Weird in the Daylight

The story of Sadlack’s Heroes, the Raleigh dive bar that helped galvanize the alternative country scene in the 1990s.

Corbie Hill | No Depression | Spring 2018 | 20 minutes (4,135 words)

The apocalypse came early to Maiden Lane.

The houses on this short dead-end road stand empty and condemned, their doors yawning open and letting in the weather. Just a few hundred yards away, traffic buzzes on Hillsborough Street, a main thoroughfare in Raleigh, North Carolina, that borders N.C. State University. Here, though, everything is uninhabited and decaying. Someone has spray painted “fuck frats” in bold red across the face of the first house on the left, a little single-story blue place in the shadow of a spotless new building. Skillet Gilmore walks into the dilapidated structure without hesitation.

“Karl [Agell] from Corrosion [of Conformity] lived here,” he says. Then he goes room by room, naming other friends who lived in them in the 1990s.

The place is completely wrecked. The floors complain underfoot as if they could give way, and there are gaping holes where the heater vents used to be. The fireplaces have been disassembled with sledgehammers.

“Honestly, it doesn’t look that much worse than it did,” Gilmore offers.

He would know. The house Gilmore lived in at one point in the ‘90s is farther down Maiden Lane on the right. So he and Caitlin Cary, who both played in storied Raleigh alt-country band Whiskeytown and who now are married, lead me into that one, too, again going room by room and naming the previous occupants. A construction truck idles outside and across the street, but nobody comes out to tell us to leave. Nobody bothers us at all.

The houses on Maiden Lane (which, interestingly enough, are on the National Register of Historic Places) are slated for demolition in favor of yet another apartment complex in the fast-growing city of Raleigh.

Just below the blue “fuck frats” house, Gilmore points out the old cut-through to Sadlack’s Heroes, typically just called Sadlack’s or shortened to Sad’s. The path is impassible now, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. Sadlack’s was demolished several years ago.

Cast of Characters

American lore is rich with the little-bar-that-could archetype, and Sadlack’s fits right into that narrative. It was a tiny, scuzzy cash-only bar with remarkable sandwiches on the menu; it had its share of later-famous customers and regulars, such as the actor Zach Galifianakis and Cary and Gilmore’s Whiskeytown bandmate Ryan Adams. It had its daily cast of characters, people who all-but lived there and who answered to noms de beer like Slayer Doug. Its tough-as-nails owner, Rose Schwetz, was often the one in the kitchen making the sandwiches.

But humble Sadlack’s, which opened in 1973, was a major touchstone in Raleigh music history, starting in the ’80s and continuing until closing on the last day of 2013. Its outdoor patio was a reliable entry point into Raleigh music. It was easy to book and the regulars formed a built-in crowd, one that was quick to cheer if they liked what you were doing and quick to critique if they didn’t. Sometimes, if they really didn’t like you, you didn’t get to finish your set.

In the ’80s, Corrosion of Conformity, one of Raleigh’s (and North Carolina’s) most successful heavy metal bands, used to play in the parking lot. In the ’90s, it was an alt-country hotbed, which is its primary claim to local fame. After the turn of the millennium, it was remodeled, no longer looking like a singlewide on cinderblocks, as regulars lovingly described the old place. Music, beer, weirdness, and sandwiches continued until the bar closed. N.C. State University, whose belltower sits directly across Hillsborough Street, led the movement to tear down Sadlack’s and a block of shops that included a record store and a head shop in favor of a five-story Aloft Hotel. And on the ground floor of this new building is an upscale taco joint.

The place is completely wrecked. The floors complain underfoot as if they could give way, and there are gaping holes where the heater vents used to be. The fireplaces have been disassembled with sledgehammers.

“Whenever I drive past it, I have to go like this,” says Lutie Cain, and she holds an open hand up to the side of her face, blocking her peripheral vision. “I can’t look at it.”

“I actually drove up Maiden Lane just to check it out,” chimes in Bill McKelvey (whose Sadlack’s name was “Arkansas Bill”), Cain’s bandmate in the local Mike Spence Rock Project (MSRP).

“I go to that side of town for an NA meeting,” Spence adds and laughs heartily.

It’s a Monday night and MSRP has just wrapped up practice. Drummer Cain, guitarist Spence, bassist McKelvey, and guitarist Danny Kurtz are all sitting in a storage unit; Cain, Spence, and McKelvey all hung out and worked at Sadlack’s, while Kurtz’s involvement goes back to playing with Raleigh alt-country outfit the Backsliders in the ’90s. Like a lot of former Sadlack’s regulars, these musicians either avoid the Hillsborough Street side of town or simply avert their eyes anytime they pass the corner on which Sadlack’s used to stand.

“Hillsborough Street is kind of going on the way out. I remember when everything started to decline,” says McKelvey. Then he corrects himself: “Not decline, but improve, I guess.”

“Gentrification,” Cain picks up, pointedly drawing out every syllable.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, McKelvey’s weekends went like this: He would walk to Sadlack’s from his place on Maiden Lane and eat a sandwich and have a few beers and see whatever band was playing; the shows were always free. Sometimes the same band would play an early show at Sadlack’s and a late show at the Brewery, another music club farther down Hillsborough that has been closed and bulldozed, and that would be an evening.

“The two kind of focal points of [the alt-country era] were Sadlack’s and the Brewery,” says David Menconi, who wrote about the scene and era McKelvey experienced the tail end of in his book Ryan Adams: Losering, a story of Whiskeytown. Menconi is also the News & Observer’s longtime music writer. “The Brewery was where all the cool bands played, and as often as not, Sadlack’s was where you would find them on off nights.”

The Last Bastion

There was no music at Sadlack’s at first, but Byron McCay feels like he might have been one of the first people to eat a sandwich there, back when it was brand new.

“They’ve just about done it. They’ve just about eliminated nightlife from Hillsborough Street,” says McCay. “Sadlack’s was maybe the last bastion after they got rid of the Brewery [in 2011]. In the late ’70s, Hillsborough Street was the place.

“I hung out there early on. I was a daytime person, drinking coffee. I wasn’t part of the night drinking crowd,” McCay says. “After work, I’d come up to Sadlack’s and drink six or seven cups of coffee and get all wired up.” The bar, though, was a huge influence on his punk band Th’ Cigaretz, which formed in 1977. McCay wrote “Crawl Rite Outta My Skin” about drinking way, way too much coffee there. Though Th’ Cigaretz never played Sadlack’s, McCay did do a few acoustic shows there during the bar’s later years.

In the ’70s, McCay got to see the Sadlack’s crowd coalesce. “For some reason, and I don’t know why, the sort of bohemian, artistic people started hanging there,” he says. It could have been geography: Maiden Lane and its creative residents was a block away, he notes, and he lived only slightly farther away on Ashe Avenue, which was a hippie enclave at the time.

“A lot of liberal kind of progressive people lived in this area, very near here. It was in walking distance. You could get drunk, you wouldn’t have to drive home and get a DUI,” he says.

The ’80s brought the first wave of live music at Sadlack’s, but by the start of the ’90s, music was basically gone from the bar. It was just too much trouble. Then one day in 1991, an 18-year-old from South Carolina was walking by on Hillsborough Street and saw a “now hiring” sign in the window. So he stepped inside and got a job.

“I had no idea what I was walking into,” Gilmore says. “I was straight out of high school. It was the quickest lesson in everything. Trial by fire. There are musicians, artists, professors, schizophrenics, everybody all mixed up in this little weird hole.”

A few years later, Cary walked across the street and into Sadlack’s. Both of them worked there, and Gilmore even briefly owned the place (that was the year he was 23, he guesses, as Sadlack’s-related memories tend to be pretty fuzzy).

“In that period of time, Whiskeytown was happening and we were starting to go on the road,” Gilmore says. “I was also terrible at running a bar.”

“You were good at running a bar,” Cary says. “You were bad at running a business.”

“I was terrible at running a business,” says Gilmore. “Free beer for everybody.”

We’re sitting in Gonza Tacos, the restaurant on the bottom floor of the Aloft Hotel at the corner of Hillsborough and Enterprise, our window table overlooking NC State’s Bell Tower. It’s basically where Sadlack’s’ cigarette machine used to be, and on that table are small tacos on small plates that start at $10.

“We were almost the first band of [the ’90s] era to start playing there,” Gilmore says. “The whole time we worked here,” he looks to the right, toward the other tables, mentally navigating the ghost of the old place, “there, over there, right here — we didn’t really have bands out back. There would always be people playing acoustic guitars and stuff or there would be a big party and some stage in the parking lot. People would always say ‘Back in the ’80s, [Corrosion of Conformity] would play in the parking lot.’ Stuff like that.”

“There was a sorority house or something behind it, a churchy thing, and they would call the cops in a second,” says Cary.

“We did play [Sadlack’s], but we weren’t supposed to,” she says.

During the alt-country era that Whiskeytown helped usher in, Menconi says, any weekend and most weeknights he could go catch world-class alt-country bands in intimate settings all around town. He recalls Peter Blackstock, then No Depression’s editor, writing that Raleigh and surrounding towns were an epicenter for this burgeoning style, citing its wealth of bands like the Backsliders, 6 String Drag, Two Dollar Pistols, and Trailer Bride. It was a drunken, wide-open time — Caligula-esque, as Menconi describes it — and if you claim to remember it, you likely weren’t there.

“There was a minute in the mid-’90s when it looked like alternative country was gonna blow up and be a thing,” Menconi says.

Menconi has formed a rule of thumb: “People in restaurants form great bands, people in record stores form good ones, while people who work in instrument stores form terrible ones.” Acts like Whiskeytown and 6 String Drag, for example, were formed of restaurant employees — many of them Sadlack’s employees — and the music was appropriately great.

There was a feel around town, Menconi recalls, that one of these bands was going to ascend to greater fame. Whiskeytown was the most likely candidate. It was a great band and Adams was so obviously a star. But Adams burned through several iterations of Whiskeytown (one of which Kurtz played in) before leaving Raleigh to have his big-time career elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the alt-country scene in Raleigh sputtered.

“It was kind of unrequited promise,” Menconi says. “Years later, you can still see the Backsliders playing bars around here, and I find it incredibly poignant and wistful when they fire up ‘Throwing Rocks at the Moon,’ which is a great song.

“It always makes me wonder, how would it feel to write a song that good and feel like you were on your way, fast-forward 20 years, and you’re running a bike repair shop and playing that same song for dwindling crowds?” Menconi wonders. “None of those bands ever quite broke through.”

Authentic and Appealing

“When I was, like, 14, I came by to visit my sister when she was living here,” McKelvey says. “We [drove by Sadlack’s on Hillsborough], and it was like, what the hell is that place? This was probably early-‘90s or late-’80s and I saw a dude with a full mohawk.”

Then, in 1998, McKelvey moved to Raleigh — again, to a place on Maiden Lane — and decided Sadlack’s simply had to be his home base. He was in a Bukowski phase, he says with a smirk, and there was something authentic and appealing about Sadlack’s’ cast of eccentric characters. This was where the freaks hung out, plain and simple.

‘It always makes me wonder, how would it feel to write a song that good and feel like you were on your way, fast-forward 20 years, and you’re running a bike repair shop and playing that same song for dwindling crowds?’

“I had been living in Raleigh for four or five years and one afternoon I was hanging out there watching traffic, and some kid was sitting in the back of his parents’ car at that stoplight,” McKelvey says. “We kind of looked at each other, and I was like, ‘Holy shit. I was that kid in the back seat of that car, and here I am sitting on the porch. What the fuck am I doing with my life?’”

Cain started coming by Sadlack’s in 1995, the year she finished high school, and she remembers climbing up to skateboard on the roof. Spence didn’t arrive until 2005 or so. Yet, the three worked there, hung out, and played music. This was all after the big excitement of the Whiskeytown era (“Who is this Ryan person everyone is always bitching about?” McKelvey remembers wondering), but many of the same bands and the same players from that time were still around, while new musicians like Cain, McKelvey, and Spence were arriving and forming outfits of their own.

American Aquarium bandleader BJ Barham started at N.C. State in 2002. His band never played Sadlack’s, but he had incredible respect for the room. Anytime someone would come into town, he’d take them there for lunch. When his wife, Rachael, moved to Raleigh, it was one of the first places he took her.

“When you walk in, the first thing you saw was this poster for the first Whiskeytown show there. So you realize you’re walking into this hallowed space. Even though it was a shithole, it was a pretty sacred shithole,” Barham says.

My own Sadlack’s story started in 2008, a few months after moving to the area. I’ve been a journalist for eight years, but I’ve been an amateur musician for a lot longer.

By the time I arrived, Sadlack’s was still a weird and vibrant place where it was pretty easy to book your first Raleigh show, which I did one cold, cold night that winter with a post-metal duo called Battle Rockets I was in at the time. (“I was at that show,” McKelvey says.) Then, on July 4, 2009, I booked a mini-fest I called Let Feedback Ring; I held onto that name and used it for a day party I booked at Sadlack’s the next September, during downtown Raleigh’s first Hopscotch Music Festival. At one show, I booked the band Goodbye, Titan, who were so loud that they knocked the clock off the kitchen wall. And it was at Sadlack’s that I played to the biggest audience I ever have, easily, during a Halloween show with another old band called Where the Buffalo Roamed.

It didn’t stop there. In 2011, when I went back to college at NC State to get an English degree and jumpstart my writing career, I worked out a deal with Schwetz, the owner: she would let me park at Sadlack’s, which was directly across Hillsborough from my class buildings, as long as I kept booking Hopscotch day parties.

Sadlack’s helped me find my footing both as a musician and as a music person in general, and I wasn’t alone. McKelvey, for instance, says he gained as much from watching shows on the patio as he did from playing them. “I would always learn something. ‘Oh, that guy forgot something. Don’t forget your shit,’ or, ‘How did he fix that?’” he says. “Anything that could go wrong with a band, you could see it and how they would react to it. I felt like I was trying to learn by watching.”

Mark Connor only came to Sadlack’s 10 times — maybe fewer than that — but he has vivid memories. Since 2009, Connor’s made his living working at local dives. He used to be the booking agent at Slim’s in Raleigh, which he later managed, and he has co-owned the Cave in Chapel Hill since 2012. To an extent, he still oversees music programming in both rooms.

One of his Sadlack’s experiences was a show by local art-punk band Whatever Brains and free-association psych-rockers Shit Horse. It was a cold night, but Sadlack’s was packed, and he loved seeing the regulars getting into the loud, raucous music and interacting with the punks it brought out.

And on July 13, 2010, when Connor lived a few blocks away, he remembers walking down to Schoolkids Records (which for a few years was in the same cluster of shops that was demolished to make way for the Aloft Hotel) to buy The Love Language’s Libraries on release day. Chatham County Line’s Wildwood came out the same day, and Connor stumbled right into one of those had-to-be-there Sadlack’s shows.

“[Chatham County Line] had an in-store at Schoolkids that too many people showed up for, so they were performing at Sadlack’s,” Connor says. “It was amazing. They were out there selling the Chatham County Line records with a handheld credit card thing.”

Staking Territory

Working at Sadlack’s, McKelvey, Cain, and Spence saw the best and worst of the place. For one, you could learn a lot of Raleigh history just from hanging out, McKelvey says. His Arkansas Bill nickname points to the fact that late-90s Sadlack’s was a native’s haunt (which the natives didn’t let him forget) and a ready source of local lore.

The cool stuff also included musicians, like Dex Romweber of the Flat Duo Jets, who refused to outgrow the patio stage. Up through the end, he would play purposefully under-the-radar Sunday afternoon shows at Sadlack’s. He preferred it that way — no promotion, no flier, nothing. All he needed was a cup of coffee, no matter how hot out it was. The Avett Brothers, Two Cow Garage, Oedipus Dick, and Lou Ford are also among the ranks of bands that played the patio.

McKelvey remembers the underage punk shows, too. “Parents would drop their kids off, and they’d come out and be all Hot Topic-ed out,” he says. McKelvey liked that it gave teenaged musicians and fans a place to go, but the regulars could be pretty nasty about it. That was part of the bad stuff, says Spence: The Sadlack’s regulars could be unnecessarily territorial.

Sadlack’s helped me find my footing both as a musician and as a music person in general, and I wasn’t alone

They could go dangerously overboard, too: feral, as McKelvey puts it. In 2003, Sadlack’s regular Larry Robert Veeder (bar name “Blinker”) ran over and killed six people who had stopped to help at an earlier accident. Writer and Sadlack’s regular Peter Eichenberger wrote with tragic tenderness about the aftermath of his friend Veeder’s drunk-driving accident for the Independent Weekly (which has since been rebranded INDY). Spence knows he was on a dangerous precipice at Sadlack’s, too, though he has since come out the other side.

“I’m not bashful about it at all. I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic,” he says. “Before Sadlack’s had the makeover and [when I was] still doing lots of drugs, I remember going to see shows at that place and walking into the old bathroom and being like, ‘Oh my god, this is like getting trapped in a K-hole.’

Adjusting to Change

And then came the end, in 2013.

“When it was getting down to the wire with that place getting closed for good, it was heartbreaking, but it was also the most out-of-control thing you’ve ever seen,” Spence says. “It just seemed like word got out to the homeless, kind of out-of-control bum community, the alcoholics, and the drug addicts. They would come up there and raise pure hell.”

In the last four months, Spence had three or four knives or razor blades flashed at him by such hell-raisers when he was kicking them out (and, as the members of Mike Spence Rock Project attest, it took more to get kicked out of Sadlack’s than any other bar in town). The place had always been wild and chaotic, but the last six months took on a nihilistic air. “That was disappointing,” Spence says. “Even people who hung out there stopped giving a shit.”

Menconi was there on the last night, where he encountered an anticlimactic scene. He expected it to be a more emotional evening, he says, and he had halfway figured the crowd would go full-on riot and tear the place to pieces. Yet all he recalls is few broken beer bottles. “You felt it, certainly, but it wasn’t as overwhelmingly emotional as I expected. You didn’t see anybody openly weeping or anything like that,” Menconi says. “Others might remember that differently or have seen other quadrants of that.”

Without Sadlack’s, there’s certainly a piece of Raleigh missing for people who remember the bar’s heyday. Some of the regulars have started going to the Berkeley Cafe downtown, which retains several menu items and a lot of Sadlack’s memorabilia on its patio; the Berk books many of the same bands, who even use the old Sadlack’s PA when they play there.

Younger generations, Menconi says, likely didn’t feel the loss as keenly, and newer downtown venues fill the same role for them that Sadlack’s did for four decades on Hillsborough.

“They still have Slim’s,” Cain says, referring to a downtown dive and rock club.

“That’s not even scary anymore,” Spence says.

“Slim’s has always been successful, but they’re even more successful now, business-wise,” he continues. “They allowed for the change to happen. They got more accepting of different people.”

Sadlack’s either never wanted or was never able to pivot as Raleigh became a destination and entered its gentrification period, he says. When major music festivals like Hopscotch started in Raleigh, rooms like Slim’s got directly involved and grew as a result.

We were just ready for the city to change around us. A year and a half into me working at Slim’s, Hopscotch started, and that changed everything,” says Connor. “I think it made Slim’s a safer place for people who wouldn’t otherwise consider going there.”

He’s put a good bit of consideration into a dive bar’s function in a healthy music ecosystem, such as Raleigh’s, and he feels rooms like Slim’s can be “great equalizer[s].” It’s his job to bring people into the experience and to make it positive and welcoming for them, even if they come in well dressed and order a martini, he says, citing a specific example. Drinks are cheap, and so is the cover charge. And Slim’s’ function for musicians is the same as Sadlack’s’ was, and the same as these rooms’ analogues in other cities.

“I grew up elsewhere, but we also had dive bars,” Connor says. “The ability to book a show just because you were a band and have somebody take a chance on you whether it was a Sunday or a Tuesday night was amazing. The first time your first band had a show, you’re like, ‘Holy cow. This is real! We’re going to play a show!’”

One difference, though, is that Slim’s, which lacks a kitchen, is a 21-and-up room. Connor laments that Raleigh lost an all-ages venue when Sadlack’s closed. He argues that the entry point to a local music scene shouldn’t exclude teens and college students.

Something Missing

Back in Gonza Tacos, Gilmore and Cary finish their food. All the change along Hillsborough Street and beyond doesn’t seem to be too disorienting for the two Whiskeytown and Sadlack’s veterans across the table, perhaps because this kind of turnover is simply part of the Raleigh experience nowadays. In fact, American Aquarium bandleader Barham admitted separately that he no longer tells people what his favorite places in Raleigh are anymore. He has a sinking feeling they’ll be torn down by some developer in two or three years anyway.

When asked what Raleigh is missing these days, Gilmore vaguely offers, “Just some weird.”

“But weird in the daylight. That’s the difference,” Cary says. “The proximity to the university was a big part of why Sadlack’s was what it was. Professors or professors’ kids or students, but any boring students would be scared to death.”

“It was like a dare to come in, even for lunch,” Gilmore says.

“Slim’s is a version of that, but it’s dark,” Cary continues. “There were probably more fights at Sadlack’s, but they took place in the daylight in the middle of the street.”

“Like they should,” Gilmore says and laughs.

***

This essay first appeared in No Depression, the quarterly print magazine of roots music. Our thanks to Corbie Hill and the No Depression staff for allowing us to share it with the Longreads community.