The announcement came rather humbly, fitting for a bar without a sign at its entrance tucked away in deepest South Austin. “As the new owner of Sam’s Town Point it would be fiscally irresponsible of me to not let you know that Jim Stringer will be playing there tonight,” singer-songwriter Ramsay Midwood wrote in a post on his Facebook page a few days before Christmas.
Run for 30 years by Penny Grossman and her family, Sam’s got its Town Point name from a geographical distinction of straddling the actual Austin city limits. Recent annexations have since pushed the border farther out. But Sam’s, with a spacious dance floor, lots of tables and chairs and a long wooden bar, remains one of South Austin’s coolest hideaways.
Midwood, whose backwoods folk-rock earned him a cult following in Americana circles in late-’90s Los Angeles, stumbled upon Sam’s shortly after he moved to South Austin in 2002. “I took a wrong turn, that’s how I found it,” he says.
Midwood had been seeking a place to play with precisely the kind of down-home vibe he found at Sam’s. As soon as he saw it, he realized, “That’s the place I’ve been looking for,” he recalls.
Midwood and a rotating cast of backing musicians essentially became the bar’s house band, though Sam’s has booked a long list of Austin roots acts over the years. But when Grossman’s son, Wally Grossman Jr., died in a motorcycle accident in 2011 at age 57, she wasn’t sure what the bar’s future would be.
“I just gave up,” she told Statesman videographer Kelly West. “I said, ‘Why am I keeping this place, then? I don’t have no one to help me.”
After word of a possible sale surfaced last year, Midwood expressed interest in helping out. Instead of selling, Grossman brought Midwood in as the official co-owner of the bar that had been his musical home base for almost 15 years.
Midwood says he stepped up partly because he feared encroachment by business interests that would change the nature of the neighborhood. “My vision of what was going to happen was that it was going to be a bulldozer situation, and they were going to put up offices,” he says.
Grossman was thrilled at the prospect of keeping Sam’s open with Midwood’s help. “She got emotional, saying, ‘These last 30 years were worth it,'” he recalls.
“She said, I don’t even want to sell it, I just want to be partners. So she just put me on the LLC and changed the name. She just basically gave me the bar, and now we’re working on the other portion of it, which is the land portion.”
Sam’s sits on a few acres that encompass the bar, its parking lot and several residences, including the place where Grossman lives. Midwood says he’s trying to raise money from local benefactors and philanthropists to secure the property for the future.
“I want to come up with $500,000,” he says. “I feel obligated to, even though I’m not obligated.”
Once literally the edge of town, this neighborhood just south of Slaughter Lane and west of Manchaca Road has become a growth area for creative types being pushed out of central Austin. A few hundred yards across the woods from Sam’s is a buzzing new hangout called Indian Roller, and the popular indoor-outdoor hot spot Moontower Saloon is just down the street.
Midwood will keep playing regularly at Sam’s — he and his band were onstage for New Year’s Eve to help the bar kick off 2017 — but he’s learning new things in his ownership role. “All of a sudden I understand the relationship between music and beer a little more,” he says. “I see how they coexist; there’s a symbiotic relationship.”
In some ways, it’s similar to what he’s been doing all along, in terms of managing a crew of co-workers. “It’s like having a band,” he says. “It’s the same deal, the same kind of skills.” The staff includes mostly family members and people Grossman has helped over the years who live on the property or nearby.
Midwood knows Grossman is relieved to be able to keep calling Sam’s home. “The thought of selling and changing situations after 30 years was not very appealing to her,” he said. “She wants to stay right here.”