AUSTIN, Texas — Only one building in all of Austin was suited to be the home of Mean Eyed Cat, a small bar near downtown that is thoroughly decorated to honor Johnny Cash. The only problem was, the small chainsaw repair shop was slated for the wrecking ball. The walls and windows were boarded up. Hobos had set fire to part of the building, which sits right next to the train tracks heading out of town. Developers intended to raze the small shed and build condos on the property.
For eight months, entrepreneur Chris Marsh relentlessly fought the developers. He had been breaking into the building at night and secretly designing the layout for the bar. Having worked in the restaurant business since he was 14, he knew the importance of a good location. The nearby train tracks fit his vision, too, considering Cash’s passion for railroads. Plus, Marsh loved the structure itself, even in its condemned state.
“That building is just beautiful,” he says. “It wasn’t time for it to die yet.”
Finally, he got his shot. The building was designated as historic and Marsh started his extensive renovations in earnest. Many new bars in downtown Austin might chase either the beer-drinking college students or martini-sipping young professionals — and the two factions rarely cross. Mean Eyed Cat, on the other hand, took a different approach.
“Johnny Cash is available to everybody,” says Marsh, 38. “It didn’t matter if you were an old engineer guy like my dad, if you were a young punk rocker or if you were a heavy metal guy. It didn’t matter. Johnny Cash tunes were always cool. Even when Johnny was down and not having a lot of commercial success, it was still cool to love Johnny Cash, no matter what. I don’t know any musician that would say anything bad about Johnny Cash, and that’s pretty rare with musicians. They could always say, ‘I don’t like techno music,’ but nobody says, ‘I don’t like Johnny Cash.’ People that wouldn’t dare listen to George Strait would listen to Johnny Cash.”
In 2002, Marsh and a friend visited Tokyo and stumbled across a tiny bar in an alley that was decorated to resemble Austin. After his friend passed out, Marsh started talking to the female bartender about opening his own place in Texas. He wanted it to be a one-man operation, and he wanted to call it Mean Eyed Cat, named after Cash’s song from the ’50s that Marsh’s father sang to him at bedtime. He also wanted the establishment to honor his father, who died when Marsh was 15. The bartender gave him a little doll to hang over the bar on opening night to ensure good luck.
Back in the U.S., Marsh embarked on a solo road trip to juke joints in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana for the bar’s visual inspiration. He already knew he didn’t want every wall painted black because that was too predictable. An eye-popping mural graces the back exterior, while a vivid “ring of fire” is painted on one of the inside walls. Drink and food menus are colorfully written on chalkboards above the bar. A golden chainsaw dangles from the ceiling, along with the Tokyo doll. After several drinks, you’ll have to choose between doors labeled “Johnny” and “June.”
The structure was still under construction when Cash died in 2002. (Cash was still a child when his older brother died at age 14 while working with an electric saw, so the parallels to a chainsaw repair shop are hard to ignore.) Nobody knew what the shed was turning into, yet people came with candles, photos and notes in memoriam. Marsh took it as a sign that he was on the right track. Mean Eyed Cat opened for business on Sept. 9, 2004.
“I had $200 left to my name,” Marsh says. “I went across the street to the bank and got $190 of it out to put in the cash register. That first night, I made enough money to make the first order of beer for the next night. I slept on the floor that night when it was all over, and I opened back up the next day and did it again and did it again. For about eight months, that was my life. I didn’t get my first employee until seven or eight months in because I was getting killed every night by myself. But it did take off right off the bat, which was much to my surprise.”
It’s not unusual to bump into a drinker dressed as Johnny Cash. Whether it’s older folks, frat boys or housewives, Marsh says the crowd is different every night. Every week, somebody brings a Johnny Cash ticket stub or concert memorabilia, insisting that it now belongs at the bar. Marsh is reluctant to bring in his own private collection, especially after a woman brought in tools to swipe some Cash sculptures from the ladies room.
Asked if he feared that people might think the Cash theme was a gimmick, Marsh is quick to answer.
“Yes, definitely,” he admits. “I was 100 percent concerned about that. I don’t ever use his likeness [in advertisements]. I don’t ever use anything that has to do with his name. The song is a Johnny Cash thing, and inside is my homage to him, but we don’t ever use anything that would try to make money off Johnny Cash. It was totally done with respect and definitely with his family in mind.”
Two and a-half years into it, Marsh now has six employees. He no longer works as the bartender, but he still takes pride in the bar’s humble origins.
“For me to do everything on my own — I financed it myself, I built it myself, I ran it myself — even if they had closed it the second day, I would have been like, ‘That was pretty good.’ But people have responded to it and made it theirs. It’s not mine anymore. I think the people of Austin made it successful. The people of Austin support stuff like that. They really do.”