Sure, Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas invented the massive honky tonk — but Billy Bob’s Texas perfected it.
That may be a bold statement, considering Gilley’s has a John Travolta movie about it and all. But “The World’s Largest Honky Tonk” up I-45 in Fort Worth has become one of America’s most treasured venues without the help of the dancing superstar.
And yeah, Billy Bob’s is massive. The sprawling concrete expanse started at 100,000 square feet and now tops 127,000 square feet. It’s far larger than both the old and the new Gilley’s. But what makes Billy Bob’s truly one of a kind is what remains after the “holy crap this place is huge” wears off.
Now, don’t get it twisted: Billy Bob’s Texas was 100% started to capitalize on the Urban Cowboy/Gilley’s craze. But what it has grown into since then is a completely irreplaceable cornerstone of the Texas music scene.
From Thousands of Cattle to Thousands of People
In 1980, “Billy Bob Barnett” and his partner Spencer Taylor purchased a vacant department store in the heart of Fort Worth’s famed Stockyards district. The area always captured Texas’ cowboy culture. The National Register of Historic Places added the Stockyards to its list in 1976. And a big vacant department store existing at the heart of it seemed like a crime.
Built in 1910, the building once housed thousands of cattle and an auction arena. In 1943, at the height of World War II, the building took on a new purpose: a domestic airplane factory. It had too much history to simply stay a vacant old store (where stock boys once roller skated to make their job easier).
Much like Gilley’s, the original plan was to name the venue after a local musician — Fort Worth’s Jerry Max Lane. But “Jerry Max’s Texas” required too many copyright hurdles, so the duo settled on Billy Bob’s Texas. The club opened on April 1, 1981, and the musicians who flocked to play it were no joke.
Two of Texas’ favorite sons, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, played packed shows the first week. By the time the calendar turned, Billy Bob’s welcomed Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Bob Hope and many other entertainers.
Billy Bob’s became one of country’s hottest venues practically overnight. The club racked up its first of 12 “Country Music Club of the Year” awards from the Academy of Country Music in 1982.
Oh, and to perpetuate the friendly rivalry between Billy Bob’s and Gilley’s, the club started putting on live bull riding shows in the former auction arena — none of that “mechanical bull” stuff.
The Legend Grows
A number of key events over the next several years ballooned Billy Bob’s pop culture status, both within and outside of country. Musicians heard the story of a young cat named George Strait, who showed up in a pickup truck and opened a show for Billy Joe Shaver. The next time he played the venue a few months later, he was celebrating his first No. 1, “Fool Hearted Memory.”
To celebrate the success of a duet he did with George Jones, Merle Haggard bought 5,095 rounds of Canadian Club Whiskey for the crowd — 40 gallons and nearly $13,000 worth. It’s the Guinness World Record for the largest round of drinks ever bought. Not to be outdone, Hank Williams Jr. set his own record in 1986 for the most bottles of beer sold at Billy Bob’s with 16,000.
In 1984, the venue hosted members of the press and Republican party during the nearby Republican National Convention. Because it was widely covered in the press, the event took Billy Bob’s status in the national eye to the next level.
Billy Bob’s cashed in on the 80s scene too, hosting acts like Donna Summer (she taped her TV special there and rode in on a white horse) and Men At Work (they played two of their six U.S. shows there). Styx, Marvin Gaye, Heart, Pat Benatar, ZZ Top — just a few of the legends who graced the stage. Over the next several years, the club helped catapult the careers of countless 80s country stars, from Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker to Brooks & Dunn and The Judds.
The 80s also saw Billy Bob’s jump into the Hollywood fray. Over The Top, the ridiculous movie about arm wrestling with Sylvester Stallone, became the first film to feature Billy Bob’s. Country classic Pure Country also heavily featured Billy Bob’s. But by the time Roy Orbison played his last show ever at Billy Bob’s in 1987, the club was actually struggling.
The Doors Close
In the late 80s, a number of factors crippled the club. For starters, the country music craze died out. Texas entered an economic recession and the Stockyards development led to increasing land lease prices. The winter of 1987 brought an icy storm to the city, hampering tourism and forcing the club’s doors shut.
In 1988, Billy Bob’s Texas closed. Barnett promised to reopen it somehow, but he owed $82,000 in back taxes. Texas native and Stockyards lover Holt Hickman swooped in, forming a partnership with two other locals to save the property. They knew for the club to survive, they needed to stop spending as much money.
The team quietly reopened in November 1988, conducting a lot of their promotions and talent buying in-house. They kept costs low to pay off debts. But thanks to the club’s prior status, it didn’t take long to get the word out that Billy Bob’s was back. And the artists returned.
The 90s and Beyond
Since reopening, Billy Bob’s continues to be a breeding ground for the biggest country music acts in the world. The club made the wise decision to begin its own record label in 1998 exclusively for the purpose of capturing concerts from the venue.
Pat Green, a local kid who went to Texas Tech in Lubbock and came back a country singer, was the first artist to record a live album on the label. Released in 1999, Live at Billy Bob’s: Pat Green is still one of the label’s best-selling albums. It helped catapult Pat Green as a Texas legend and formally introduced “Texas Country” as a force to be reckoned with, alongside the growing Oklahoma “red dirt” scene.
The Smith Music Group has since released more than 40 Live At Billy Bob’s albums. Oh, and Pat Green holds the record for Billy Bob’s sellouts at 15.
Billy Bob’s has an uncanny knack for existing right in the sweet spot of country music. The club hosts country megastars on their way up. But it also hosts locals and legends alike. And the club continuously supports the community. In fact, Billy Bob’s is hosting a fundraiser to support the families of Dallas police officers slain in this year’s attacks.
The show features artists part of the always-growing Billy Bob’s family. Tanya Tucker, The Oak Ridge Boys, Collin Raye and more will play. Even Randy Travis is planning an appearance.
If you’ve never been, you need to. Don’t be intimidated by the size. Don’t even worry if you can’t dance (they’ve got your back with the dance lessons). Check out the Wall of Fame, where legendary artists’ handprints hang in cement. Catch a show. Any show.
So yes, Billy Bob’s started by chasing a trend. But what it became is one-of-a-kind. It’s a remarkable piece of country music history. It survived fads and failures. It turned locals into legends.
And it does it 7 days a week.