The name “Bullwinkle’s” elicits fond memories for Aggies of a certain age.
Opened in the mid-1990’s and located in the Culpepper Plaza shopping center on Texas Avenue South, the bar-and-grill establishment was known for its plentiful TVs for viewing sports and a large karaoke room.
Alas, it is no more.
Chris Hessler, Classes of ’97 and ’01, was a Bullwinkle’s regular and a karaoke-crowd favorite as a Texas A&M undergraduate student. People knew Chris from his warm smile and passion for classic country music.
One night, after singing the George Strait song, “Marina del Ray,” one of Chris’s friends, a fellow student and barrel-racer by the name of Sarah Partridge, introduced him to a friend of hers, another Aggie student who dabbled in roping on the rodeo circuit.
“Hey, Scooter, this is Bubba,” Sarah told Chris, who adopted the name “Scooter” on the karaoke stage.
Upon being introduced, Bubba offered Chris perhaps the ultimate complement of his karaoke career.
“You did a good job with that song,” Bubba said. “My dad would have liked it.”
Bubba’s real name was George, as in George Strait, Jr.
After wrapping up the brief conversation, Chris turned away and rolled his wheelchair to another group of friends with a grin on his face that lasted the rest of the night.
You won’t find any George Strait songs on the boxed set of “Northgate Noise,” a four-disk compilation of classic country hits, but you will find music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
As well as Pat Green, Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen.
In total, Chris Hessler, as an A&M graduate student in the Mays School of Business, secured rights to 51 songs to produce the “Northgate Noise” series which sold more than 80,000 units from 2001 to 2005. The copyright date on the boxed set of CDs is “2003, Bottlecap Records, a division of Icebox Music, Inc.”, located in Victoria, Texas.
Victoria is the town where Chris grew up and still lives as owner of Oak Ridge Homes.
Chris parlayed his Texas A&M undergraduate degree in Construction Science and his master’s degree in Land Economics and Real Estate into a successful career as a home designer.
And, as an ever-popular wedding and special-event DJ in his late 40s, Chris also still dabbles in karaoke.
Chris was a strapping six-foot, one-inch 19-year-old the second summer after his graduation from St. Joseph High School in Victoria. A somewhat shy student there, Chris played on the Flyers football team and loved to listen to music with friends.
Showing signs of early entrepreneurship, Chris put together a lawn-mowing business. His older brother, Russell, built fences. On weekends, the two siblings hauled hay.
One blistering summer Saturday, the Hessler boys delivered a load of hay bales to a local farmer. Upon arrival, they found their customer away and the gate to his property locked. After waiting for some time, storm clouds rolled up from the western horizon bringing with them a scent of impending rain.
“C’mon,” Russell said to his brother, “I know this guy. Let’s just put the hay in the barn and get out of here.”
Russell cut the lock to the gate and the brothers drove the load to the barn. Chris climbed up to the hayloft to get things ready there.
“It was a hot and muggy afternoon,” Chris remembers. “I’m not gifted with keen eyesight but, with all the sweat and dust, you can’t haul hay wearing glasses.
“It was sweltering up in the loft and my glasses got foggy. I flipped them off figuring I could see well enough to make my way. Instead, I stepped right off the edge and fell 12 feet onto my head.”
The accident left him paralyzed in his lower extremities
“I probably should have been killed,” Chris says.
After two excruciating rounds of surgeries, Chris realized he would never walk again.
“Funny thing. After the accident I began not to worry about what other people thought about me. I made up my mind that I was going to be a part of life instead of worrying about it.
“My life had changed, so I asked myself the question: ‘What can I do with my hands?’”
With no formal training, Chris decided he wanted to be a home designer, a pursuit which has become his life’s vocation.
At the time of Chris’s accident and recovery, his father, Alvin, worked as manager of Texas Lumber in Victoria. Chris had already shown a knack for doing home designs and his father sent a few customers his way.
Chris took to the work.
After getting his associate’s degree from Victoria College, Chris decided to continue his education at Texas A&M. His uncle, Donald Gore, was a member of the Corps of Cadets at A&M, a “graduate of the Fighting Class of ’64.
“I’ll earn some points with that reference,” Chris laughs.
A disabled student, Chris found a home himself in Aggieland, thanks in great part to the Dixie Chicken, one of the most famous college bars in America.
“That’s the place that I felt most normal, “ Chris says of the ‘The Chicken,’ which opened its doors on June 15, 1974, in the Northgate business district across University Drive from the Texas A&M campus.
“I met a lot of people at The Chicken that were from the same part of Texas as me,” Chris says. “What I enjoyed most about the place was meeting people, playing dominoes and listening to the music.
Chris was a fairly accomplished domino player. His grandfather played in a couple of Texas state championship tournaments.
The music Chris loved to listen to at The Chicken ultimately inspired “Northgate Noise.”
Chris received his bachelor’s degree from A&M in 1997. He took a job with an engineering firm in Port Lavaca, Texas, then returned to College Station to obtain his master’s degree.
“Singing karaoke at Bullwinkle’s gave me a lot of self-confidence,” Chris says of that defining undergraduate experience. “When I came back as a grad student and returned to the domino tables at The Chicken, the music brought back so many good memories.”
The thought of trying to put together a compilation of that music stemmed from Chris’s desire to try to share those feelings.
“It was about that time, around 2000, that computers started coming out with CD burners,” Chris says. “I began burning disks with my favorite Dixie Chicken songs and giving them to friends.
He received more and more requests for his mixtape...a term which Wikipedia defines as a “homemade compilation of music onto a cassette tape, CD, or digital playlist.”
Chris’s entrepreneurial instincts eventually kicked in.
With little understanding of how he might go about legally producing a compilation of other people’s music he could sell, Chris found an attorney in Austin to help. What he learned was that artists rarely control the rights to their own songs. Those belong to the record companies.
“When we started asking around, we learned that securing the rights to a song hinged on distribution commitments. The record companies wanted guarantees that we could sell a certain number of our proposed CDs.”
Some recordings–like the entire George Strait songbook–had huge distribution minimums. Chris and his attorney eventually determined the magic figure which might work for the proposed project was 10,000 units.
That number determined which songs I could include in the compilations,” he says.
Chris was not only “president” of his new company, Bottlecap Records–which took its name from “Bottlecap Alley” behind the Dixie Chicken–he was also “producer” of the “Northgate Noise” album (the term “album,” again according to Wikipedia, refers to a collection of songs rather than the means by which those songs are delivered...so not all albums are on long-playing records).
In addition, Chris was a one-man marketing gang looking for channels through which to sell his CDs. He knew there were an awful lot of Aggies in the world and he hoped at least some of them might share his passion for music which elicited fond recollections of their college days.
Imagine the time it takes to find those people. Now, imagine doing that from the confines of a wheelchair...while going to graduate school.
Chris succeeded in establishing several points of distribution. Cavender’s western apparel stores were one of his best outlets. All told, he released four individual CDs before compiling the boxed set, which has become quite the collector’s item.
He admits that the album logo he designed found its genesis in that used by the rock band Nine Inch Nails...with the addition of a couple of cowboy boots on either end.
“That’s where the name, ‘Northgate Noise,’ came from,” Chris laughs. “I needed a pair of ‘N’s’ to work with.
“My wife thinks the design is a little ‘dubious’ if you look at it a certain way.”
It was at the Cavender’s in College Station that Chris met Pat Green. At the time, Chris was doing his karaoke thing at Bullwinkle’s, while Green was trying to launch a serious musical career after his stepfather fired him from his regular job as a wholesaler in the oil business.
“I had a friend who worked at Cavender’s and he introduced me to Pat,” Chris remembers. “I had no idea he was a singer. I was a little embarrassed to find out Chris’s ambitions to become a musical performer were a little more robust than mine.
“A few years later, I was awfully pleased to be able to include his song, ‘Southbound 35’ on the very first ‘Northgate Noise’ CD.
Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon” also made Volume I.
Chris Hessler guesses he earned “about minimum wage” on his big venture into the music business.
“I spent a lot of hours doing that for a pretty long period of time,” he reflects. “In the end, I made enough money to buy a new pickup truck, but that was about it.”
Chris made good on his 10,000-unit distribution obligation. In fact, he says he sold about 20,000 units of each of the four disks.
Does he have any more to sell?
“My contracts stipulated that when we ended the enterprise, I would destroy any remaining inventory. So, I did.
“I kind of regret that.”
Given today’s world of streaming-music services such as iTunes, Pandora, Amazon and Spotify, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to recreate a “Northgate Noise” playlist.
“I hadn’t really thought of that,” Chris muses, sounding interested in the idea.
Today, Chris is a successful businessman, part-time DJ, a husband–”I never thought someone like me would get married”–and father to a ten-year-old son.
Life is good for Chris.
And I have to add a personal note here.
Meeting Chris–at the Microtel Suites along the College Station stretch of the Earl Rudder Freeway on the morning that he presented his niece, Kori Hessler, her Aggie Class Ring–was a special privilege for me.
When I first learned about “Northgate Noise” and discovered that Chris Hessler was the force behind it, I never imagined the depth or the poignancy of the story he would share with me.
Chris lives his life to the fullest, every day in every way.
“My brother and I raise cattle together now,” Chris says. “ While I no longer frequent haylofts, sometimes I can get some of the herd to follow me around in my heavy-duty electric wheelchair.
Chris says the experience makes him feel a little like Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and the outdoors.
“Our property near Victoria received a good bit of damage from Hurricane Harvey. Big trees blew over onto fences, things like that.
“My cousin’s husband works the Alaskan oil pipeline two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off. When he’s home, he sometimes gets bored. After Harvey, he told me he’d be happy to clean up our place and I didn’t have to pay him anything to do it.
“So, while he wouldn’t take my money, I was able to ‘reward’ him with food and beer and gift cards...and an old iPod I found at a pawn shop.
“I bet I put 24 hours of music on that thing. He loved it!” Music continues to touch the soul of the remarkable Chris Hessler. “It’s nice that I’m still able to use music that resonates in people’s lives,” he says.
I hope Chris’s story resonates with you. Tell your friends about it. It’s easy to find online now, right here.