joints: Where Styles Mate and Music Is Born.” New York Times, October 14, 1981. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/1981/10/14/arts/the-pop-life-juke-joints-where-styles-mate-and-new-music-is-born.html (accessed November 6, 2020).
Pittman, Kyran. Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life. New York: Riverhead, 2014.
Smittle, Stephanie. “Change of the Guard: White Water Tavern Reopens in August under New Ownership.” Arkansas Times, August 2021, pp. 34–39. https://arktimes.com/entertainment/2021/07/22/change-of-the-guard-white-water-tavern-reopens-in-august-under-new-ownership (accessed February 16, 2022)
———. “White Water Tavern Exterior Gets a Makeover in Arkansas Cypress.” Arkansas Times. https://arktimes.com/entertainment/2022/02/15/white-water-tavern-exterior-gets-a-makeover-in-arkansas-cypress (accessed February 16, 2022).
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