Ex-Mean Eyed Cat owner now runs Austin honky-tonk on wheels

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Mean Eyed Cat — like Donn’s Depot and El Arroyo nearby — is a stubborn relic of Austin’s younger days, when a bar in an old chain saw shop on West Fifth Street wouldn’t have stuck out.

On a street now dominated by high-rise condos and mixed-use developments, the Mean Eyed Cat, with music memorabilia crowding every surface and “Johnny” and “June” designating the bathrooms, remains a tribute to the original owner’s beloved Johnny Cash. But Chris Marsh, who convinced developers not to tear down the historic building in the early 2000s, no longer owns it. He sold it in 2013, sensing West Fifth’s transformation “into a champagne district.”

Since then, he’s found something new that lets him both work behind the bar and showcase his love of old-school country music, as Mean Eyed Cat once did. Hello Trouble Hall is a 9-month-old project, a traveling honky-tonk and mobile bar that Marsh says is appealing because it can bring the party to you.

He got the idea from traveling carnivals, which are so easy to pack up and move despite their size.

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“What if I built exactly what I wanted on a huge trailer, and I can pack everything into it and move onto the next location?” he tells the Austin American-Statesman (http://atxne.ws/2bgdkeb). “It’s a bartending service, a party venue and a honky-tonk, anything you want it to be at anywhere you think you can throw a party.”

Although business for Hello Trouble Hall “could be better,” Marsh says he is optimistic. He sees his 20-feet long, 8-feet wide trailer — which he sets up with string lights and tables outside of it, offering more space — as freeing in comparison to the brick-and-mortar responsibilities of a bar like Mean Eyed Cat. The party-goers who rent it out need only to provide the alcohol; he has the rest, even the ice, the mixers and the cups, as well as a couple of surprises.

“I have a marquee on the outside so you can have your name or your party out there,” he says. “I actually paint it onto the building. It makes the customer feel like, ‘That hall is mine tonight.’ It’s been surprising how important that is to them.”

Hello Trouble Hall — named after a country song covered by Buck Owens, another favorite artist of Marsh’s — is decked out, much like Mean Eyed Cat, in the music memorabilia that Marsh has collected over the years. This time, though, it’s themed more around 1970s classic country, rather than the slightly older Cash era.

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The exterior is similarly a tribute to Owens: “I painted it blue on the bottom, white in the middle and red on the top, like his guitar,” he says.

He recognizes that his bar on wheels can be a little hard to imagine, but the 48-year-old entrepreneur can paint a vivid picture of it. Inside the trailer, he says, only about 15 people can fit comfortably — either standing around or sitting on one of the handful of weathered bars stools in front of the small wooden bar at the center of the room.

A bartender, most likely Marsh wearing a Western string tie, snap shirt and jeans, prepares the drinks, such as the beers that get poured from a vintage 1949 jockey box outfitted with two taps. But enjoy the booze outside, where there will be a lot more room to hang out and relax underneath the red, white and blue string lights. (Owens “was all about the red, white and blue, and I just love it,” Marsh says with a lopsided grin.)

If it’s preferred, the trailer can also become a stage for live music. Marsh wants Hello Trouble Hall to be “all-purpose,” he says. “You can have it be whatever you want; you just have to use your imagination.”

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Eventually, he hopes to grow Hello Trouble Hall into a full-time business and add another mobile bar to the grassy lot in the Hill Country where he keeps it.

“I want to build another, a juke joint,” he says.

Anyone who knows Marsh — who, before his Mean Eyed Cat days, worked as a freelance music journalist for the American-Statesman and as one of the original staff at Maudie’s Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard — has little doubt that he’ll make both of these trailers a success. Marsh is persistent: When he got wind that the small shed where a chain saw repair shop had sat for years was going to be torn down for condos, he fought with developers to keep it.

“I begged them not to demolish it,” he says. “I would break in and design the layout for the bar I had in mind. And finally the owner, a customer of mine at Maudie’s, agreed but said I had to hurry.”

And he did. Mean Eyed Cat quickly became popular and remains a laid-back spot to grab a pint of beer, as well as the liquor and Stubb’s Barbecue that the new owners added three years ago. Despite his passion for Hello Trouble Hall, Marsh still likes to visit his old haunt.

“My blood pressure goes down when I walk in here, no matter what kind of day I’ve had,” he says.