Historic Music Venues: The Cat’s Cradle

Historic Music Venues: The Cat’s Cradle

By Mike Duffy

Quietly sitting at the end of a nondescript strip mall in tiny Carrboro, N.C., the Cat’s Cradle has been a cornerstone for a variety of indie and national acts since 1969.

When indie legends Sonic Youth name-check you in a song, it’s quite a high honor.

The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C., certainly deserved it.

Back in 1992, Thurston Moore’s fuzz-rock outfit penned “Chapel Hill,” which included the line, “Throw me a cord and plug it in/to get the Cradle rockin’,” referencing the landmark club.

Having helped launch the careers of such Chapel Hill bands such as Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, Whiskeytown and Ben Folds Five, the Cradle was and still is the place for up-and-coming artists to get in front of a music-hungry college crowd.

In fact, Rolling Stone voted the Triangle – Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Durham – No. 2 on the list of college towns that rock in 2005, citing the Cat’s Cradle as the area’s best venue.

“Success breeds success, and I guess our longevity has beaten a well-worn path to our door,” co-owner Frank Heath once said. “I rarely have to call a booking agent to get a band to play here. They usually call me.”

The Cat’s Cradle has a rich history in the Triangle

Originally opened in 1969, the Cat’s Cradle has changed ownership and location – five different locations to be exact – before landing at its current home adjacent to Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina 18 years ago.

Over the years, a roster of those who have crossed the Cradle’s small stage turns up a plethora of eventual heavy-hitters.

Nirvana once played there during the pre-Nevermind days to about 100 people.  A year later, Pearl Jam barely filled half the room.

An Internet search for vintage Cradle calendars reveals that “another great pop band from Athens, Ga.,” performed on Jan. 2, 1982.

Today, that band would be better recognized as R.E.M.

Of course, the Cat’s Cradle has also seen its share of national acts. 

Public Enemy brought down the house when they were at the height of the hip-hop world; Cheap Trick has rocked the crowd, and Smashing Pumpkins even offered an acoustic show.

That Heath has consistently maintained the Cat’s Cradle’s diverse booking strategy and stellar reputation is no small feat, however.

Heath originally bought the club in 1986 with a friend after the club was threatening to close due to bankruptcy in 1983. 

Heath bought out his partner two years later, but reached a major roadblock when the Cradle was kicked out by a landlord.  City Hall considered shutting the club in 1991 after a near-riot, and Heath had to scout new sites after losing his lease in 1993.

The Cat’s Cradle of today is an intimate affair that makes fans feel like they are right on stage with the band, and even moreso now that Heath and Billy Johnson completed the biggest renovation in their ownership tenure in summer 2011.

Ween recently released a landmark ’92 recording from the Cradle.

The floor was made even more accessible after relocating the entrance towards the rear of the club, and risers around the stage were removed.

In addition, the capacity was increased from approximately 600 to 900, sprinklers were added, and crews took out two poles in the middle of the audience that obstructed sightlines.

“We’ve been in our current location for nearly 18 years,” Heath told Chapel Hill Magazine.  “We felt it was time to address a few quirks in the space and wanted to make sure the club offered the best possible experience to the audience and artists.”

The Cat’s Cradle – in its present form – might be forced to move yet again, as the strip mall where it sits is part of the 300 E. Main St. development project, which includes four five-story buildings with a parking deck, hotel, office space and restaurants.

That means the Cradle would likely have between two and six years to relocate, according to reports.

But regardless of the setting, the Cat’s Cradle is here to stay.  The historic tastemaker has roots planted so deep that it can survive a lot with the support from the music-mad community and the broad range of acts looking to pass through.

As Sonic Youth sang so many years ago, as long as there’s a cord and a plug, the Cradle won’t stop rockin’.


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