There was a time, not so long ago—after World War II but before Willie moved to Austin—that most Texans would have shared a common, if working, definition of “honky-tonk.” But nowadays, many seem to have the wrong idea about what qualifies (and there are some, typically of the recently arrived variety, for whom the word might as well be Swahili). Part of what makes the term so tricky to nail down is the fact that there are certain ineffable qualities that a true honky-tonk must possess. Some historic venues lose it over time, and some brand-new joints have it from day one. So before we go any further, let’s set some guidelines.
A honky-tonk is not a dance hall. Many of our most beloved dance halls were built by German and Czech settlers in the second half of the nineteenth century. They are often beautiful structures, originally constructed to host social clubs and other family-friendly affairs. Honky-tonks, by contrast, tend to have roots as shallow as tumbleweeds’. Few can trace their history back more than a few decades, and only a handful of stalwarts have been around for more than fifty years. In fact, a honky-tonk is seldom erected at all. It tends to spring to life when an empty filling station or abandoned store is repurposed. As such, the honky-tonk does not boast the elegant architectural qualities of a dance hall. The ceilings are low, the walls cinder block and windowless, the lighting is neon, and the dance floor, when not sticky tile or concrete, is likely made of wood salvaged from an old high school gym. Nor is a honky-tonk the focal point of civic life. It is most often found on the outskirts of town, where it serves the periphery of society. And a honky-tonk is certainly no place to take small children.
A honky-tonk is not a restaurant. The fare is typically limited to the kind you’d find at a Little League concession stand: Frito pie, nachos, nuts, and various fried or pickled items. A few places serve fine burgers from their grease-laden flattops. And you might come across passable steak (chicken-fried or grilled) on certain nights. But if you ever see blue cheese on the menu, friend, you’re not in a honky-tonk. (On the other hand, if you smell blue cheese near the men’s room, you might be.)
A honky-tonk is not a country-themed nightclub. Such country discos are widespread among the state’s big cities and were founded on the honky-tonk’s core principles—namely, booze, country music, dancing, and hooking up—but the parallels pretty much end there. For one thing, these cavernous warehouses operate almost exclusively at night and on the weekends. This runs contrary to the operating hours of a honky-tonk, which should welcome customers at least five days a week and open before folks get off work. Whereas each honky-tonk offers some sense of the owner’s personality (if only in the array of taxidermy displayed), the nightclub is a more impersonal experience.
While groups like Texas Dance Hall Preservation have taken laudable steps to save our state’s handsome dance halls, the dingy, rough-hewn honky-tonk hasn’t inspired the same kind of conservation efforts. As a result, the honky-tonk is now endangered. But those that remain continue to serve an important role in their communities: they are the place where a person can unspool a troubled mind, pursue or nurture romance, drown their sorrows, or shake their limbs to a country song.
This spring, I traveled some three thousand miles in search of the state’s best honky-tonks. As expected, most were hole-in-the-wall joints with little to admire aesthetically. Many had yet to meet smoking bans, and a couple featured the inevitable hothead fuming over some perceived slight at the pool table. But the vast majority are mostly welcoming places—so long as you don’t get too out of line or come in proselytizing for veganism. I reckon that parts of this list might not sit well with some readers and others will be baffled by what’s left off. I’m happy to have the debate, so long as it’s over Lone Stars—in a honky-tonk, of course.
Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar
Basics: Cash only. Smoking permitted. $5 cover charge on Saturdays and holiday weekends.
Drink: Lone Star (longneck). Sells setups. Wine: Barefoot.
Food: Bags of chips, popcorn for $1—salty and a bit stale (in other words, good).
Sign: “Cowboys—No shirt, no service. Cowgirls—No shirt, free beer.”
Pro Tip: Don’t wear your rough-out suede boots. The sawdust will stick to them.
To enter this honky-tonk heaven, you must go down. Down a wooden staircase behind a red metal door on the main street of Bandera, down into the cool darkness beneath the town’s general store. A local woman will greet you at the bottom of the stairs. You’ll give her $5 and she’ll hand you a ticket to this neon kingdom. Your eyes will need a moment to adjust to the dim light, at which point you’ll take in your surroundings: The ceiling is low and made of red pressed tin. There’s a small stage to your right, and the bar beckons at the far end of the room. The air smells of popcorn, beer, and tobacco. The dance floor is blanketed with sawdust.
Arkey Juenke, the owner, was a young songwriter and guitar picker when a record producer took to calling him Blue, because of his tendency to write and sing sad songs. The name stuck. Arkey opened the Silver Dollar in 1968, and ever since Arkey Blue and the Blue Cowboys have been playing tear-in-your-beer tunes every Saturday night. In the afternoon, a regularly scheduled jam session draws a crowd of dancers. After they finish and before Arkey’s eight o’clock set begins, many of the dancers go home, eat dinner, take a nap, throw on fresh duds, and return just as the Blue Cowboys take the stage.
On the Saturday evening I was there, a good chunk of the crowd was made up of old-school cowboy types in Wranglers and straw hats, but one brave soul ventured downstairs wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. Many of the men’s faces were ruddy from the sun or from drink and lined by wrinkles as deep as cotton furrows. The women dripped with turquoise and sterling silver, and wore blouses emblazoned with Old Glory to mark the Memorial Day weekend. Those who didn’t already know one another made fast friends at the long tables covered in red-and-white-checkered cloths.
Promptly at eight, Arkey and his quintet launched into their set of honky-tonk classics. They burned through “Ramblin’ Fever,” and the steel guitar wailed on “There Stands the Glass.” As the night waltzed on, one of the dancers took a break and slid into the booth across from me. She introduced herself: Denise Lartin, 62 years old, originally from Queens, and now a proud Bandera resident. I asked how she had ended up here. “I got addicted to two-stepping,” she told me in the thickest New York accent I’ve heard outside of the movies. She had googled “cowboys” and discovered Bandera, which touts itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World. “I had gone to Utah and Arizona before coming here,” she said, “but there weren’t no cowboy bars. Not like here. You can go dancing every night of the week.”
Shortly before midnight, Arkey and his Blue Cowboys began to wrap their set. Denise and her boyfriend decided to head down Main Street to a country bar. Before they ascended the stairs, I asked Denise if she planned to stick around Bandera. “Oh, I’m here forever,” she said. “Texas, there’s nothing like it.”
Basics: Credit accepted. No smoking. $5 cover charge, additional for live music.
Drink: Full bar.
Food: Slab Sides, a food truck parked outside, serves mesquite ribs, mac and cheese, wings, sausage on a stick.
Sign: “Tenemos Budweiser Fria Para Llevar.”
Pro Tip: Order the Cowboy’s Breakfast: a Miller High Life pony, a shot of whiskey, and a Slim Jim for $5.
Although it bills itself as “the oldest honky-tonk on the St. Mary’s Strip,” the Lonesome Rose has been open only since November. Despite its relative infancy, the Rose feels like a classic honky-tonk, albeit with a few modern touches. There’s Texas craft beer, for instance, but there’s also a jukebox impeccably stocked with vinyl 45s. Local musician Garrett T. Capps handles the booking, and under his curation, the bar has hosted a range of acts, from honky-tonk traditionalist Weldon Henson to San Antonio conjunto legend Santiago Jiménez Jr.
It’s the San Antonio vibe that really sets the Lonesome Rose apart. On a Saturday night, a handful of dancing couples glided in front of the stage while a mirror ball not much bigger than a grapefruit spun above them, and the lead singer of the 501’s slipped references to the Spurs into a Tim McGraw cover as the ace accordion player added a layer of conjunto to the country sound. When the band launched into the Texas Tornados’ “Guacamole,” whoops of “¡Órale! ” went up from the tattooed crowd. Between songs, dudes in wallet chains and bolo ties shared pictures of their custom choppers like parents showing off photos of their newborn.
I met Samantha Caudillo and her boyfriend, Damon Espinoza, who’d come to the Rose on a double date with Samantha’s parents. The twentysomethings are San Antonio born and bred, and they know all the local country acts because they spend most weekends dancing. Though they’re more inclined to clubs like the Thirsty Horse and Cooter Browns, they’re glad to have a new spot that offers both two-stepping and Hans’ Pils.
Shortly before 2 a.m., I stepped out onto the back porch for some fresh air. Cacti lined the fence, and a statue of Mary watched over the scene from her tiny stone grotto. The band announced its last song, sending several couples who’d been seated at the picnic tables inside to dance. Soon, the familiar refrains of “Neon Moon” spilled out of the Rose. I stayed out back, watching clouds move across the night sky, singing along.
Texas Rose Bar
Basics: Credit accepted ($10 minimum). Smoking permitted.
Drink: Coors Light (draft) and Lone Star (longneck). Sells setups. Some kind of frozen wine concoction.
Food: Pickles, peanuts, chips, pretzels, Dum Dums, and a few microwavable items. Free popcorn.
Sign: Autographed John Wayne portraits.
Pro tip: If the tamale guy stops by, grab some: they’re a steal at $7 a dozen. Just be sure to get some of the homemade salsa—the locals will show you what to do with the pouch.
Afternoon in a good honky-tonk can be as fine a time as a Saturday night, though for inverse reasons. A certain stillness settles over the bar like a saddle blanket. The jukebox plays softly, pool shooters circle their felt battlegrounds with quiet contemplation, and conversation, when it comes, flows in slow, easy currents. If you’ve ever stepped inside the Texas Rose at midday, you know what I mean.
Situated about a mile off the interstate on a quiet road between La Feria and Harlingen, the Rose and nearby American Legion Post 439 are the last two watering holes on what was once a bustling strip of honky-tonks. Railroad tracks and a grazing pasture sit across the street, and there’s a caliche-pad RV park to the rear. Pulling up, you feel as if you’ve just arrived at a country bar that’s actually in the country.
Inside, tabs are kept by hand on slips of paper next to the register. Beer is fished out of a cooler. White wine is poured over ice into plastic cups. Regulars keep their own koozies hanging on the wall beneath the chips. Three TVs are perpetually tuned to a puzzling trifecta of channels: History, Golf, and Grit (“television with backbone”). The barroom is filled with Newport smoke, and there are so many pictures of John Wayne it feels like a shrine to the Duke.
While I was hanging out one recent Saturday afternoon, a local picker with a Walt Whitman beard sat onstage playing a tobacco-stained guitar. His sneakers were kicked off to the side, and he worked his guitar pedals in white-socked feet, singing “Make the World Go Away,” which is exactly what you’re aiming to do in a honky-tonk at 3 p.m.
By then, the Rose had already been open for six hours. “Sometimes I have regulars calling at nine, asking me to open the back gate,” said Ann Marie Gurklis, who’s been tending bar here for twelve years. She remembers when the concrete building was a taxidermy shop. (The meat locker is now a storage room, but the metal hooks used to hang carcasses are still in there.)
Ann’s clearly had practice filling the more tranquil hours talking to strangers. She told me about the drag shows held at the bar to raise money for the local hospice, and she chuckled recounting the annual Testicle Festival, which features a feast of fried turkey testes (they initially used bull testicles but switched to turkey because the bovine variety was too expensive). “You know where turkey nuts are located?” Ann asked me. I did not. She pointed at her armpit. “Under the wings.”
Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon
Basics: Credit accepted. No smoking. $5 cover charge on Saturdays and Sundays, after 9 p.m.
Drink: Full bar.
Food: Steak night on Wednesday. Burgers grilled on the patio every Saturday.
Sign: “Get Hot or Get Out.”
Pro tip: Free dance lessons are offered every Thursday and Saturday.
Once a honky-tonk oasis, Houston has recently become something of a desert. Gilley’s and its kin have been replaced with the likes of Goodnight Charlie’s, a recently opened joint in the Montrose District peddling $10 taco plates to a mostly white-collar crowd in a space that looks like Silicon Valley’s attempt to hack the honky-tonk. If you really want to go honky-tonking in the Bayou City, you’ll have to venture beyond the Loop.
That’s where you’ll find the stone facade of Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, a welcome sight amid the industrial sprawl on the city’s northwest side. The building has been a mainstay of this part of town since 1955, when it opened as the Esquire Ballroom. As such, it was the musical home to jukebox queen Patsy Cline in addition to being Willie Nelson’s place of employment in his early songwriting days (he composed “Night Life” about working at the bar while commuting from Pasadena). Dozens of legendary honky-tonk acts played its stage over the years, but the Esquire closed for good in 1995. The building hosted a string of short-lived ventures (boxing venue, quinceañera hall, space-themed nightclub) before six Houstonians stepped in to give it a new life as the state’s largest LGBTQ country bar, in 2013.
Today, rainbow rosette fans hang above the white pine dance floor, where every Thursday and Saturday you’ll find a crowd trying to turn two left feet into two-stepping machines at the club’s free dance lessons. White lights outline the shape of Texas above the entrance, and a Texas flag serves as the backdrop for the stage. While helping yourself to popcorn as you flip through the digital jukebox, you might spy the Houston chapter of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association gathered around a table in their Stetsons. At 11,000 square feet, Neon Boots is a bit big for a honky-tonk, but most nights it retains the intimacy of a pocket-size club.
You can read about the bar’s history in the Esquire Room, a separate space adjacent to the main dancing area, where regularly held karaoke sessions are also mercifully quarantined. But Neon Boots doesn’t just dwell on the past. The bar represents the future of Southern music: H-Town rapper Megan Thee Stallion recently held her album release party at Neon Boots, where she rode in on a literal white horse. Such soirees may push the boundaries of what is accepted by purists, but this joint is no stranger to transgressive acts. Decades ago, the Esquire was among the first country bars to host African American country crooner Charley Pride.
The Finish Line Club
Basics: Credit accepted. Smoking permitted. $5 cover charge on Saturdays for live music.
Drink: Full bar.
Food: Various fried fare, burgers, nachos, Frito pie.
Sign: Bathrooms are delineated by “Standers” and “Squatters.” Standers are encouraged to relieve themselves by aiming at the “Hanoi Jane” urinal target. (Your correspondent cannot speak to the experiences of squatters.)
Pro Tip: If you aren’t starving, the Frito pie is enough for two.
No Texas city harshes the honky-tonk vibe quite like Dallas, where you’re more likely to get run over by a Mercedes than come across a genuine shit-kicker bar. A place called Mama Tried opened last year, complete with a scene of Bud and Sissy painted on the wall, but alas, the former CrossFit gym feels more like a Nashville brunch spot than Gilley’s. As one local put it, “Mama Tried but Mama Failed.” The one exception in the city is Adair’s Saloon.
And then there’s Fort Worth. On weekend nights, the famous Stockyards transform into a Western-themed Bourbon Street. The smell of steer manure wafts gently on the wind, and clubs with names like Filthy McNasty’s are packed with line-dancing tourists in hats purchased at Leddy’s only hours before. Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon, though, is worth battling the crowds. If you ever have the chance to catch Johnny Bush or Jason James play this room, you’ll have achieved honky-tonk nirvana—at least until you have to step back outside.
A twenty-minute drive from the Stockyards, the Finish Line Club, in Aledo, is the real deal. Nestled next to an HVAC shop and a gas-station-turned-fireworks-store on the I-30 frontage road, this is the kind of no-frills, small-town honky-tonk that attracts all types—bikers swaddled in black leather, regular joes in cowboy hats and camo visors, tatted dudes with farmer’s tans, high-haired women with honey-colored curls, and, apparently, a whole mess of people who like to sing.
A snow-haired couple was onstage giving their all to “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” when I arrived on a Friday night. Misty Daily, the bartender, explained that the bar typically hosts bands on Wednesday and Saturdays, but Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays are dedicated to karaoke. A dozen or so attentive listeners sat at tables surrounding the dance floor, focused on the rotating cast of singers. The rest of the clientele carried on as if it were just the jukebox playing in the background.
Misty was still busy at midnight. She poured shots of Fireball by the score, tracked down missing pool balls, ribbed the regulars, and called newbies like me by name. The cook finished her shift and sat at the bar nursing a pint and a Pall Mall. Highlights of the Rangers game played on TV. A black cowboy in a white hat sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in front of a rebel flag tacked up behind the stage. Misty stopped for a moment and listened.
Texas Stagecoach Saloon
Basics: Credit accepted ($10 minimum). No smoking.
Drink: Full bar.
Food: Brisket hoagies, fries, pizza, wings.
Sign: “To Those Who Serve America: Thank You.”
Pro Tip: Use the coin-operated breathalyzer (the money goes to the local firefighters) before deciding how to get home.
When this small stone bar was built on El Paso’s northeast side some forty years ago, it was called the Connection. Later it was known as the Outpost; after that, the White Stallion; and since 2012, the Texas Stagecoach Saloon. No matter, it has always been a honky-tonk.
Lorena Silva, 49, remembers sneaking in here decades ago when she was still underage. Now she tends the bar a couple of nights every week, not because she has to—she’s got a full-time job—but because she loves the Stagecoach and its patrons. Thanks to its proximity to Fort Bliss, many of its habitués are GIs, a fact that is reflected in the decor. Flags from the 1st Cavalry and 82nd Airborne divisions hang on the wall. Dollars dangle from the ceiling like suspended confetti, and some of the names scrawled on the bills belong to servicemen and -women who didn’t make it home. The glowing Christmas tree slowly turning in one corner is set up for the regulars who were deployed overseas last December and hadn’t gotten to celebrate the holiday. Lorena asked owner Mike Kepner if she could keep the tree up till they returned home. As the soldiers trickle back to El Paso, they stop in to the Stagecoach to pose for pictures with the tree.
Pouring shots of whiskey and cracking open longnecks, Lorena holds her own in the jargon-heavy world of military banter. She chats easily about bullet calibers and the size of motorcycle engines. When “one of her boys” starts dating someone new, they often stop by and introduce the new flame to her. Even after the soldiers are transferred to other bases, Lorena will receive baby pictures and Christmas cards.
It’s not all military all the time at the Stagecoach, though. On the weekends, local country acts take the stage to play for dancers. “We have this couple that comes in every Saturday to dance,” Lorena told me. “Mr. Decker is eighty-eight, but he stills get around pretty good. Mrs. Decker is only four foot eleven, so we keep a footstool next to their table to help her get into the seat.”
Devil’s Backbone Tavern
Basics: Cash only. No smoking. Cover charge varies, depending on who’s playing.
Drink: Full bar.
Food: Cold-cut sandwiches, Zapp’s potato chips, nuts.
Sign: “Get Some Backbone.”
Pro Tip: Be sure to grab cash before you make the trip—the ATM is finicky.
The Devil’s Backbone Tavern sits atop one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Texas. At nearly 1,300 feet, the hill it’s perched on offers a clear view of the zigzagging limestone ridge that gave the bar its name. Native Americans once camped on the hilltop, no doubt admiring the rugged terrain below. The handsome stone building that now houses the tavern was built in the thirties to serve parched souls traveling between then-dry Hays County and its wet neighbor Comal. Eight decades later, it continues to offer bibulous locals and wayward pilgrims a chance to relax, wet the whistle, and listen to music—or some ghost stories.
You see, the tavern and the entire rocky outcrop it sits upon are rumored to be haunted. Ghost sightings and tales of paranormal tomfoolery date back to well before the bar opened. Even those who scoff at the supernatural are likely to be a little goosed when they spy a certain stone mortared into the back wall above the hearth. A closer look confirms that the rock is indeed the spittin’ image of Satan.
But hell felt far away on a mild Thursday afternoon this spring. A group of self-identified “old-timers” held court at the locals’ table near the entrance. One of the men, whose long hair spilled in white waves from his cowboy hat, popped open a can of tuna. Soon, the whole place smelled of fish. The black cat that had been dozing on the beer cooler sprinted across the wooden bar. The cowboy set the can on the ground. “Cheaper than Friskies,” he said.
One of the owners, singer-songwriter Robyn Ludwick, popped in. She and her husband, John (a.k.a. Lunchmeat), took ownership of Devil’s Backbone last August. Along with partner Abbey Road, they revived the dance hall portion, which had been dormant for decades. “I grew up in Bandera,” Robyn told me. “I was raised going to Arkey Blue’s. I saw Johnny Bush play there in the nineties, and it was just one of those life-changing moments.”
Music is now at the core of the operation. You might hear a talented unknown tickling the bar’s piano keys, still wearing his paint-specked coveralls. Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell might show up for a jam session. And you can always drop a quarter in the jukebox and mash 0-4-0-9 to play Todd Snider’s “The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern,” which he composed after getting lost on the way to a gig in Luckenbach and ending up at the tavern instead.
I was humming the song to myself when the landline telephone rang. The bartender picked it up. “Hello.” No answer. “Hello,” she repeated. She put the phone back in its cradle. “Guess they couldn’t hear me,” she said.
“Nah,” said one of the old-timers. “Just the ghost.”
Basics: Credit accepted (5 percent fee added). No smoking. Cover charge varies depending on who’s playing.
Drink: Full bar. The lone tap: Lone Star.
Food: Steaks, burgers, Tex-Mex, and the famous chicken-fried steak.
Sign: “Through this door pass the best country music dancers in the world.”
Pro Tip: Abide by proper dance etiquette—no drinking or standing on the dance floor—or else you’ll draw the ire of Austin’s hard-core honky-tonkers.
When it comes to great honky-tonks, Austin’s mug runneth over. On the north side, Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon is world-famous for its games of Chicken-Shit Bingo, but the beating heart of the bar is honky-tonk music. Almost any night of the week you can stumble in to find bands led by the likes of Dale Watson or James Hand squeezing onto the tiny stage.
Since opening its doors, in 2011, the White Horse has increasingly felt out of place amid the condos, yoga studios, and boutiques that have gentrified East Austin. But the White Horse remains stubbornly authentic. If you’re lucky, one of the many faithful regulars, such as the Czech grandma who conscripted me for a few dances one evening, will teach you a new step.
Far (for now) from the maddening development, Sam’s Town Point, in South Austin, is the kind of backwoods honky-tonk you’d stumble upon only if you made a wrong turn. With wood-paneled walls, Spuds Mac-Kenzie decor, and nary a whiff of hipster irony, Sam’s is a genuine eighties time capsule.
But the granddaddy of them all is the Broken Spoke, considered by many to be the greatest in Texas. Perhaps no honky-tonk has had more ink spilled in its name. Even with all the press, it’s a miracle the place has survived. Austin has radically changed since James and Annetta White opened the doors, in 1964. No longer does the joint sit alone on the far edge of town. The wide-open field that once surrounded it is now covered in glass-paned high-rises. Yet the squat, red building stands proudly and preposterously out of time.
Inside the Spoke, hardly a thing has changed in 55 years. The speckled ceiling tiles still hang so low that a tall cowboy has to doff his hat. Chicken-fried steak is still served with steaming white gravy. Twirling couples still waltz, shuffle, and polka on the polished-concrete dance floor. And there to greet you on most nights are James and Annetta. But you probably already know all this, because of course you’ve spent an evening there. On the off chance you have yet to make this honky-tonk pilgrimage (and sacred Texan rite of passage), I recommend you tell no one. Just go ahead and book your trip now. You’ll be glad you did.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Long Live Honky-Tonks!” Subscribe today.