For nearly 30 years, McGonigel’s Mucky Duck at 2425 Norfolk in Houston has been scheduling a steady and amazing array of live performances, including a big ol’ heaping helping of Americana and Roots music. This establishment has become an iconic music venue not only in Texas but is known by music-lovers throughout the U.S. DittyTV Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson caught up with founder/co-owner Rusty Andrews to give us an inside look at this music venue that we love! Rusty along with his wife Teresa has owned the family business since its inception in 1990.
Ever since alt-country, which now falls under that larger Americana umbrella, got on my radar, I’ve heard the name Mucky Duck in reference to the tours of some of my favorite artists. McGonigel’s Mucky Duck is coming up on 30 years! Can you give us a bit of history on how you got started in Houston?
We worked at our family restaurant, a 1950s-era English prime rib house. The restaurant was in an old Tudor-style mansion between what soon became known as the Texas Medical Center and Houston’s Eighth Wonder, the Astrodome. George Crowder, our father-in-law/step-dad, and the owner of the Red Lion Restaurant, had created The Churchill Pub on the second story of the mansion to primarily serve as a private club in the early days before “liquor by the drink” was permitted. During its “hey day” the Lion was the place to spot such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Tom Jones, Shelly Winters, Rod Stewart, and John Travolta … oh how the list goes on.
By the time we came along, in the late ’70s, the Churchill Pub was still a beautiful place for a quiet drink before dinner but no longer “the place” to see and be seen. To increase business in the Pub, we began booking local musicians for happy hour gigs and happy hour buffets. Between the free food and the free songs, the Churchill Pub went from being an afterthought to being a destination once again. That’s the real beginnings of our foray into the music world.
There’s only so much you can do in an old building originally intended to be a house, and man did we ever do it. Knock this wall out to make a bathroom into a booth, poke a hole in this wall so the people in the other room can see the stage, it was a constant challenge to get more eyes and ears to the music. Eventually we got to the point where the full potential of that space was met and to grow this new-to-us business model any further would require a space that was built explicitly for the music.
Strangely enough it was Saint Patrick’s Day 1990 when we found a weird little building on a back street a few miles from the Red Lion. The landlord didn’t call us back for a while, because who calls and claims to want to open an Irish pub on Saint Patrick’s Day? Yeah, it was a little on the nose. We eventually convinced them that we were not prank callers and we got the keys. We thought the building was perfect. A few friends helped us tear down some walls and build a stage. Then Shake Russell, Jack Saunders, and Dana Cooper played our first show to a sold out house. When we went to pay them they were gone, leaving all of their door receipts to help us buy some paint and a refrigerator. We’ve just been trying to keep up since then.
And how has the venue evolved over the years?
We intended to open an Irish pub to serve the very best beers, whiskeys, and traditional pub food to consume while you enjoyed the music.
Eventually we realized that no matter how much time and energy we put into the food and drinks, the real draw to this Irish pub was the musical talent.
We have always strived to make our acts feel welcome and comfortable. With a space as small as we have, sometimes that’s a challenge, but if your goal is to provide both the talent and the patron a great experience, people can usually tell, and they appreciate that you’re giving it your best shot.
We started to get recommendations from some of the touring acts about how we could improve our gear. Those recommendations did a lot to create a sound in this room that musicians and sound techs really started to recognize and appreciate. Slowly, we began to hear from agents and managers that this musician or that one really loved the Duck. With the steadily improving acoustics and our insistence that “y’all take these sandwiches for the drive back to Austin,” we really started to feel a sense of loyalty from and for these artists.
Our son likes to describe the Duck as a “supper club,” and while we can appreciate that idea and we’ve worked diligently to improve our offerings from 1990s kitchen-consisting-of-a-microwave-and-a-toaster-oven, we still think of our venue as that same scrappy Irish pub. That works out well for us on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Who is primarily responsible for the booking there, and what is involved in scouring for new talent?
I’ve always has been in charge of the music calendar. I started getting phone numbers for agents and managers around 1985 for the Red Lion and some of those people still answer his calls today. We—including Teresa and Shane, our GM,—go on regular scouting trips to Memphis, Nashville, and conferences like the FolkAlliance, or the Americana Festival. Sometimes it’s a customer or friend that says “Hey, have you heard ___?”
We love finding emerging artists and working with them to create an audience. We especially love it when an artist continues to return to our stage even though it may take a three-night stand to accommodate all of their fans. There is something magical about that discovery and then growth of an audience.
Is there a particular act that you feel really made its mark at the Mucky Duck before making it big?
Bob Wills wouldn’t have no Playboys if it weren’t for us … ha, just kidding! That’s such a hard question for many reasons … what is BIG anyway? There are a lot of acts of which we are proud and while we certainly feel a sense of involvement in and joy for their success, it really is their success and we just happened to get to be there to watch it up close and personal.
You’ve had some legendary performers and performances at the venue. I’m sure it’s hard to narrow it down to the most amazing performance, but maybe you could tell us about two or three shows that just took your breath away?
Well, that depends on who you ask. Teresa loved every time Greg Trooper sang for us. His simple and honest storytelling was endearing. From “Another Shitty Saturday Night” to “Ireland,” the pragmatic but still romantic phrasing at which Greg was a master puts him pretty far up the list. There were some unexpected surprises along the way, like the night that Guy Clark and Terry Allen played and they invited their friend Lyle (Lovett) up to the stage for a song. Or the night we had the actor John Corbett (Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and his opener was a guy named Zac Brown. But to name a “the” or even three is not possible, not when we’ve been so lucky as to welcome Townes Van Zandt, J.J. Cale, Jimmy LaFave, and Richie Havens, to name but a few, to our stage.
When it comes to Americana music, what are some top acts you have coming the remainder of the year?
We have such a great calendar to close the year. We are hosting “ An evening with Allison Moorer and Mary Gauthier” on November 22. The legendary Kinky Friedman takes the stage the next night. Radney Foster, James McMurtry, John Fullbright, Slaid Cleaves, Bob Schneider, Bruce Robison, and Kelly Willis will all be returning before the end of the year.
Houston is a great city for live music, and certainly you don’t host only Americana music and actually cater to a lot of genres. So how does McGonigel’s Mucky Duck fit in overall to the live music scene in Houston? Do you feel you serve a specific audience or niche?
In addition to serving local and regional songwriters, we have always attempted to maintain a foot firmly in the Irish traditional scene. From the Tannahill Weavers to Solas and Maura O’Connell, the Irish music genre is important to the identity of the Duck. We joke about Saint Patrick’s Day, but we really do strive to provide Houston with a year-round home for Irish culture. We have a 30-year tradition of hosting Wednesday night’s Irish Session. The original Irish pub concept is probably most evident in our efforts to keep those cultural traditions not just alive, but vibrant and strong.
I know the holiday singalong (creeping up quickly!) has become a December tradition. What can you tell us about that show, and are there other annual events held at the venue?
Twelve pints a pouring, eleven pies a bubbling … Martin Burniston has been a real gem with his sing-a-longs. He also created a sing-a-long for our biggest event of the year in March. You know the one: leprechauns, faeries, sea shanties—that’s right, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day. Every year since 1990, we’ve erected a tent as big as our parking lot and hired as many pipers, reelers, jiggers, harpers, and dancers as we can fit in a 12-hour program. We’ve worked to create programming for families and kids to really be that stronghold of Irish culture.
And finally, what’s the future hold for the venue? What will the next 30 years have in store for us?
Well, as long as they write the songs, we hope to give them a place to showcase them. We also wouldn’t mind Willie (Nelson) stopping by.