Offers live music every Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
Twenty-three miles west of Lampasas, way out in the country alongside the Colorado River, sits one of the busiest and most popular live music venues in central Texas.
Bend General Store.
This unlikely-looking establishment just up the road from Colorado Bend State Park once had a not-so-good reputation, but since Temple native Bret Cali bought the place and started making improvements, the house is consistently packed on weekends to hear a variety of music, including rock, blues, country and rockabilly played by local talent, up-and-coming bands, and established performers.
“I bought the place three years, five months and 12 days ago, but I really don’t keep track of stuff like that,” said Cali, 51, who was born at Scott and White hospital and attended Bonham Middle School.
“I was driving by (and) it was for sale. The place was in major disrepair when I got it. It hadn’t been painted in 20 years. It was open (but) it wasn’t at the top of its game. Everybody I talked to after I bought it said I was totally insane and I’d never make any money.
“Originally, the store was really dependent on business from the (state) park, but that can be sporadic. My background is marketing and concerts – working with venues and getting people to show up places, which comes in handy because we’re at the end of a dead end road, out in the middle of nowhere.
“It took about a year, but we were able to change this place into a destination, and not be dependent on the park.
“When I first got this place, it had a pretty bad reputation. It was pretty seedy out here. I kind of cleaned house. One thing I learned a long time ago … once you lose control of your crowd, you’ll never get it back. If you have one person with a bad vibe, it’ll spread to everybody. If you open a bar or nightclub and you get a seedy crowd, you’ll never get the folks you want back.
“Our demographic is 40-plus (years old),” Cali explained. “We do get younger folks, too. We’ve never had a fight. There’s no drama out here. If somebody comes out and they’re in a bad mood or they have a bad vibe to ‘em, we’ll try to figure out what’s going on, and if they don’t decide to get happy in the pants they got mad in, then they can walk home in those same pants.
“I worked with nightclubs and bars across the country for quite a while and part of what a venue owner does is set the vibe.
“We literally get people who will drive here on a Saturday or Sunday from as far as Houston or Dallas – just for the day and then turn around and drive back home. It’s always amazing.”
Cali, who has lived all over the world, worked in marketing for EMI Entertainment; advertising for Onmicom Group; and event marketing for R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris tobacco companies.
That experience has been key to success for Bend General Store, which has been featured on The Daytripper public television show, and in Texas Monthly and Texas Highways magazines.
“I dealt with every type of club, bar, music venue that you can possibly imagine,” Cali said. “My job was to get people to show up places, and I learned every trick in the book.
“Let’s say I had a small bar that was 200, 300 people, and maybe I had a thousand-dollar budget for music and wanted to guarantee that it was full. Rather than book one band and have to promote the heck out of it, I would book ten bands at a hundred dollars each, and they would bring every single one of their family members and friends. So I was guaranteed a full house no matter what.
“There’s a million little tricks. One thing that is incredibly important is treating the bands well. Music venues predominately across the board … lots of venue owners have big egos and they treat a lot of their bands and musicians like shit.
“You’ve got promoters who disappear at the end of the night – the oldest trick in the book. You’ve got venue owners who will find some grievance and not pay what they promised.
“You need to treat the bands well. You treat one band well and all of their (musician) friends start contacting you – it’s a small world.”
Cali, who lives in a cabin next to Bend General Store, says he is way too busy working seven days a week to keep up much with live music in Temple-Belton-Killeen. But he does have definite ideas on how venue owners can help grow a bustling scene.
“You need to be marketing all the time, if you’re going to be successful as a music venue,” he said. “I don’t care if you like Facebook or not, it’s not a fad. It’s not going away.
“We’ve been open for almost three-and-a-half years, and we have almost 17,000 followers on our Facebook page from all over the state and the country. I don’t really have to pay for advertising anymore because when you have that many followers and they’re sharing your posts, sometimes they’ll reach 250,000 people.
“I don’t give a shit about what people are having for dinner, and I don’t need to see pictures of your feet in a lawn chair on the beach, but if I have 17,000 people following my page and I post something that gets 200 likes and shares, I own real estate in their heads for five seconds or more.
“If I hear a radio ad, I can hear the same company’s ads for 10 years, and I still can’t tell you the name of the company. If somebody is liking, sharing or commenting, you own real estate in their head and their friend’s head.
“I lived in a neighborhood in a city – not Bend – and I’d come home from work, and there would be a flyer from a pizza place or a Chinese place that I hadn’t heard of. I said, ‘Looks good. I think I’ll order something.’
“They’d have awesome food and I might order a couple times. Then months would pass and I’d forget about them … lose the flyer. Then they’d send another flyer and I’d order from them again.
“I see so many restaurants and bars around here that aren’t posting that often. You have to. First thing Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, I post on all the sites. You need to be marketing your venue all the time.
“You need to be posting every single day. You need to build up that following of people who are watching what you’re doing.”
Cali’s consistent marketing efforts and ongoing innovations – along with the remote location – kept Bend General Store flourishing all last year, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions that shut down and/or closed other music venues.
“We rocked for the entire year,” he said. “To be quite frank, we just didn’t participate.
“I was very lucky because I was out here and nobody hassled me. We have this huge outdoor area, and my philosophy is … whatever hurdles get thrown in front of me, I figure out a way above it, around it, through it.
“Right in the heart of the scariest part of all of it, we had big artists and 350 people out here. There were people who would just wander in – maybe from Austin who are used to a different scene – and you’d see them shit themselves. The whole country was locked down and out here, it wasn’t happening.
“If somebody had come out here and taken pictures and sent them in to the news, they could have made me look like a complete ass. But what do you do? I’m not going to turf out all my staff and put my future at risk.
“The thing was, I believe in science … but I also have staff who have kids and you need to pay them and pay the bills. The government is not here to save me. What am I supposed to do?”
Bend General Store features live music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. See their Facebook page for upcoming events.
Last weekend, one of the showcase performers was Chris Duarte, a legendary guitarist from Austin who is a frequent visitor. On June 12, Gary P. Nunn – considered father of the progressive country music scene that began in Austin in the early ‘70s, and famous for writing the song, “London Homesick Blues” – will be on stage, followed by Terry McBride on August 7.
Most of the bands featured at Bend come from areas south and west of Lampasas. A few local musicians hit the stage as well but those are somewhat rare, as Cali says he is choosy about who he books.
“We go out of our way to find great bands. There’s a lot of bands that are good, but they don’t belong out here – they’re too hard (rock) or whatever. They belong maybe at a bar that has more of that kind of a crowd.
“As far as the local music scene … I have put out feelers constantly in those areas (Temple-Belton-Killeen) and I’m not hearing back. I’ve never had a band from Killeen-Temple reach out to me.
“We have people up on stage who are just as good as anybody you’ve ever seen in a stadium. They’re just as good, (but) they just don’t have the marketing machine behind them. There’s tons of bands with national recognition who don’t play the guitar nearly as well as 90 percent of the people who are on our stage.
“A lot of venue owners will book any band that is available. Or the cheapest band. And they’re going to get what they pay for.
“It’s pretty rare that I would ever pay a full band, which I consider three pieces or more, less than five hundred dollars. And there’s nights out here where they’ll (also) clear that much in tips.
“We do our music from 12 until 9. We’ve trained the crowd, so by 9 o’clock everybody is starting to leave. They get home safely. If we stay open later, we start to get a rougher crowd.”
“In the end, both musicians and venue owners share responsibility for creating or maintaining a vibrant live music scene,” says Cali, who also has developed an extensive food menu to include burgers, barbecue, fajitas, pizza, wraps, salads and more. He hired a top-notch staff, brought in a massage therapist for customers, improved the outdoor beer garden, and is constantly looking for ways to improve.
“I want this place to be legendary. I can’t leave until we get Texas famous and then I can think about it.
“My heroes are people like (the late) Bill Graham, one of the greatest music promoters of all time. I got to work for his company briefly.
“I have a killer staff. We all could be classified as people who hate authority and have anger management issues, and so we’re all kind of a big family.
“One thing that is interesting is, every restaurant in the country right now is struggling to get staff and we actually have too many right now (15 employees). We have employees who drive two hours to get here. We pay them extremely well – they’re my most valuable asset.
“This little place … we’re booking some amazing talent. We got a lot of fantastic bands out here.
“It’s pretty neat that you can come see Gary P. Nunn and you’ll be sitting 10 feet from the stage.”
John H Clark III is a longtime central Texas journalist and author. Go to www.johnhenryiii.com for more on his books and writing services.