By STEVEN NALLEY
Jay Bradley knows better than to assume crowds at Cowbells share his taste in music.
Bradley, co-owner, booking manager and DJ at Cowbells, said he has an iPod full of music from Elton John, Billy Joel, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Taylor, among others.
“If you wanted to build a bar around what I like to listen to, it would be hard,” Bradley said. “My iPod would not bring in a crowd.”
Readers of the Starkville Daily News voted Cowbells the “Best Nightclub” in the 2011 Best of Starkville awards. The club will be three years old on August 11, but Bradley and fellow owner Blake Williamson have been in the business for an entire decade.
“Where did that decade go?” Williamson asked.
The two started their careers working at Cheers, a now-defunct bar formerly located at the Cotton Crossing Shopping Center, for three years. Then, for four years, they worked at Rick’s Cafe, and the owner there, Rick Welch, would be Williamson and Bradley’s business partner. Bradley said business investors initially approached Welch about a nightclub in the Highland Plantation residential community, and Welch, in turn, approached Bradley, his D.J. and booking manager, and Williamson, his bar manager.
“There were some folks that owned this property out here, had a plot of land and wanted to open a nightclub, but they didn’t have any experience,” Bradley said. “They wanted tenants to have somewhere to go to hang out.”
Williamson said the location that became Cowbells was under discussion for more than two years before he and Bradley were involved, and it took two more years for it to open. While Cowbells could not exist without Welch, Bradley said, the two wanted to differentiate themselves from Rick’s Cafe and other venues and create the kind of place they would enjoy if they were customers.
“We can do that with Cowbells, because now, we’re in control of it,” Bradley said.
Williamson said Cowbells is distinct in its ability to remain open past 1 a.m. Also, he said, Cowbells is not only a nightclub, but also a sports bar and grill with TVs all around, including small TVs at most booths, three new 126-inch TV projection screens coming for the 2011 football season and even televisions in the restrooms.
“As opposed to Rick’s, he has to showcase his bands; he has to have good bands to have a crowd,” Williamson said. “We sort of have a built in crowd that allows us to bring in bands that aren’t quite as big as he does.”
When bands aren’t playing at Cowbells, Bradley entertains the crowd as DJ Bizzle, a moniker he said a guest suggested while he was serving as disc jockey at Rick’s Cafe. Bradley also serves as DJ for Mississippi State football and basketball, and he said the experience has been invaluable.
“Finding music that fits for 60,000 people is tough,” Bradley said. “I’m here to please. Country music is hot right now, and we’re trying to take advantage of that gap in the market.”
Williamson said trends can change quickly.
“Just because something works for two or three years, or even two or three semesters, doesn’t mean it will continue working,” Williamson said. “You have to stay sharp, or you get sloppy, and if you do it right, the customers will tell you what they want. It’s not about what we want, it’s about what customers want.”
That’s where the legacy of Rick’s Cafe shows, they said. Williamson said both of them can be found waiting tables and picking up trash, and they don’t ask their employees to do anything they wouldn’t do. Bradley said this humility comes from their humble beginnings.
“We did not come from money,” Bradley said. “We started at the bottom; we started as barbacks at Cheers. A lot of it comes from learning from Rick. Rick will reach his hand in a toilet and pull out paper towels.”
Williamson said the two have worked to promote these values in their employees, and they are happy with the results. He said the employees are just as important as he and Bradley are.
“Our staff deserves every bit of credit, because they’re the ones who handle 95 percent of customer interaction,” Williamson said. “You cannot have a good business without a good staff.”
While some of the staff have been at Cowbells since the beginning, Bradley said, more than 150 others have come and gone since then.
“So, the people we have right now are clutch,” Bradley said. “At 9 p.m., we’ll have Jersey Shore on TV. We wouldn’t have thought of that, but one of our waitresses brought it up to us.”
Matt Farrell has been a bartender with Cowbells since it opened. He said one of his favorite things about his fellow staff members is that if any one of them is unavailable, any other staffer knows how to fill in.
“Bartenders will work in the kitchen; kitchen workers will help barbacks,” Farrell said. “It makes for a very fun work environment.”
Williamson, Bradley and Farrell all said they were grateful to readers for voting them Starkville’s best nightclub. Farrell said he was glad to work in a place he himself enjoys visiting as a customer on nights off.
“They have the best bands with the best DJ,” Farrell said. “My favorite shift to work here is away football games. It’s like being at a friend’s house, but instead of three people there, it’s like 300 people here.”