Mix Tapes: Behind the Soundtrack at Dallas’ Midnight Rambler

The allure of a bar is never based solely on its drinks. Here, in Mix Tapes, Kenny Herzog sheds light on some of the best bar playlists and the philosophies behind them. This round: the eclectic vintage rock and soul cuts at Midnight Rambler.

Midnight Rambler co-creator and Austin, Texas native, Chad Solomon spent years slinging innovative cocktails amid New York’s circa-2000s speakeasy boom, honing his skills at institutions including Milk & Honey and Pegu Club. But in 2013, he and partner Christy Pope (also a Milk & Honey alum) scratched the itch to head back to Solomon’s home state. There, they opened Rambler, a warm, contemporary cocktail den with retro flourishes, arced ceilings, checkered tile floors and contrasts of marble and wood, located a few hours north of Austin, in Dallas.

As for the decision to settle in Dallas specifically, Solomon explains that it was determined in part thanks to the city’s “incredibly rich music history.” (Solomon, a lifelong musician, is quick to add that the bar is located a mere couple of blocks from where blues singer-songwriter Robert Johnson once recorded.) So it’s fitting that one of Rambler’s defining features would be its era-fluid soundtrack, which journeys through ‘50s rock, first-generation garage psych and avant garde new wave, among others. And while weekend nights do feature vinyl-only DJ shifts, the tunes are otherwise pared-down favorites, seamlessly sequenced into playlists by New York-based background-music cultivator Gray V. From there, the music is streamed through top-flight, solid-state amplifiers purposefully purchased with what Solomon assures was “analog, acoustic quality in mind.” (A complete analog system, he adds, proved prohibitively costly.)

As far as working with Gray V on some of those finer atmospheric points—as opposed to creating personal playlists himself—Solomon explains, “We knew exactly what we wanted, but we didn’t want to get into playlist management.”

Fortunately, they were willing to make an exception; below, Solomon and Pope offer a streamable mix of songs to take home.

The Location: Midnight Rambler

What You’re Likely to Hear:  Whether it’s a late-night DJ set or an owner-selected rotation of gems, the emphasis is on vintage rock, soul, surf and a touch of proto-punk; a collection that runs the gamut from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Suicide.

How They Settled On Their Music of Choice: “What we wanted to do was tease out the cultural aspects of Dallas that the city’s kind of forgot about and repackage it through our lens,” says Solomon, adding that it’s also informed by the time he and Pope spent in New York. “Max’s Kansas City became this spiritual framing device,” Solomon says, citing his admiration for the city’s rollicking clubs of yore. “It started to speak to the eclectic-ness.”

Who Controls the Music: As mentioned, Solomon, Pope, Gray V and occasional DJs define what you hear—not that management didn’t consider a customer-driven jukebox of 45s or LPs. But, says Solomon, “When it’s at the hands of a random crowd, you’re gonna have things that don’t necessarily go together, whether it’s tempo or the volume or intensity of the song. It just seemed like, for us, this would be the best way to go.”

Three Songs that Best Represent Their Sound: Solomon describes “Get Down With It” by Little Richard as a “call to arms”; The 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” as representing the scrappy psychedelic style that is “an important plank in the Rambler sonic platform”; and “Rocket USA” by Suicide as possessing a “quality that’s much more rhythmic, much more ambient.” As for the track “Midnight Rambler,” Solomon points out that the bar actually didn’t take its name from the Rolling Stones single; rather, it’s named for the wee-hour, anything-goes “Midnight Ramble” jam sessions that artists like The Band’s Levon Helm were synonymous with.

The Key to Their Playlist Philosophy: “We’re sharing something that we’re very enthusiastic and passionate about with people,” Solomon says, noting that they’re equally obsessive about proper aural alchemy as they are about drink-making. “We try to maintain a certain energy level, and there’s a shared DNA musically and sonically between all these different styles. The net effect is it makes you want to move.”

Perfect song to start the night: “We don’t have happy hour at Midnight Rambler,” says Solomon. “We have Twine Time, which is named for the Alvin Cash & The Registers’ 1963 instrumental soul groover. It’s a killer [way] to light the fuse on the night.”

Perfect song to end the night: A regular pair of Rambler spinners, DJs Gabe Mendoza and Jeff Paul, close out their set with “Nobody Knows” by Pastor T.L. Barrett and The Youth for Christ Choir, a Chicago gospel-soul mesmerizer. Solomon calls it a “euphoric, celebratory, sanctified soother.”

Spirit Artist: DJ Swami John Reis

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Kenny Herzog is a former editor for brands including CMJ and HEEB, and a present-day pop-culture writer currently contributing to Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vulture, Made Man and many more.