ASK ANY MUSICIAN playing the circuit, or a reporter who covers live music, or even just a fan who likes to two-step and they’ll tell you the score: nightclubs open and close and re-open and close almost monthly in Texas. Hang around any major Lone Star city long enough, and you’ll see the honky-tonks change names, owners and locations. Only a chosen few have what it takes to stand the test of time.
One of the few is Fort Worth’s Billy Bob’s Texas, which celebrates 30 years in business April 1, and remains in a small class of enduring honky-tonk landmarks. Gruene Hall, the Broken Spoke, John T. Floore Country Store — you could count on one hand the number of dance halls that have become synonymous with country music and Texas, and you certainly won’t find one more jaw-dropping — flat-out bigger — than Billy Bob’s.
The mantle of “World’s Largest Honky Tonk” made Billy Bob’s an international landmark. When country music fans across the globe think of a Texas honky-tonk, there’s a good chance they’re thinking of the club founded by Billy Bob Barnett and Spencer Taylor in 1981 — the one they’ve seen in movies like Pure Country or heard on the successful Live at Billy Bob’s CD and DVD series. “It’s the ultimate big little honky-tonk,” according to Pat Green, who lives in Fort Worth and included a chapter on Billy Bob’s in his 2008 book, Dance Halls and Dreamers.
Ask anyone who’s been there. There’s no place like it.
A Local Business
BILLY BOB’S can be a massive expanse of stage and dance floor, and yet it’s a venue musicians love to play and a spot fans return to. “To me, Billy Bob’s is an intimate place to play a show,” Charlie Robison says. “When I go there and see [Billy Bob’s entertainment director] Robert Gallagher, it feels like the little 10-seat bar in my hometown.”
How does a club so big feel so inviting? For one thing, chalk it up to its small business philosophy. It’s easy to forget amid more than 127,000 square feet of space, and — on a sell-out night — more than 6,000 patrons, that Billy Bob’s is a Fort Worth-owned and operated business. You can’t go to Billy Bob’s anywhere else in the world other than the Fort Worth Stockyards. “Billy Bob’s is a national stage,” says Jack Ingram, who attended SMU and made his club debut in 1996, “but for me, it’s a local venue.”
Suffice it to say, the club has stayed close to its roots, a feat made more remarkable considering the notoriously ever-shifting live music industry. Decisions aren’t made in New York or Los Angeles. The corporate office is on the north side of the building. Holt Hickman, Steve Murrin and Don Jury purchased the club in 1988, and Billy Minick became a partner in 1989. In a city that prides itself on local identity, Billy Bob’s is a Fort Worth original.
Since the club re-opened, consistency has been king at Billy Bob’s. Billy Minick’s wife, National Cowgirl Hall of Fame member Pam Minick, has been the club’s marketing director for more than two decades. In March, Billy Minick’s son, Concho, was named as his successor as president. When Concho addressed the Billy Bob’s staff, he simply said, “Billy Bob’s is in my DNA.”
Bring it on Down to My House
LOCALLY OWNED BUSINESS or not, no one is going to step boot into your country club if you don’t have plenty of room to dance and a stellar lineup of acts.
The space? Well, there’s plenty of it. And the music? Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Miranda Lambert, Johnny Cash, George Strait — for 30 years the club has brought in a consistent mix of classic performers and fast-rising newcomers.
And those 30 years carry with them a lot of history and a lot of legends.
How about the night in 1983 when Merle Haggard celebrated the success of his single “C.C. Waterback” by buying a round of Canadian Club for everyone in the honky-tonk? The total bill was $12,737.50. Or the night in 1994 that Tim McGraw’s manager was so thrilled by his client’s performance that he bought a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle off night manager Billy Dresser and wheeled it on stage to present to McGraw? Or the famous album cover of Keith Whitley’s Greatest Hits, shot on stage by photographer Billy Joe Gabriel.
Or what about that famous, rousing 1998 live set by Pat Green captured on his Live at Billy Bob’s CD — the one that blared out of car stereos from San Antonio to Longview for years afterward? According to Smith Music Group, it still sells at least 5,000 copies a year.
There’s a lot to live up to when you’re booked at the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk.” “Playing Billy Bob’s is like having a shot at the title,” Robison says. “It’s a unique place where superstars and regional acts both play, and both go over well.”
Ask the live acts — selling out Billy Bob’s and playing a killer show is a big deal — a big, big deal. “For independent acts that play Billy Bob’s — they’re big-time,” Ingram says, “which is a big part of sustaining a regional career. Being big-time in Texas is why I got the opportunity to be big-time everywhere else. And that’s in large part due to Billy Bob’s, because they make you big-time.”
For many acts, Billy Bob’s is a place they aspire to play. Many of today’s Texas country music stars saw their first shows at Billy Bob’s. The heroes today’s generation grew up idolizing and name-checking in song? They saw them at Billy Bob’s. “It was a place where I went to see some of the biggest names — Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, T. Graham Brown,” Ingram says. “I started going there right when I went to SMU in 1989.”
Ingram saw Haggard there with his now-wife, Amy. The show stuck in his mind for years to come: “I just remember looking up there and dreaming, ‘Man, it would be great to be that guy.’”
A Texas Legend
THE SPACE that has been home to Billy Bob’s for the last 30 years sits on the hallowed cowboy grounds of the Fort Worth Stockyards. It began as a cattle barn built in 1910. During World War II, it would house airplane manufacturing for the war effort and later would be a department store.
Billy Bob’s opened in the Fort Worth Stockyards on April 1, 1981, with a show by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, and within the month, stars like Willie Nelson — Barnett flew to Atlantic City to personally ask Nelson to play the club — Waylon Jennings and Janie Fricke all performed. No spot outside of Gilley’s Club in Pasadena more typified the Urban Cowboy craze of the ’80s. And unlike Gilley’s, which sported a mechanical bull, Billy Bob’s had the real thing — live bull riding. They still do.
That was the genius of Billy Bob’s: it used its space to its advantage. Rather than be merely a cavernous hole where country acts sang tear-in-my-beer songs, Billy Bob’s made honky-tonk club-going an experience. Rows of pool tables, VIP areas, bars galore — if Billy Bob’s didn’t have it, no one did. And those early days were wild times. Talk to anyone close to the club during those years and they’ll tell you stories about Las Vegas gambling icon Benny Binion, Tanya Tucker and a host of others.
Then, the good times ended. The club shut its doors in 1988 as the Texas economy went bust. Billy Bob’s became an unofficial signpost of the Texas economy, and things didn’t look good. But Jury, Hickman and Murrin brought the club back to life near the end of the year, and Billy Minick re-joined Billy Bob’s management in 1989.
Country music boomed again in the late ’80s and early ’90s with artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson — who wrote his hit “Dallas” in his bus outside the club after a show — and Clint Black, all who played the club regularly early in their careers. In the ‘90s, media exposure from TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger or The Nashville Network’s On Stage would help bring even more recognition to Billy Bob’s. Garth Brooks even referred to it as the “crown jewel of honky-tonks” in a TV special that featured a visit to the club.
By the club’s 20th anniversary in 2001, it had become an integral part of the Texan experience — like walking the San Antonio River Walk or visiting the Fort Worth Stock Show. As the Texas country music scene exploded during the 2000s, it became a haven to a new breed of country outlaws. For them, Billy Bob’s would be one of the top spots to play, and Billy Bob’s would help bring those shows to an audience outside the club walls.
Into the Future
THERE’S NO DOUBT that new ventures like the Live at Billy Bob’s Texas CD series and outdoor events like Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic and the Red Dirt Roundup — all produced in conjunction with record label Smith Music Group — brought the club to a new generation of music fans. Many Texans who went to high school or college between 1999 and the present heard the live sets of Green, Ingram, Kevin Fowler and Cross Canadian Ragweed before they ever set foot in the club. Label head Randy Smith has been running SMG since his brother and founder Rick died in 2004.
So, 30 years after Billy Bob’s first opened its doors, the honky-tonk — with its rhinestone-studded horse saddle hanging over the dance floor, its backstage walls signed by generations of country stars — is perhaps the most recognizable country-and-western bar in the world. Sure, every few years another entertainment complex pops up and tries to stir up some dust, but when it’s all said and done, Billy Bob’s remains.
Darren White is a Fort Worth journalist who worked as editor and writer on Billy Bob’s Texas: A Texas Legend — the 30-year anniversary book published by Billy Bob’s Texas with support from Texas Music magazine.