Live Music – Beer – Pool. That’s what the sign on the door says at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon at 5434 Burnet Rd and for over 40 years that’s what they’ve always served up. Located between Arbor Auto Works and Texas Futon on west side of Burnet Rd, it’s one of those places that doesn’t call out much attention. Most people probably drive by it and never notice. But it has a loyal following and can pack them in when you have bands like Dale Watson playing.
It hasn’t always been called the Little Longhorn Saloon, but Ginny Kalmbach, the owner says that’s what it was called when she started working there in 1981. The fact that Ginny is a die-hard Longhorn fan is just coincidental. She and her husband Don took over as owner when the original owner, Dick Setliff died in 1993. Dick bequeathed the small honky tonk to her presumably in appreciation of her having taken care of his wife who had become sick with cancer and died years earlier. Don Kalmbach, Ginny’s husband, passed away in 2002.
It’s a small honky tonk but for some of the regulars, it’s a neighborhood bar. The place has an almost cult-like following from those near and far. (Here’s a link to some letters from the bar’s fan base.) It won the Austin Chronicle’s Best Friendly Bar award in 2002. When I arrived early evening on a Tuesday, a group of folks were sitting around a table playing dominoes.
Ginny, who doesn’t smoke or drink, didn’t let the small size of the place stop her from bringing in live music when she took over the saloon in 1993. The music is country and the most popular band is Dale Watson. For many years he has played there every Thursday and Sunday night when he wasn’t traveling. And when he is traveling he doesn’t hesitate to tell people about the Little Longhorng Saloon back in Austin. Ginny says she’s received a number of letters over the years from Europeans who have visited the bar while in Austin on Dale’s recommendation. You can catch Dale there most Sunday nights now. Other regulars include Justin Trevino, Roger Wallace, and Billy Dee (see recent Statesman article on Billy). The photo on the left shows the wall behind her corner stage with pictures of many of the bands that have played there over the years.
Given that it’s SXSW week, I asked whether she was hosting any of the 1,400 bands in town as part of the event. She had been asked in the past but wasn’t interested in all of the commotion that came with it. For the 3 or 4 days of the event, bands are constantly setting up and breaking down their equipment. It’s not worth the trouble. No surprise, the Little Longhorn Saloon strikes me as the place to escape when the festival descends on the city.
The Little Longhorn Saloon is a small, narrow place. When you walk in the door the pool table is right there. I imagine this can disrupt a pool shooter’s concentration. The size of the place doesn’t stop folks from dancing though. And she brings in a mix of clientele: old, young, bikers, country western lovers, students, UT football players on occasion, and the curious. I asked Ginny if she had any old photos of the place. She provided me the one to the right from a book entitled “Genuine Texas Handbook,” by Rosemary Kent. The book was published in 1981. No telling how old the photo is. Looks like it was taken before they had paved the parking lot.
The Little Longhorn Saloon hasn’t changed much over the years. As Ginny put it, the only thing that’s different is the beer selection and the neon signs promoting it. Lone Star, by far, is her most popular beer and that hasn’t changed over the years.
Ginny’s is open 6 days a week (Tues – Sun) from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.. Go there for live music, beer, pool and good company. There’s never a cover. In addition to beer and wine Ginny’s offer setups. They don’t have a kitchen so food is pretty much limited to snacks. Allandale, the only neighborhood in the world with a Little Longhorn Saloon.