I was on a road trip with my boyfriend when I first heard “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” And as we were driving down the highway. I stared absentmindedly out at the fields off U.S. 290. I had only recently heard of Lyle Lovett. She asked me, ‘Baby, what’s so great.’ My boyfriend hummed along. ‘How come you’re always going on about your Lone Star State.’
I grinned. Indeed. I had come from Europe for my college degree and had determined to make my stay as brief as possible. That’s right, you’re not from Texas. In fact, I vowed, I would form no attachments. That’s right, you’re not from Texas. I would not fall in love with a Texan. And I would certainly not ever enjoy any of that Texas music. I crossed my legs to keep my feet from tapping along.
But Texas wants you anyway. Seven years later, I am still in Texas. I have married that boyfriend. And I now sing along to many a Texas songwriter. I had to guiltily admit this to myself a couple of weekends ago on my way to Helotes. I had decided, in the spirit of this issue’s celebration of Texas music, to check out the John T. Floore Country Store, the dance hall famed for its key role in launching, among others, Willie Nelson’s career. While I am relatively new to Texas music, I do know that part of its uniqueness stems from its roots at dance halls. I have seen the boots scoot across the floor at Gruene Hall. I have accompanied college roommates to the Broken Spoke, in Austin. My husband once dragged me out to a small little barn in East Texas just to dance to one of his favorite bands. And isn’t it Jerry Jeff Walker who sings that what he likes about Texas is “dancing to the Cotton-Eyed Joe”? So I wanted to find out more about Floore’s imprint on our state’s culture. It is, after all, now an official Texas historic landmark.
The John T. Floore Country Store was founded as a cafe and dance hall in 1942. Once a manager of the Majestic Theatre, in San Antonio, John T. Floore decided to make his fortune in Helotes by setting up a way station for country music fans traveling between San Antonio and Bandera. Soon it became known for its food—homemade bread, sausage, and tamales—its casual atmosphere, and for its owner himself. A large, imposing man of about six feet five, John T. arranged the lineup of musicians—who would often play just for tips—and kept order in the place. It was at Floore’s that a young Willie Nelson cut his musician’s teeth, playing with several different bands before setting out on his own. He would later immortalize John T. in his song “Shotgun Willie,” describing him as “a hell of a man” who was so business savvy that he “made a lot of money sellin’ sheets” to the Ku Klux Klan.
Floore’s Country Store would eventually become Willie’s home base, as evidenced by the big sign out front that still advertises “Willie Nelson Every Sat. Nite.” But over the years it has also hosted other Texas greats, such as Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Charlie Robison, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Johnny Bush. When I arrived on a Saturday evening in March, I was immediately struck by the hall’s longevity and the variety of acts that it has welcomed: the multitude of weathered signs near the entrance announcing “Big Name” shows and weekend dances (and the “World’s Best Homemade Tamales,” of course), as well as the many photographs and posters of musicians inside, gave me not only the sense of being at a real honky-tonk but also that feeling of being just one in the generations of travelers to show up for some good toe tapping.
Although Floore’s has had new owners since John T.’s death, in 1975, you hardly detect any remodeling. Crusty boots hang from under the corrugated metal ceiling, as do cowboy hats, saddles, and pails. A worn coin-operated pool table sits in the corner. Along the walls, crowded with all sorts of memorabilia, I spotted more old photos, coils of rope and barbed wire, a wagon wheel or two, and neon beer signs that looked like they’d been flickering for ages. The tables, bolted down around the concrete dance floor, bore the signs of many an evening: professions of love carved forever into the oak and reminders of who was here when. Wonderfully corny sayings hung on signs nearer to the bar: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may diet”; “We fix everything but a broken heart.” I imagined them to be left over from John T.’s days, a reflection of his personality perhaps, as well as the words painted on two of the walls: “$100 fine for fighting.”
Floore’s continues to book top regional and national acts year-round, as well as many local groups for the Sunday night family dances. The Saturday I was there, Tex-Mex and country artist Rick Treviño was playing. Green as I am in my Texas music tastes, I had never heard him sing and had come out of curiosity. But the hall filled up fast with enthusiastic fans; friendly and unassuming, Treviño connected with his audience immediately, and the dance floor swelled to capacity. Small white and colored lights twinkled overhead as the couples swayed to songs from Treviño’s latest album, In My Dreams. I made a mental note to learn how to two-step.
It was a great show. As I drove home that night, a refrain of Treviño’s lodged in my head, I mused that as a dance hall, the John T. Floore Country Store probably reflects much of Texas’s music history, from outlaw songwriters like Willie to Tex-Mex singers like Treviño, from swing and blues to country and polka and the two-step. I’d had fun, too—that evening I, a transplant, had felt part of something Texan. As I had drummed my fingers to the beat of the music and watched the woman in front of me shout adoringly at the guys onstage, and as I’d smiled at the men in cowboy hats swinging their partners and at two little kids running around the dancers’ legs, for a moment I had felt part of a dance hall’s community, part of a slice of Texas culture. I thought of my husband, who sings to Lyle Lovett: But at a dance hall down in Texas, That’s the finest place to be. At John T. Floore’s, I caught a glimpse of what that means.