David Card had just turned 37 years old in the winter of 1977 when his life suddenly began to sound like a sad country song. His dog died. His girlfriend left him. He lost the lease on his bar. All in the same week.
"I picked up smoking cigarettes again, after seven years," he says.
Other musically inclined individuals might have written down their misfortunes and put them to tune. But, what lay in store for Card was a mission and legacy much larger than a few somber verses and wailing chorus. At the end of the lease, he threw a goodbye bash for the first bar he had owned and opened another one the very next morning, this time with his own name on the sign.
Forty years later, Poor David's Pub resembles its owner's tenacious resolve. Throughout March, the live music venue celebrates its remarkable longevity with a concert series featuring artists with longstanding ties to the club. They are as loyal to Card as he has been to the singer-songwriter community. But, let's back up to the 1970s, where the story all began.
The road to Poor David's
Though he'd tinkered around in a folk trio in college, Card never aspired to become a professional musician. After graduation, he took a job at IBM but, after five years, the corporate rat-race began to wear on him. He was burnt out, living a double-life as a suit-and-tie clad working stiff during the day and spending his nights at Bo's Place on Oak Lawn. It was a hippie bar -- the best hippie bar in Dallas, he says -- and it attracted a crowd of long-haired bohemians.
One day, Card mentioned to the owner that he was thinking of quitting his job. They'd become friendly, and the man offered Card a part-time gig tending bar while he figured out his next step. Card took to it like a fish to water. He's gregarious, a people person who has never met a stranger, and the bar started making more money. The owner asked if he'd like to come on full-time, and Card asked if he could first buy an equity stake in Bo's Place. Eventually, the original owner decided to leave the industry, and Card bought out his remaining share.
It was during those years at Bo's Place that Card began to develop his own code of business practices. He learned that live music had a direct and beneficial impact on the business.
"When the music is good, people stay longer, spend more and behave better," he says.
He designed a weekly "act competition," as he describes it, and asked the audience to participate in the judging. A community began to form around those enthusiastic live music performances.
Card remembers the days at Bo's fondly. His beloved dog, Muff, a German shepherd mix would sit on a bar stool and Card would spin him around on it, to the delighted amusement of patrons. But, those days were numbered. When his month-to-month lease abruptly expired and he was forced to move, Card pressed onward to a new venture in a spot formerly known as Eaton Run on McKinney Avenue.
Eaton Run had an established community through its competitive dart tournaments, but Card was ready for sea change when he took it over in 1977. His rough week -- the breakup of his relationship, Muff's sad departure and his professional upheaval -- had left him feeling worse for the wear. It was as if the universe were testing him. Or as though he'd unintentionally offended some cosmic law.
Ernest Hemingway said "a man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book," and perhaps the same can be said for opening up a great bar.
Faced with the bigger picture, Card could see humor in his misfortune. After about four months at Eaton Run, he renamed the club Poor David's Pub because he liked the universal, egalitarian feel to it: Everyone's had a rough week. Everyone has felt "poor me" from time to time. Luck that bad is funny, eventually. The bar's first advertising campaign featured Card outside the venue with his empty pockets turned out. It has operated under that name -- open continuously, though in different locations -- ever since.
Turning on a dime
But, Card's willingness to smile through hardship didn't mean frustration was gone forever. He recalls one afternoon when times were particularly tough thinking that it might be time to sell out and move on. He took a dime from the cash register with the intention of using it to make a call from a payphone to a business agent, but just as he went to pick up the receiver, it rang. It was a someone requesting a performance date for Uncle Walt's Band -- well, he thinks that was the band; the memory has aged a bit around the corners.
"Whoever it was, they wanted to hear Uncle Walt's that weekend, and I figured if they were that excited, I should give it another month," he says. "That dime -- yes, it was a dime then -- never made it into the payphone."
Because the acoustics in the new space were so good in the new building, Card restarted his live music "act competitions" almost immediately and slowly moved the old Eaton Run dart boards further from the center of attention to draw more emphasis on the performances. He brought in locals like folk singer Steven Fromholz, who would one day be named Poet Laureate of Texas, and Brave Combo, which would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1999, 20 years after its debut gig at Poor David's Pub.
During these lively performances Card watched how the crowd naturally arranged itself around the stage. There were six levels in that space, he discovered, that allowed most people a line of vision: the floor, chairs, two sets of risers, bar stools, and standing. It was insight he would carry for decades and use again when installing stage and seating architecture inside future spaces.
It seemed Card's luck had begun to change, but like a dime slowly rolling on its edge, it can seem like an eternity waiting to see if it will fall heads or tails. After six years in Uptown, he was again displaced by a landlord who refused to sell the building, so he was forced to move a second time. He threw another "blowout" goodbye party and landed next on Greenville Ave., where Poor David's storied history as a live music venue accelerated.
Poor David's as it is known today doesn't much resemble a "pub." There's no TV or jukebox and no bar food, though patrons are welcome to order takeout. There's a bar, sure, but that's not the point. Everything, from the black carpeted walls to the carefully curated seating arrangement draws full attention toward the low stage. It's a performing musician's nocturnal habitat. Portraits of artists, many posed chummily with Card after a show, line virtually every square inch of wall space. Each of these small touches at its current S. Lamar St. location were developed and fine-tuned during the venue's tenure on Lower Greenville, where Poor David operated from March 1983 until 2004. During those years, Poor David's Pub became a haven for artists who would soon become household names.
That's part of the venue's charm and rough luck, two sides of the same coin; its stage catapults dreamers into superstars, some of whom become so popular they are never to return.
Maren Morris first stood dwarfed by the microphone stand on Poor David's stage when she was just 11 years-old. Just weeks ago, you may recall, she took home the Grammy Award for Best Country Solo Performance. Miranda Lambert, who has won enough awards to fill the bed of a pickup, played her first Dallas show at Poor David's when she was 15. An early iteration of The Dixie Chicks played Poor David's 15 times before sisters Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Erwin Strayer joined forces with Natalie Maines. That trio performed twice at Poor David's before launching into international super-stardom.
Card knew them and countless others "back when." He recalls with a laugh one bitterly cold night in the winter of 1983, when a co-billed show featuring Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen drew a meager 41 people. "There was only a $4 cover!" Card laughs, still incredulous.
Lovett would play Poor David's many more times before his last show in 1987, just after which his second studio album, Pontiac, peeled out and zoomed to RIAA certified gold. Such legendary names seem endless: Jerry Jeff Walker, Arlo Guthrie, Leon Redbone, and John Lee Hooker have graced Poor David's stage, many packing the small venue. Sara Hickman played her first public performance there in 1984, the same year Paul Butterfield drew Eric Clapton to the audience, though Slowhand was forced to leave mid-set because of the distraction he created during Butterfield's performance.
Card wonders if the same record-setting winter in 1983 that kept folks from coming out to see a couple of yahoos named Lovett and Keen could also be credited, at least in part, for Poor David's success on Greenville Ave. At the time, there were just two other live music venues nearby, both of which were impacted by the hard, cold weather as well. Card speculates that a rampant cocaine culture and poor financial management that goes along with it explains why his club made it through to spring and the others didn't.
"Through most of '84 and '85, I was the venue in town," Card says. "You've got to make a tour stop in Dallas." Poor David's was it, by default. But soon the club became known for the reverence by which it treated musicians.
Photo slideshow: Iconic Performances
Scroll through for a glimpse of notable musicians and past performances at Poor David's Pub, from The Dallas Morning News music review archives:
Fostering local talent
Over the years, the club has hosted myriad legendary performers; but, Card has made it his mission to offer his stage to lesser-known locals, as well.
In service of aspiring musicians, Poor David's Pub established a regular open mic night, which takes place most Mondays throughout the year, and Card founded the B.W. Stevenson Songwriting Competition, a throwback to and expansion those first "act competitions" at Bo's Place. Named in honor of the late Dallas-born songwriter, the contest will reach its 29th year this spring. In a nod to Stevenson's multifaceted talent, it judges budding artists not only on technical merit but with equal emphasis on the quality of their performance and showmanship. First place wins $1,000, and the top three win opening gigs for national touring acts.
Card's rule is that the business is a three-way partnership between the venue, acts and clientele, "all of equal value." The show is on the stage, he muses, check your ego at the door. The maxim applies to all involved.
Those years on Greenville Ave. "established my reputation far and wide," Card says.
Because of it, many artists have remained loyal, returning time and again.
Late songwriter Guy Clark played the Poor David's Pub about ten times, Card estimates. The Texas-born troubadour once threatened to stop playing the venue, Card says, over the state of the Greenville Ave. location's backstage area -- namely, that there was practically none. But, Card was making another move, again due to a landlord's unwillingness to sell the building, to Poor David's current location on South Lamar St. in the Cedars neighborhood; a space he owns, finally. He convinced Clark to reconsider by naming its spacious, well-kept greenroom in his honor.
Fellow songwriter Gary P. Nunn -- who, along with fellow founding member of the Lost Gonzo Band Bob Livingston will co-headline an anniversary show on March 30 -- echos Clark's sense of loyalty to the venue. Nunn says Card has always been "gracious and complimentary," providing dogged help when it comes to promotion and support.
Nunn fondly recalls playing Poor David's one night when the place was so packed that "people were practically dancing on the tables." He says he got a big, roaring laugh when he jokingly invited the crowd to stop by and visit Jerry Jerry Walker, who was ailing in a Dallas hospital at the time.
Such casual interactions are not uncommon at Poor David's Pub, as if artists and audience members collaborate in something implicitly sacred. "Even in times of hardship, people don't skimp on live music," Card says. He continues, waxing philosophically with his characteristic hint of self-deprecation:
"People get uplifted and drawn out of themselves, transported and temporarily suspended from the vagaries of existence. Or, what have you."
What lies ahead
Card says there will always be a need for live music in Dallas, and it feels good to fulfill that purpose in his own way. Every five years, he wonders if he can make it to another milestone anniversary. At 77 years-old, that question becomes more salient each time another legend passes on to the Guy Clark Greenroom in the sky.
There's no official plan, Card says, when it comes to the future of Poor David's Pub, though he has already begun booking acts for the "next forty" years, he jokes. Card is young at heart and lively; he jogs every morning and keeps up with new technology as it develops at rapid speed, maintaining a social media presence savvier than promoters half his age. Though he doesn't know what the next stage will offer, he's resolute that the city still needs and deserves a live music venue like his, and that's exactly what keeps him going.
Ever in Austin's shadows, Dallas has never been widely known for fostering a robust local scene, but Card thinks that's a mis-characterization of the artists who tamp down butterflies before his Monday night open mic. Poor David vows to continue amplifying the voices of artists in need of a little good luck: Up-and-comers, first-timers, hidden-talents and living legends who, perhaps past their prime, have not lost their love of the music.
Photo slideshow: Poor David's Pub over the years
Scroll through for a glimpse inside Poor David's Pub, including photos from the Dallas Morning News archives:
Throughout March and early April, Poor David's Pub will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a month-long concert series. Card is loyal to the artists who have played for him over the years, and many have return that devotion. Here's a breakdown of the lineup and why Card says they were chosen for the momentous occasion.
March 2 -- John Fullbright with Amelia Card: David Card describes Fullbright as the "newer generation of folk rock." It will also features opener Amelia Card, Poor David's "lovely daughter."
March 3 -- Willis Allan Ramsey with Brice Beaird and Tom Faulkner: With a cult following and long list of songwriting credits -- co-credit on Lyle Lovett's hit "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" among them -- Ramsey hardly needs an introduction; here he's joined by longtime friends. "It's practically a Highland Park High School reunion," Card says.
March 4 -- Sister 7 with Patrice Pike: Booker T. Washington graduate Patrice Pike is "one who returns the loyalty," Card says. Pike played her first gig with her band at Poor David's Pub on Greenville Ave., he adds.
March 9 -- Kathy Mattea: This will be the multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM award winning artist's debut performance at Poor David's Pub. He says that Texas-born folk singer and fellow Grammy winner,
"Nanci Griffith has told Kathy about Poor David's for years, and she honors me by accepting the date"
March 10 -- Walt Wilkins, Jason Eady and Max Stalling: Stalling received honorable mention in the B.W. Stevenson Songwriting Competition in 1992, Card recalls.
March 11 -- Shake Russell, Michael Hearne and Bill Hearne: Texas-born folk singer Russell has been playing Poor David's Pub since the earliest days on McKinney Ave.
"He was a real heartthrob in the '70s, and the girls would swoon over him," Card says. "It's fitting that he'd return all the years later."
March 17 -- Slaid Cleaves: "Poor David's Pub brought him to Dallas in the '90s when he opened for Trish Murphy," Card says. "I was honored when he accepted for our St. Patrick's Day show.)
March 18 -- 40th Anniversary Party with Sara Hickman, in her final performance: Hickman played her first open mic at Poor David's Pub on Greenville Ave., and she says this will be her final live performance. Coming full circle, Hickman's daughter, Lili, will open the show with her debut live performance and CD release party.
March 19 -- Trout Fishing in America (early, family show at 2:30): Poor David's Pub maintains a family atmosphere, with many under-aged artists performing at the weekly open mics. In this spirit, the venue has also hosted this "heartwarming and family oriented group virtually every year since 1986," card says.
March 19 -- Shawn Phillips (evening show at 7:30): This folk rocker has performed at Poor David's regularly since 1984. "I think he's on his third 'final tour,'" Card says, laughing.
March 23 -- Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly: Members of international touring world music group Celtic Thunder.
March 24 -- Noel Paul Stookey: Over the years, all three members of influential folk rock group Peter, Paul and Mary each played at Poor David's Pub -- though never at the same time. He's joined with opener Elizabeth Willis, the 1996 B.W. Stevenson Songwriting Contest winner.
March 25 -- Emily Elbert: A young, rising star originally from Coppell, Elbert was the 2012 B.W. Stevenson Songwriting Contest Winner.
March 26 -- Wayland: An acoustic set from a midwest rock band that is "always on tour," stopping at Poor David's Pub for its third consecutive year.
March 28 -- Keith Harkin (acoustic): Former member of international touring group Celtic Thunder. Card recalls many times when, after Celtic Thunder would finish a large-scale show at Verizon Theater (then known as Nokia Theater), Harkin and hoards of fans would race back to Dallas for a second set at Poor David's Pub.
March 30 -- Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston in "Songs and Tales of Texas": Founding members of the Lost Gonzo Band (most famous for its recordings and performances with Jerry Jeff Walker), Nunn and Livingston will recall the days of "Cosmic Austin," a period of flourishing live music that gave rise to the current "Texas Music" scene.
"We won't just be playing our music; for example, we'll play a Willie song and tell a Willie story along with it," Livingston says. "It'll be a little walk through Texas music history."
March 31 -- Brave Combo: This Denton-based worldbeat band premiered at Poor David's Pub on McKinney Ave. in 1979 before achieving international fame (including a cameo on The Simpsons). Coming full circle, Brave Combo will be joined by up-and-coming student artists from School of Rock to open the show.
April 1 -- Tailgate Poets, Ally Venable Band, Tin Man Travis, and Jr. Clark: Card is billing this one as "New and Old Blues," gently noting that Tailgate Poets are "dinosaurs," whereas Venable is just 17. Tin Man Travis is "an entertaining newcomer," and Jr. Clark is a "highly respected blues man on the D-FW scene; the real deal," according to Card.
April 2 -- The Finale with Dan Baird and Homemade Sin: Baird was chief songwriter for Georgia Satellites, Card says, and will play Poor David's for the first time. "In with a bang and out with a bang," Card adds.