Who’s Running The Show: An Interview With High Noon Saloon’s Cathy Dethmers

Cathy Dethmers

Interview by Shelley Peckham

When I was a kid, visits to 701 East Washington Avenue were not what they are today. Before it became one of the coolest music venues in town, the space was occupied by The Buy & Sell Shop, where I spent countless hours reluctantly trolling behind my parents as they searched for treasures throughout the labyrinth of Madison’s used miscellany. Shopping for kitsch among piles and piles of musty tossaways in varying shades of browns and grays wasn’t exactly a preferred activity for my seven-year-old self.

That bored little girl probably never imagined that she would end up frequenting the building again on her own terms in her adult years, but the changing times have indeed created an infinitely more appealing incarnation of the space. Where there were once shelves of oddly shaped jars, broken cameras and vintage scuba gear, there is now a stage which has supported the stomping boots and throbbing amps of some of music’s most thrilling artists. Gone are the days of dust and mothballs. Enter the rock dragon: The High Noon Saloon.

Since 2004, the venue has become a musical sanctuary, housing some of the most beautiful, brutal, and brilliant sounds to hit the city. Ask any Madison music fan what their favorite rock club is, and you’re likely to hear “High Noon Saloon” echoed ad infinitum.

The woman behind this treasured venue is Cathy Dethmers, an engaged, creative, intelligent force who has ruled the roost with a punk rock D.I.Y. ethos and an uncompromising dedication to being an honest businesswoman.

I recently sat down with Dethmers to talk about how she got to where she is today, her beginnings at O’Cayz Corral, her views on the Madison music scene, and what the future might hold for The High Noon Saloon.

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Celebrate The High Noon’s 5th With Crystal Antlers!

High Noon Saloon

Has it really only been 5 years?!  The High Noon Saloon has been such an essential player in the Madison music scene that it’s hard to imagine a time without it!  Well, believe it or not, today marks the venue’s 5th anniversary of hosting phenomenal local, national, and international artists on its stage.

Click here to find out how The High Noon Saloon is celebrating the big five!

“Tag’s Deal”- or How I Became a Concert Promoter (for those too timid to ask)

I look forward to July 20 with some trepidation.

No, it’s not because we have Immortal Technique at High Noon on Sunday. We do hip hop shows on a fairly regular basis, and we generally have less problems – the occasional obnoxious tag (as in graffiti) notwithstanding – than, say, at a Yonder Mountain show packed with over-served hippies.

July 20 is the anniversary of my move to Madison twenty years ago. I moved here from Dayton, Ohio to pursue a doctorate in Agricultural Economics under the guidance of Dan Bromley, a thoughtful Natural Resource economist who was also one of the few remaining expositors of the Institutional School of economics. Institutional Economics, with its holistic multidisciplinary approach, offered an alluring respite from the arid confines of neo-classical orthodoxy and its extreme reliance on mathematical equations and statistics. I looked forward to studying with Dan in the hopes that my interest in economics as a means of grappling with the complex issues facing us – particularly global environmental crises — would lead to a career in academia.

Man plans, God laughs. Before I could get to the good stuff, I had to pass muster in the form of prelims, and in order to do that, I had to take classes in Micro, Macro, and Econometrics. My math training upon arrival was minimal – I had never before seen a proof. In short, I was screwed. For the first time in my life, I was a failure.

In retrospect, I should have transferred to Sociology or Political Science, but I tried sticking it out. I could write well, and consequently had a paper published shortly after my arrival. I was invited to present my ideas at a couple of conferences, and I ended up getting featured in a video shot at an academic conference exploring the emerging discipline of Ecological Economics, one that was shown on college campuses across the country, even making its way to the Clinton White House (true story.)

But then more reality set in. I fell in love, hard, only to see it end in a slow-motion train wreck. And my parents died, both of them, within six months of each other. I was in a world of pain.

So I dropped out and became a concert promoter.

I sometimes think I subconsciously started up this business so I could drink on the job, which I did in the early days to good measure. It’s an occupational hazard, one that I now try to avoid, but then it helped me when little else could. Of course, what drinking gave, it took back and then some.

I intended when sitting down to write to ruminate about my early recollections of the Madison music scene, kind of a “then and now” retrospective. I do remember the first time I went to O’Cayz. I can’t remember the band I went to see, but I do remember thinking it was a long walk from campus. I saw Negativland at Club D, Fishbone at Headliners, Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens and King Sunny Ade & the African Beats at the Barrymore — as many shows as I could fit in while wading through those dense math equations of my early grad school days.

I remember Phil Gnarly & the Tough Guys at the Wagon Wheel, Marques Bovre at the Crystal, the Indigo Girls playing the Terrace in front of what seemed like 6000 people, Lou Reed signing autographs at Club De Wash, the Gomers doing their crazy theme nights, also at Club D.

Bunkys, R& R Station and GS Vigs have all been torn down. Inn Cahoots became The Chamber, which became Mass Appeal, which became the King Club, giving way, most recently, to Woofs. Club de Wash burned down on a miserable February morning, and, not five years later, the same fate took out O’Cayz.

All I can say is thank God for Cathy’s perseverance.

O' Cayz Corral, Post- Fire

O' Cayz Corral, Post- Fire

I’m sitting upstairs at High Noon while I write this, listening to Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles rock out and thinking about how I used to drink Budweiser while waiting for the guys at No Name Printing in the basement of the old Buy ‘n’ Sell — which stood in this very spot — to finish up my flyers so I could go hit State Street.

I wonder what life would have been like as a college professor, if my original intentions upon landing here 20 years ago had been fulfilled. It was my dream to be a public intellectual, to get paid to read and write and think. I still have my regrets, that restless longing for what might have been.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the life experiences I’ve had. I get to chat with Lyle Lovett, hang out with Patti Smith, witness the ongoing explosive genius of an artist like Ryan Adams. It’s not all like that; there’s a lot of endless work, lots of nights like tonight with 50 people in the house and a few hundred shy in the till. But, all in all, it doesn’t suck.

I still remember the first time I drove into Madison, down Park Street until it dead-ended into Lake Mendota, lost and not a little bit scared. I’ve watched the buildings go up, the skyline change, the city grow and prosper. And, I like to think, I’ve grown up and changed with it.

I’m glad I was bad at math and good at rock. And I’m very glad I moved to Madison twenty years ago.

Thanks to all who have supported our shows over the years and continue, so generously, to do so.

Tag Evers

Tag Evers

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