As soon as you walk in the Old Quarter Acoustic Café, the patron saints of Texas song writing stare down from the walls. From paintings, pictures, album covers and posters, Townes, Blaze, Guy, Lucinda, Lightnin’ all watch over the revered Galveston venue.
Just like any good Texas songwriter, the Old Quarter has moved around a bit, faced its share of hardships and survived where no one would have imagined a fountain of originality and music could thrive.
Despite hurricanes, floods, fires, leaks in the ceiling and the hundreds of other more mundane challenges that come with a live music venue, the Old Quarter stage continues to host some of the most talented songwriters and musicians in Galveston and in the state of Texas.
From Wednesday to Saturday night every week, the newest owners can be found arranging chairs, filling coolers full of beer and adjusting the sound system.
“The Old Quarter has always been a beacon for me when it came to great music,” said Joel Mora, the new owner of the Galveston venue. “When I was younger and playing in a punk band, the Old Quarter was the only venue that I knew of in Galveston County that specialized in original music. Everyone else wanted four hours of covers.”
With each band he books and with each ticket sold for the many soldout shows of the year, Joel tries to keep that tradition going. Mora, and his wife Angela, aim to keep the Old Quarter a beacon to new and established songwriters. The Moras bought the venue almost two years ago when they heard Rex “Wrecks” Bell was ready to retire.
“When he said he was closing the doors, I knew that couldn't happen,” Mora said. “There really is no other place this side of Houston that has consistently brought the caliber of performer that the Old Quarter does. I wanted to continue that for many more years to come.”
Wrecks originally opened the Old Quarter in Houston in 1965 at the corner of Congress and Austin. In his 20s then, Wrecks wanted to provide a space for songwriters to come play their original creations and for young musicians to work on their chops. Soon enough Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lightin’ Hopkins, among many others, could be found on the Old Quarter stage.
Van Zandt would record one of his most beloved albums, Live at the Old Quarter, there. Bell would also go on to play on the road with Townes and Hopkins.
The Old Quarter’s Houston location closed in 1979 while Bell kept busy playing music on the road. But it was in 1996 that he decided to open a music venue again.
He made the move down to Galveston and opened the Acoustic Cafe. But the name, Old Quarter, followed him down I-45 so he combined the two and Old Quarter Acoustic Café stuck.
His old friend, Van Zandt, was one of the first to play the new Old Quarter Acoustic Café tucked away on 20th Street just around the corner from the Grand 1894 Opera House.
The little room on a side street in Galveston hasn’t lacked amazing performers since.
Mora remembers coming to the Old Quarter in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
“The first time I played the Old Quarter I was in a punk band,” Mora said. “Wrecks disliked punk but we brought in a lot of patrons and we did original music.”
As long as it was original music, then Wrecks was ok with it. All kinds of original, talented musicians have played under the watchful eyes of Townes, Hopkins and the others on the walls.
“This is one of the first places I played outside of Fort Worth,” said Texas singer-songwriter Jason Eady. “It’s the history. There are so many things that have happened in this room.”
Many current songwriters can share stories similar to Eady.
Hayes Carll famously got his start at the Old Quarter, where he jokes that Wrecks used to let him work the bar for free.
Ray Wylie Hubbard makes a yearly pilgrimage to the island to play the venue as do many others young, old, established and those on the rise.
“As a songwriter, you just can’t beat it,” Eady said. “You write songs hoping for a situation like this where you play and people actually listen to your words and it’s intimate. It’s kind of made for songwriters and you don’t find too many places like that.”