& Free Trip to Margaritaville
Billy Bob’s Texas
By Amy Barnett
“The World’s Largest Honk Tonk” celebrates 40 years of music and bull-riding fun.
We all know the adage – everything is bigger in Texas. So, it was likely no surprise to anyone when Billy Bob Barnett, a Texas A&M graduate and pro football player, teamed up with a Fort Worth nightclub owner to turn an abandoned 100,000-square-foot department store and former open-air cattle barn into a nightclub. It was 1981, and their go-big-or-go-home attitude resulted in the one-of-a-kind live music venue and dance hall known as Billy Bob’s Texas, which is still promoted as “the World’s Largest Honky Tonk.”
“When Billy Bob’s Texas opened in ’81, it was a week-long celebration in true larger-than-life, largest honky-tonk fashion,” said Terran Fleenor, Director of Marketing, Billy Bob’s Texas. “We kicked off the celebration with a private show by Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.”
“That was a big night,” remembered Rudy Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers. “It was kind of a private get-together with a couple thousand people invited. But somehow, a whole bunch of people got in there, and the place was packed! I later heard the fire marshal came and stood at the door and said, ‘nobody goes in until somebody comes out!’ Billy Bob’s also gave us a red and gold-trimmed satin jacket at the grand opening, which a few years ago I donated to the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.”
The Gatlin Brothers have played at Billy Bob’s Texas at least 10 times since they helped open the venue 40 years ago. Other A-list country music legends who have performed in the iconic venue in the Fort Worth Stockyards include Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and Merle Haggard.
In 1983, while performing on stage, Haggard offered each person in the crowd a whiskey shot. The drinks totaled 40 gallons and earned Haggard a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the purchaser of the biggest round ever.
“This place has so many stories,” added Fleenor. “When Garth Brooks first played here, he played to 500 people. When he came back six months later, he played to a sold-out crowd. Another cool fact – Miranda Lambert is still the only female and only solo artist to sell out full-capacity, back-to-back nights. I think that’s really cool. Girl power!”
While Billy Bob’s is known for nighttime entertainment, it gets quite a few guests during the day who want to tour the massive venue and check out each wall that is covered with memorabilia and handprints of many singers who have performed on the big stage.
“The Wall of Fame got its start in 1989 when our Entertainment Director at the time, Robert Gallagher, was looking for a way for artists to cement their place at Billy Bob’s. The first handprints were done in a bus tub in the kitchen. Some artists do handprints to commemorate sold-out shows; we ask others to do it because we know they are on their way up and we want to catch them while they are here,” explained Fleenor.
Hometown artists included in the Wall of Fame are Huntsville’s Cody Johnson, Montgomery’s Josh Ward, and Conroe’s Parker McCollum.
Some have left more than just handprints.
“Ray Benson put his boots in, and Denna Carter put her feet in because she always performed barefoot,” added Fleenor. “For a lot of them, it’s a milestone in their career to do their handprints here but also to sign the backstage wall. That’s another milestone they can check off their bucket list.”
Guests can also check out Billy Bob’s indoor bull-riding area – that’s right, live music and live bulls under the same roof.
“Gilley’s was the hot place after Urban Cowboy, and everyone visited Gilley’s to ride the mechanical bull. Billy Bob Barnett wanted to one-up Gilley’s, so he put in a real riding arena with the slogan, ‘real bulls, not steel bulls,’ and we had shirts and bumper stickers made. We were still holding bull riding events Friday and Saturday nights, pre-COVID, and hope to again really soon. You pay $4 to see the bull riding and then go to the show,” said Fleenor.
Also on the Billy Bob’s tour, you won’t see a disco ball above the massive dance floor but something more spectacular.
“We have a rhinestone saddle,” said Fleenor. “The backstory varies. Some say it was inspired by the movie ‘Rhinestone’ starring Dolly Parton; others say it is from the movie.”
And then there is a section of the venue dedicated to the live albums recorded at on the big stage titled, “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas.”
“Live at Billy Bob’s Texas is a record label we created in partnership with the Smith Music Group in 1998. They did the first one with Pat Green. It was supposed to be a test run for Merle Haggard, so they recorded the album and by the time it was done, Pat Green had blown up and now it is still one of most successful albums. Pat Green went on to sell out 15 consecutive shows after that,” said Fleenor.
Billy Bob’s Texas also has an in-house restaurant, Honky Tonk Kitchen, with great Texas favorites – burgers, barbecue and tacos; and the Pizza Kitchen, which serves a variety of pizza and nachos.
“It’s a cowboy’s Six Flags,” laughed Gatlin.
Billy Bob’s Texas could not think of a better way to celebrate its 40th anniversary than by bringing back the Gatlin Brothers. On April 1, 2021, Rudy, Larry and Steve kicked off the multi-month celebration.
“We had so much fun. We had a couple of old band members come back and play a couple of tunes with us. Red Steagall joined us too,” said Gatlin. “It was great getting the band together and kicking it up a notch.”
If you’ve never been to Billy Bob’s Texas, Gatlin and Fleenor encourage you to stop by for a show, or simply to walk through.
“There are a couple of places in Texas that every good Texan needs to visit – the Alamo in San Antonio; Matt’s El Rancho in Austin; and Billy Bob’s Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards,” added Gatlin.
“As a music lover, it’s such a landmark and iconic spot. I believe Billy Bob’s is the heartbeat of the Fort Worth Stockyards,” said Fleenor. “We are hoping for another 40 years of country music and honky tonkin’. Through the rest of 2021, we are bringing in as many great artists as we can and providing a fun place for people to listen to live music and experience western lifestyle and western heritage.”
Billy Bob’s Texas continues to bring in more live acts to commemorate its 40th year. Visit billybobstexas.com for a full list of events and to purchase tickets.