The Story Behind 50 Years of Cat’s Cradle

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Cats Cradle Cover Image Vintage Poster Art Chapel Hill, NC
Over the years, Cat’s Cradle hired local artists such as Ron Liberti, Casey Burns and Chris Williams to create poster art. Illustration by Keith Warther. Designs featured above are: Ron Liberti: Southern Culture on the Skids, The Rosebuds, Superchunk, Polvo; Casey Burns: Tift Merritt, The Sea and Cake, WXYC benefit show; and Chris Williams: The Gaslight Anthem, The Distillers. Various posters courtesy of Casey Burns Collection #20415, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, UNC. Various posters courtesy of Dave Robert Collection #20504, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, UNC.

Storied venue Cat’s Cradle changed owners and locations over its 50 years, but never lost its cool

By Bill Smith

Back in the 1960s, my friend Marcia Wilson became enamored of the small folk clubs in New York City’s West Village, which she visited with her brother, Stevie. She decided to look south for a place to start a venue of her own with a small inheritance. She passed on Charlottesville and settled here. 

In September 1969, Marcia received a business license to open a live music club on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. It took two tries, because somehow the man in the office had misunderstood and gave her permission to open a skating rink. Happily, the mistake was straightened out.

Her two early partners, composer-songwriters Mike Cross and Larry Reynolds, decided to move on after the first year or so, and their places were taken by another composer-songwriter, Jim Wann, and me. By this point, we were in a tiny basement room under what is now Mediterranean Deli. The entrance was on Rosemary Street. We were dreadful businesspeople. We bounced checks, and our taxes were always late. The beer companies made us pay in cash. That’s how I ended up cooking for a living, actually. I had to find a day job because paychecks were iffy at best. 

Eventually, we were evicted from that place for making too much noise. We were saved by George Tate, who was putting up a new building a block down the street, and emboldened by the fact that ignorance is bliss. The new spot was adjacent to Dip’s Country Kitchen, a match made in heaven, I always thought. Jim moved to New York after a few years, and David Robert stepped into the gap. When Marcia was killed tragically in a car wreck in 1979, David brought in partners Walter and Virginia Penley. At that point, I was phasing out of working at the Cradle and into cooking. But I had so many stories and so many fabulous shows under my belt that I could never really leave.

Cat's Cradle Franklin St Location Chapel Hill Historical Society Images Collection
Cat’s Cradle has moved a few times in its 50 years, including to locations on Franklin and Rosemary streets in Chapel Hill. Photo by Chapel Hill Historical Society Images Collection.

In the mid-’80s, David and the Penleys passed the torch to Frank Heath. As we all realized during two weekends of anniversary shows in December and January, the rest is history. 

And what history it is. None of us realized back then, this foundation that was being laid here for important music. Those who don’t frequent clubs probably write them off as drunk people dancing around late at night. That can certainly happen, but there is also art, and sometimes it is great art. The Cradle has become the center, or better, the heart, of a vibrant music community that includes other cool clubs that also have exciting music, record labels, recording studios and production companies. We have great radio. People move here because of the music scene. And we have a very sophisticated public with catholic tastes. Where else in North Carolina will 40 people show up on a cold Monday in January to pay $25 to see a Japanese noise band? Every style of music has a constituency here. More than once, I’ve come into the club, looked around and thought to myself, “Who are all of these people, and where did they come from?” Peter Murphy, once a member of the mid-’80s British band Bauhaus, comes to mind. He played a show here in February 2019. Plenty of people who I’d never seen before came dressed appropriately in things that were surely from the back of their closets. But they looked fabulous, and the seriousness with which they took their music was obvious. That show was sensational, by the way, and worth the 30-year wait.  

More than once lately, I’ve noticed people bringing their children to shows. I love this. At the benefit concert for Australian wildlife in January, there were two little girls and their mother wearing glowing devil horns as they danced to Shoot To Thrill, an all-female AC/DC cover band. Hope for the future, if you ask me. 

I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably the only one from the original crowd who has attended shows there routinely for the whole 50 years. This long view is breathtaking. Honestly, it’s the music more than the cooking that has kept me here. I had several friends whose almost-grown children were playing in their own bands during the Cradle’s anniversary parties. The legacy seems sturdy at this point. It’s assumed, I think, that eventually one outgrows going to clubs and turns one’s radio dial to golden oldies. Here, you don’t have to. If you think it’s too loud or too late, then buy earplugs and take a nap. I just turned 71. You’re never too old to be astonished by genius. 

Tift Merritt Cat's Cradle Concert Venue Chapel Hill NC Photo by Briana Brough
Tift Merritt, here on stage in 2016, grew up watching bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers perform at Cat’s Cradle. Photo by Briana Brough.

Best in Show – Bill Smith shares notable concerts

It would be more difficult to name an important indie band that hasn’t played Cat’s Cradle in the past 50 years than to list those that have. (Actually, there is one. R.E.M. always played The Station in their early days.) It’s harder still to make a list of greatest hits. 

The folk scene in the West Village in New York inspired the tone of the original club. We had already moved down the street and in with Dip’s Country Kitchen when we began to have some heft. In those early days, we had shows by Dave Van Ronk, The Roches, and Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens. Toward the end of our residency on Rosemary Street, things began to shift. There were a lot of great local bands with big followings, and then more and more non-Top 40 groups from elsewhere began to show up here, too. We were a perfect stop between Athens, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. There were many memorable shows, some because of the performances and others because of sideshows. Imagine Root Boy Slim crashing around in your office completely naked. Or in the middle of a show by the Hard Time Jazz Band, the lights go out. 

Alejandro Escovedo and his early band, True Believers, used to play often and made a lot of friends here. H.R. of Bad Brains did a standing somersault on the stage, despite the low ceiling. The band stayed at my house and managed to set fire to the blinds with a stick of incense. We used to do a lot of theater there as well. The concerts performed by the Red Clay Ramblers and Southern States Fidelity Choir were spectacular as they prepared to take their homegrown musical, “Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James,” to New York for an off-Broadway run. The bands Sonic Youth and Swans made their first foray south to Chapel Hill. We didn’t know what hit us that night. 

We moved to Franklin Street, and things kept getting better. When Violent Femmes came to play, half of the town, for some reason, went to a thrift store to buy new outfits. I roasted chickens to feed Ice-T and Body Count, and they repaid me with the best show I’ve ever seen in my life anywhere. Lastly, no one who was there will ever forget the night that Tragic Mulatto opened for Gwar. No one. 

The Cradle has been in Carrboro since 1993. I’ll wrap up my reminiscence of the early years with the night that Frente! was headlining the show – probably 300 people were there when Hurricane Fran hit. The power went out halfway through the show, and there were so many trees and power lines down that it was almost impossible to drive anywhere. People were walking home through the eye of the storm.

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