Clint and Whitney Barlow believe that if they stick to the plan, the crowds will return — beginning with the legendary Trees — to Deep Ellum. Photo by Benjamin Hager

Photo by Benjamin Hager

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He loves rock ‘n’ roll — has ever since he was a kid growing up in El Paso. Thing is, Clint Barlow says, “there’s nothing to the music scene in El Paso.”

Though he was short on environmental inspiration, Barlow, a drummer, started a band in high school, and when he could, he set out in search of a destination that might fuel his musical fire.

In 1991 he found what he was looking for in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district, a burgeoning alternative-music, arts and entertainment hub, at the heart of which was Trees, a cool live-music venue whose stage, in those days, supported the likes of Radiohead and Nirvana.

“In the early ’90s, Deep Ellum was just getting off the ground, bursting with new and rising bands,” Barlow says. “I thought it was awesome.”

He hung around and launched a successful run in Dallas’ music and concert industry and beyond, working with the hard-rock band Pantera early on, and later touring as the drummer for Vanilla Ice.

Almost 20 years later, Trees was dead, and Deep Ellum’s development was in decline. Barlow had earned a good reputation both as a musician and a talent booker, and married a charming and hardworking girl named Whitney. They had their sights set on opening their own bar, maybe in McKinney or Addison.

But, during a serendipitous night out, Clint and Whitney Barlow instead turned their sights from the suburbs to the area that so inspired Clint in his youth. With tenacity and a good attitude, the pair has managed to revive the defunct Trees and, as a result, are leading the renaissance of the long-suffering Deep Ellum.

Clint frequently would talk to Whitney, who grew up in St. Louis, about the old Deep Ellum.

“There’s this place called Trees,” he told her, noting that his band, DownLo, in the late ’90s, used to pack the place. “It’s just sitting there now.”

Photo by Benjamin Hager

One night, after dinner Downtown, Clint and Whitney took a stroll down Elm Street, stopping outside Trees.

The property owner happened to be there — said he could give them a really good deal if they wanted the place. He let them in; the place was a wreck.

“It was a disaster. Five years worth of water damage. You could see sky through the ceiling. There were roaches on the floor,” Whitney says. “I said, ‘This is awesome’. I think Clint thought I would say, ‘No way,’ but there was just a great vibe.”

They wanted it. But getting it and restoring it to its former glory would not be easy.

The president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and the Deep Ellum Public Improvement District, Barry Annino, recalls several people expressing interest in the place. But, he says, city-zoning ordinances had made it difficult.

“I saw a few people try and give up because of all the red tape. They just couldn’t get the permit,” he says. “So I didn’t really think much when I heard that [Clint and Whitney] were interested.”

But when they came to meet him, he says, he was encouraged. Whitney, a former Ghost Bar bartender, had corporate, high-volume bar experience. Clint has toured the world’s concert halls and really knew his stuff. Both were charismatic.

“Whitney had this great personality; Clint is just this smooth guy, and you could tell they really intended to make this work,” Annino says.

And they did. Really, Clint Barlow says, it was just a matter of pressing through the various bureaucratic stages of obtaining a permit to legally operate the place, hold concerts and sell booze — “arduous” but easier than expected, he says.

Clint wanted to maintain the name Trees. After all, it was the name of Dallas’ most legendary music venue, where Kurt Cobain once punched a security guard — the place from whose stage the music of Radiohead once flooded the crowded streets of Deep Ellum. No other name would do.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it at all if I couldn’t have the name,” he says.

He also wanted to preserve the old design and feel of the venue. He explains that the early owners, including millionaire Brian Davis (son of Cullen Davis, a wealthy oil man who was convicted and later acquitted of murder) had created a unique space that included exposed support beams that looked like tree trunks and walls of brick and plywood marked with autographed drumheads. The door behind the stage was often left open, allowing music to waft over Deep Ellum.

“We don’t ever want to take away from the original feel. We want people to remember it as it was, but with a better sound system,” Barlow says. “Seriously,” he repeats later. “I am confident that we have, hands-down, the best sounding room.”

He understands things can’t go back to the way they were. But that’s not really the goal. He’s not competing with the past, or even with other nearby venues such as House of Blues or Granada.

Instead, he is, while respecting what Trees means historically to people, working the business from the roots up and outward, doing grunt work, collaborating with fellow Deep Ellum business owners, giving back to the community through fundraisers, bringing in great music and treating musicians well.

“You might see Whitney working behind the bar and me either booking shows or mopping a bathroom,” Barlow says. (The bathrooms, incidentally, are much improved since the ’90s.) “I have played a ton of shows, so I have an idea of what bands and audiences want in a venue.”

The Barlows believe that if they do it right, people — even the ones who complain that it’s not the same or that Clint isn’t booking the right shows — will eventually come around.

“We are raising the flag and seeing who salutes,” Clint Barlow says.

As evidenced by a raucous sold-out Mickey Avalon show over the summer, the people are responding.

To see the result of years of hard work in the form of scads of happy, screaming, energetic people makes it all worthwhile, Whitney says. “During those moments, Clint and I will sit on the stairs and look down on a sea of heads. It is just the most amazing feeling.”

Annino, who closely observed the evolution of Deep Ellum since the early ’90s, credits the Barlows with the revitalization of the area.

“The reopening of Trees started the renaissance of Deep Ellum, he says. “Once they opened, people got excited and wanted to be around them. They are pioneering the comeback of Deep Ellum.”

They don’t really look at themselves that way. They are working with a lot of people to nurture the venue and the neighborhood. “We couldn’t be successful if we acted like we knew it all or like we could do it all ourselves,” Whitney says. “We need the people around us, and are not afraid to ask for help.”