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Bartender David Highfill on 31 Years at The Driskill

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Photo: Driskill/Official

David Highfill has been tending bar at The Driskill since February of 1982. During his time he's seen Austin transform from a "family" where "all the cool people knew each other" to a booming city. At the bar, he's had a heart to heart with Jerry Garcia, heard Stevie Ray Vaughan's first record over a "jam box," and even once served a "rough guy" who might have been a famous hit man. Highfill's career spans the death of the three martini lunch and the rise of mixology, when "people are muddling everything." He's been a professional musician and drummer for thirty-four years and calls himself an "old school bartender."

When did you start working at the Driskill?

I started working at the Driskill February 5, 1982. You weren't even born yet. It's crazy nowadays, I'm serving people that were born in, like, 1992. Ten years before they're born I'm serving here. It just baffles me how time flies by.

Are you originally from Austin?

I've been here since 1976. I'm a native Texan, born in Midland.

What brought you to the Driskill?

I had worked at a place called Lock Stock and Barrel on Anderson Lane. I got into a dispute with another employee, and we both ended up getting fired. It was really his fault but anyway. I started thinking about the coolest places to work and I came here first. I went through two interviews and I got the job and I have been here ever since.

It's been a really cool place to work. I've met people who I've grown up watching on TV or bands I've grown up listening to, or who are the hottest thing going.

What some of your favorite celebrity or musician moments?

I had Larry Hagman in here during the Dallas days, always with a cowboy hat on. He was drinking heavily at the time, both before and after the liver transplant. I had William Shatner walk up to me with a young gal and say "Where can I get-- a bite -- to eat." Seeing Roy Orbison standing over here, or James Michener, the writer, who was working on his book about Texas. I talked to Nellie Connally. She was the only living person who was in the car the day Kennedy was shot.

I had a really great conversation with Jerry Garcia. Oh man, all these people are dead.

What did you talk about with Jerry Garcia?

I respected him, but I wasn't a big Deadhead fan. I never ask anyone for an autograph or anything like that. But I read this book, back in the 70's call Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan. He was a fellow who started a movement in San Francisco called the Diggers. This guy was a master burglar and followed the IRA. He taught Abby Hoffman everything he wrote about in Steal This Book. The Diggers used to get the Dead to play these parties in the parks in San Francisco and give away stolen food to all the hungry people.

Instead of coming to Jerry Garcia and saying "I'm a big fan," I said, "Hey do you remember Emmett Grogan?" and he said "Oh, man, Emmett Grogan!" Grogan died in 1978 of a heroin overdose. Jerry just couldn't believe I threw that name out there, so we talked for an hour and a half about Emmett, not about music. I've been a professional musician for thirty-four years, that's why I work the day shift. They practically had to drag Jerry away to do the sound check.

One time I had all of Three Dog Night around here, a legendary old band from the 60's and 70's. When I was a kid, I had this dream that I was a member of Three Dog Night, and I was so disappointed when I woke up. I told them about that and they all thought that was the greatest. They offered to put me on the guest list. And then they said, "Can you bring girls?"

You're a well known drummer around Austin. How does that fit into your life as a bartender?

The reason I work days is so I can play music at night. I've always been the daytime bartender. I played with Stevie Ray Vaughan twice live on stage. He played his first record for me here on a jam box at the bar.

David Carradine was doing a movie here, and he was staying here and he would come in and play piano. We got to know each other, because I'm musical and he's musical. One day I was talking him and said I was playing a show two doors down. He said, "Can I sit in?" When I saw my band later, I said, "Do you mind if a friend of mine sits in? David Carradine?" And they said, "Yeah, right." When he came in, the lead singer looked at him and looked at me and said, "We have an old friend here tonight!"

As Austin has grown, what are the changes you've seen?

I've watched Austin boom several times. It boomed in the mid-80's. People were coming in right and left, and the banks were lending out money so all these buildings were going up. The whole skyline changed. Then the bottom fell out of the oil industry and all the banks who lent the money for all the buildings weren't getting any returns, so the banks started going under. That was the first boom.

And then it slowly came back, the way it should. We started booming again in the mid-90's, and it hasn't stopped since. The joke in the 80's was that we should rename the state bird the crane because everywhere you look you saw cranes. Most of these buildings weren't here when I started working here. You could see the Capitol anywhere from downtown.

How have the people changed?

I started working here in the days of the three martini lunch. A group of regular attorneys and prominent businesspeople used to sit back here at this long table and have lunch, but their lunch consisted of just drinking. And those people not only would drink their lunch, but when they went back to the office they'd have bottles in their desk. People are not like that any more. In fact a lot of these people are dead now and that's why.

People now are more about money. They don't drink as much in the daytime – though I still make a decent living here during the day. But there are not as many daytime drinkers as there used to be. When I stated here, I used to put three ash trays between each of these poles, and we used to have a big humidor. Then a lot of people moved here from California, and the city voted to outlaw smoking. I thought it would really hurt my business, but people just adapted. They go outside.

It's become more of a trendy town. It used to be more of a hippie laid back thing. Now people are more "Look at me, I'm here, I'm at the Driskill, I'm going to these hip places, I'm a downtown dweller." It's becoming more like New York. People live downtown and don't own cars and they walk everywhere they're going. Whereas it used to be a small town, a family. All the cool people in Austin knew each other.

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you on the job?

Maybe when the drunken santa clauses come in. I've had a team of drag queens walk in the door at nighttime and all of them are big blond beautiful gowns, and they were made up to the hilt.

Harry Whittington is a prominent lawyer here in town, just a great guy. I was watching the TV here, and the news said, "Dick Cheney shoots hunting partner on a South Texas ranch," and they flash this picture of Harry up there. He was the one who was shot. I was like, "That's my buddy Harry!"

During 9/11, there was a character in here that was totally inappropriate. Everyone was very solemn he was drunk and loud and bugging everybody. And he was confronted by a patron and he said, "Well I'm in the service and I'm going to be fighting those guys in a few months."

I've seen fights break out here. One time, a rough guy came in with a gal. When the rough guy got up and went to the bathroom, this other guy at the bar looked at me like he'd seen a ghost and said, "That guy's a hit man. That's the guy that Ash Robinson hired to kill John Hill in Houston." I don't know if you're familiar with the story. John Hill was a doctor who had killed this rich guy Ash Robinson's daughter, who was Hill's wife. He had poisoned her with an éclair that was tainted with botulism, and he kept her at home when she suffered. He didn't call an ambulance until the very end when he knew she wasn't going to make it. [Editor's note: none of these details are confirmed; they're rumored aspects of a very famous 1969 Houston scandal.]

So he was a hit man. He was convicted of throwing somebody off a balcony before, and had gotten out of prison.

I've seen writers, politicians, actors, rock stars, hit men, you never know who's going to walk in.

How have your drink orders changed?

Back when I started bartender in the 70's, things were popular like Harvey Wallbanger. Nobody knows what that is any more. You want to stump a bartender, ask for an Aggravation.

When Sex and the City came in, the Cosmo became popular. Nowadays people are more into these fancy drinks. These bars like Second and Congress, they're making all these bizarre drinks. People are muddling everything now. I muddle with Old Fashioned, but now there's a lot more herbs and things in drinks. They call themselves mixologists nowadays. I'm more of the old school bartender.

Back then, people knew what they drank. Now everybody says, "Do you have a drink list?" We're getting all these younger people, they don't know what they drink. People are inventing drinks right and left. We have the Batini here. That won an award and it's real popular here.

What do you in the future for Austin? The Driskill?

I don't know but I know the Driskill will always been here. It's an institution and I hope it never goes away.
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The Driskill

604 Brazos St, Austin, TX 78701

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