The Surf Club: One of the Last Honky-Tonks

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 4th Apr 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Music>Blues

This is an article about one of the last real honky tonk clubs in the Washington D.C. area. The name of the club was the Surf Club. It opened in 1955 and featured numerous artists ranging from class country artists to blues artists and cajun/ zydeco artists. Unfortunately it closed its doors in 2011.

The Surf Club

I play in a cajun/zydeco band called Creole Stomp. We play all sorts of gigs in all kind of places ranging from outdoor festivals, to theaters, to nightclubs. One of my favorite places we have played over the years is a funky old club in the Washington D.C area called The Surf Club. The Surf Club was opened in 1955 and played a significant role in the music and nightlife scene around the D.C area for a number of years. I was saddened to hear that it recently shut its doors for good. The Surf Club has been described by the Washington Post as one of the last honky-tonks in Washington D.C. It had struggled for a number of years to remain open. Dances featuring Cajun and zydeco music were one of last efforts to keep the club afloat. Unfortunately, I worry that the Surf Club's closing may be significant of a more troubling issue; a loss of a live audience for roots based music.

The first thing I noticed when we pulled up to the Surf Club the first time was an electric guitar mounted on the side of the building that faces the road. It was apparent that the guitar had been hanging there exposed to the elements for a number of years. It was beaten, faded and worn. It had very little paint left on it. When we entered the side door without gear the room was dark, dingy and smokey. In other words, I knew it was the real deal. In a 2007 review by the Washington Post, the Surf Club was described the following way:

"Not to take away from a few other joints that bear elements of that classic American style of refuge, but Chick's is the last of the originals, combining all the essential ingredients: Planted hard by the highway. Offering live music six or seven nights a week -- preferably country, honky-tonk, a rootsy blue sizzle. Charging little or nothing at the door. Featuring a big oak dance floor -- but no line-dancing, friend, and no mechanical bulls or Urban Cowboy airs, either."

The reviewer also tongue and cheekly added: "It looks like the kind of place where you don't want to make eye contact." I was intrigued by the club right away. The side door through which we enters is next to the stage and a wooden dance floor with a mirrored ball hanging directly above. The bar sits in the middle of the room to the right of the stage and a bunch of pool tables are on the other side of the bar. We had come to play for the Washington D.C area Cajun and zydeco community but there were a number of locals sitting around the bar as we set up our gear. We had a couple of hours before showtime so I sat at the bar and had a few beers and quizzed the locals about the history of the club.

Chick Hall Sr. had been a guitar player in Glen Miller's army band. He opened the Surf Club in 1955 at a different location and moved the club to its new location in 1978. Chick played guitar in the house band. Honky tonk and country stars such as Jim Reeves, Lefty Frizzell, and Patsy Cline, as well as others, regularly played the club. The second or third time we played Surf Club I met Chris Hall, who is one of Chick's two sons, the other son being Chick Jr. Chris and Chick Jr. are musicians themselves. They used to regularly in the house band. Chris took over the management of the club in 1993. He told me stories about how Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, two WashingtonD.C guitar legends, would sit in the club and watch Chick Sr. play guitar.

Chris had grown weary of struggling to keep the club open. It was confronted with a number of problems. The neighborhood had become shady and dangerous but Chris thought the primary difficulty was that roots music such as honky tonk, blues, Cajun and so forth, no longer no longer draws a large enough audience to keep the Surf Club profitable. He thought part of the problem resides in a lack of interest in live music in general and in other entertainment options such as movies, television, and the Internet. Chris had recently sold the club shortly before I met him that night. The new owner, James Byrum, was there that night as well and was intent on keeping the Surf Club open. That was in 2008. We played in the D.C. area last year at a Cajun Festival in Glen Echo. I was excited to see someone wearing a Surf Club T-shirt. He told me that the Surf Club was still open. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived. The last gig at the Surf Club was October 29, 2011. It seems that the doors are now permanently shut.

Tags

Blues, Country Music, Honky-Tonks, Roots Music, Washington Dc

Meet the author

author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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