Birthday Blues: Boondocks

Boondocks’ future seems uncertain after 20th birthday celebration

On March 18, Boondocks Lounge, a locally-beloved bar and grill known for its accepting community, live music and good eats, celebrated 20 years of operation. The folk music haven is the epitome of what you'd expect from a neighborhood saloon—dilapidated red brick walls, pool, darts, neon and dancing. The bar stands apart with live shows from critically acclaimed local and national musicians, its quirky giant wine bottle sculpture out front and the full-service kitchen—all of which keep the devoted armada of regulars coming back for more.

Despite this, Boondocks is really struggling to keep its head above water financially, according to owner Cathy Warner—so much so that she and her business partner, Bill Shew, aren't opposed to selling the place if the price is right.

"There's definitely times when [we] get behind on the rent or some taxes and [we] start to go, 'Holy cow. Can we dig ourselves out of this hole?'" Warner says. "If someone serious came in and they had an idea and really wanted to do something, I'm sure we would sell, but we'd give our customers...and employees notice."

The bar and grill, which Warner and Shew bought from previous owners Jim Bailey and Gloria Gillespie back in '96, hasn't had the easiest past few years. Warner says Boondocks immediately felt the effects of 2007's recession and has struggled to come back to its former glory ever since.

"Bill and I were working ridiculous hours," she says. "We pay rent...[we] pay a lot of money to keep this place going [and] everything is so up and down, up and down. When one thing happens, it affects the whole business, it seems like."

Warner says she thinks Boondocks' business continues to decline partially due to the city's focus on expanding and marketing of downtown and Fourth Avenue's bar and music scenes, and the media's similar focus on reporting it.

"I could probably have the Rolling Stones play here, and the paper wouldn't write about it," she says. "All the media promotes is downtown."

Boondocks does have support in other places, though. Marty Kool, a KXCI DJ and Southern Arizona Blues Heritage Foundation promoter, says he has booked and attended shows there for almost as long as Warner and Shew have been running it.

"They do the best job in town, I think, as far as bringing national acts in and also supporting the local musicians," he says.

Kool says he'd be pretty bummed if Boondocks ever closed because it's his favorite blues joint in Tucson.

"It's got such a history, and Bill and Kathy treat the musicians with such respect...they don't at other places," he says. "It'd be a huge loss for the local musicians, it'd be a huge loss for the blues community and it'd be a huge loss for the national acts that come through town."

As for the long-term future of Boondocks, Warner is unsure. She says the bar will play music six days a week and proudly serve its customers as it always has, but she doesn't want to run it forever.

"You know, we've paid our dues...I don't know if I want to do this for another 20 years, no," Warner says. "But I also don't just wanna walk away from it. If we were ever to leave here, I'd want it to be a graceful exit."

Short term, though, Warner says she plans to continue providing regular and new customers alike the classic Boondocks' experience; good hospitality, good food and good music. A place where, as their slogan says, "good friends meet."

"I like the idea of appealing to people that have something to come in for that we consistently do a good job of. To me, that's a success," she says. "If we're here five more years, then we'll have a 25th anniversary party."