Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter
The neon sign out front reads “Rick’s Café Americain,” but for 21 years, to untold thousands of college students, it’s just been Rick’s. Which is fitting. Because Rick’s hasn’t lasted four times as long as the average Starkville bar because of its location. Or its décor. Or its reputation.
Rick’s has stood the test of time because of Rick, who works his ass off.
Rick Welch was a bartender at the bar that preceded Rick’s (Choices) while he worked his way toward an industrial engineering degree at Mississippi State.
“One night the owner and I got to talking, and he asked if I’d be interested in buying the place. At the time I had some money saved up, and I went into it sort of blindly. I just knew I loved tending bar and that a niche for live music for college students wasn’t being filled,” says Welch.
His strategy was simple: Listen to the customers. Learn their tastes in music. Put bands that play that type of music on stage.
The execution was a bit trickier. Being in a college town meant his customer base was constantly shifting. Constantly evolving. And he had to evolve with it.
“Customers email, call and tweet with suggestions for bands all the time. Almost every single one, I at least check them out to find out what they’re about,” he says.
At the same time, Welch keeps an eye and ear on which bands are touring the Southeast. Which ones are doing well in college towns? Which ones are doing well in similarly sized venues?
He stays in touch with agents and managers. He tries to gauge how well a band will do with the current crop of MSU students. And when the stars align, he takes a chance, booking most bands six to 12 months in advance.
“For as many capacity crowds as I’ve had, I’ve had twice as many flops. Not because the band is bad. But because people just don’t come see them,” he says.
The struggle is real. Welch can do all the research under the sun, but he can’t eliminate all the risk. Even with social media — which he sort of pioneered in Starkville, from the first multi-page website in the mid-’90s to an early and prominent presence on every subsequent platform — he can’t poll every bar-hopping MSU student to ask if they’ll pay cover to see a certain band.
His best example is Maroon 5. Rick’s hosted the multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning band twice, before they started selling millions of records and winning Grammys. The biggest crowd they drew in Starkville was maybe 200 people.
“I knew they would be famous. With a place my size in a market like Starkville, the window to get a band on the way up is very small. A band can go from unknown to famous in a matter of weeks. Maroon 5 got out of my price range really quickly,” he says.
Due to the size of his bar, Rick rarely angles for the big fish. With a maximum capacity of 800, he can’t squeeze enough people inside to pay major artists’ fees. But sometimes the major artists come to him.
“Every now and then we get thrown a bone. One day I got a call from Snoop Dogg’s agent saying Snoop would be in New Orleans for the NBA All-Star game. He has family in Mississippi and wants to play a cool college room.”
A similar situation brought country star Kenny Chesney to Rick’s.
The rest of the time, it’s feast or famine. Welch says his glory days were around 2008, when he had a strong lineup of crowd-pleasing bands playing multiple shows at Rick’s while they built their buzz. Names like the Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
Contrast that with his claim that “six or seven years ago I about booked myself out of the business trying to have a band every Thursday and Friday night.”
Always looking to diversify, Rick’s has even begun hosting quarterly drag shows.
“I was told there was a significant LGBT community in Starkville, and they do go out. The promoter called and we worked out a deal. Just like a lot of our bands, they get the gate and I get the bar,” says Welch.
He says he’s received some negative feedback over the drag shows, but he sees no harm in it.
“I caught more flack over midget wrestling. Which is coming back in October.”
Through all the changes, the only constant has been Rick. Working every job in the bar. Bartending holidays in the open-365 sports bar component, keeping the doors open for the next generation of college students.