As a veteran of the Austin, Texas, music scene — where many venues that helped make the city a hot spot have been bulldozed by development — Dale Watson knows a good bar and a bad omen when he sees them. And he sees both in the case of Lee’s Liquor Lounge in downtown Minneapolis.
“It’s sad city leaders don’t recognize how much is lost when a place like Lee’s closes,” Watson said. “That’s a part of the city’s character it’ll never get back.”
The legendary love story between Watson and Lee’s — one of the Twin Cities’ longest-lasting artist/venue relationships — appears to be coming to a dramatic end this week as the Texas honky-tonker returns for a show Sunday and two more on Tuesday.
Craig Kruckeberg, the bar’s owner for the past four years, is declaring these gigs the swan song for the vintage saloon.
Details on the pending closure are still as muddy as the nearby parking lot that the bar’s longtime owner, Louie Sirian, kept plowed for decades. Owned by the city, the state and Hennepin County, the lot has been used for free by Lee’s patrons for many years but soon will be partly taken over by equipment for construction of the Southwest light-rail line.
Kruckeberg accused the city of reneging on a deal over use of the lot, and he said he must close the bar as a result. City officials dispute his claim.
Skeptical patrons have accused Kruckeberg of using the issue as an excuse to sell the property for development, after promising he would never do thatwhen he bought the place from Sirian in 2015 — a deal that came just a few months after the beloved Nye’s Polonaise Room was lost to an apartment project.
Watson is just sticking to what he knows: These two shows are likely to be his last at the bar that has been one of his most frequent tour stops for a quarter-century.
“We had no idea this would be the last hurrah when we booked the [first] gig,” said the 56-year-old singer, who’s also heading up to another Minnesota outpost he likes, Rollie’s Rednecks and Longnecks in Sauk Rapids, to perform Monday between the two Lee’s appearances.
“I think these shows are going to be pretty emotional. I’d have rather played them not knowing they’re going to be the last, to be honest. But I’m glad the people will get to see us there one more time.”
‘It started with Louie’
With his baritone voice, throwback country sound and character-driven original songs, Watson became a mainstay of the Austin scene in the ’90s with weekly gigs at such one-of-a-kind clubs as Ego’s, the Continental Club, the Broken Spoke and the “home of chicken [poop] bingo,” Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
That all caught the attention of Hightone Records, who signed him and first brought him to Minneapolis in the mid-1990s as part of a package tour that stopped at First Avenue. A year or two later he made it to Lee’s on his own, and suffice it to say he felt right at home.
“It wasn’t so much the honky-tonk vibe there, though it is a great room and obviously fits my music well,” Watson said. “It had more to do with the people. The place was just the embodiment of Midwest hospitality, and of course that started with Louie. He and I hit it off right away.”
Retired since 2015, the bar’s former owner is “the kind of person you could tell took great pride in his place,” Watson said, affectionately recounting how Sirian kept a wall of meticulously maintained mops to keep the place clean. “You could eat off the floor there.”
Located in an 1890s-era warehouse, the bar was opened in 1957 by its namesake, Lee Triemert. Sirian bought it from Triemert’s widow 20 years later but never bothered to change the name — which became the inside joke of Watson’s song “Louie’s Lee’s Liquor Lounge,” from his 1999 album, “People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been.” That anthem cemented Watson’s group alongside local twangers Trailer Trash as the unofficial house bands of Lee’s.
Watson acknowledged “it hasn’t been the same” since Sirian retired, but he said, “Louie vouched for Craig, and that’s good enough for me. He’s kept the place alive these several years now, and almost acted like a curator for what Louie created there.”
Another of Watson’s longtime ties to the Twin Cities, his label Red House Records, is no longer based in St. Paul, after being sold to Nashville-based company Compass in 2017. “It doesn’t have the same mom-and-pop charm it used to,” he said, “but it’s some of the same people and has more of a Nashville outlook that’s good in some ways.”
His latest album for Red House, “Call Me Lucky,” reflected another big location change in Watson’s life: It was recorded at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis, the city where he now hangs his hat. He still owns a place in Austin and plays there regularly, but like many musicians he found the Texas capital to be getting too crowded and expensive.
“Memphis is a cool music town, too, a little more laid-back, the way Austin used to be,” he said.
As for Minneapolis losing one of its more colorful fixtures, Watson summed up of Lee’s, “If you were to take a wide photograph of the place and everything that’s around it, you can see that it stands out like a relic from another era.
“It’s a credit to Louie it hung on as long as it did, but I guess it’s not a huge surprise it’s going away. That’s the world we live in.”
Dale Watson When: 7 p.m. Sun., 7 & 10 p.m. Tue. Where: Lee's Liquor Lounge, 101 Glenwood Av., Mpls. Tickets: $17 via ticketfly.com; both 7 p.m. shows are sold out.