It was 1981, and Texas chic fever was sweeping the nation. Dallas was the hottest show on TV. Urban Cowboy had just made millions at the box office. Yankees clumped down Fifth Avenue in cowboy boots. Beverly Hills brimmed with Stetsons and rhinestones. And on April Fool’s Day, in the heart of the Fort Worth Stockyards, Billy Bob’s Texas opened its doors.
Today touted as the “world’s largest honky-tonk,” Billy Bob’s features thirty-plus bar stations, rows and rows of pool tables, a restaurant, a gift shop, a real bull-riding area, a faux bull photo-op area, a wall of fame, and an autographed-guitar room. At more than 127,000 square feet, the Cowtown club is nearly three times the size of the original Gilley’s. And sure, bigger may be better in most matters of Texas brag, but part of what makes a honky-tonk great is its intimacy. Which is why, in the humble opinion of your correspondent, Billy Bob’s isn’t really a honky-tonk.
But what exactly qualifies as a honky-tonk is a matter of dispute.
The etymology of “honky-tonk” is, fittingly, lost to time. The term first appeared in the pages of Texas and Oklahoma newspapers around the 1890s, typically used to describe drinking establishments of dubious nature. Around this time, aging cowboys, wrangling their memories of trail drives onto the pages of their memoirs, used “honkatonk” (and other creative spellings) to describe the dusty cowtown watering holes of their youth.
The term eventually made its way up the east coast, where it was used in reference to African American jazz clubs. In fact, the earliest instance of the phrase showing up in song was the 1916 hit, “Down in Honky Tonky Town.” Co-written by a black composer and his white colleague, the song depicts a place “underneath the ground where all the fun is found.” But while jazz and New York may have briefly adopted the word, it was in country music and Texas that “honky-tonk” would really take hold.
During the Depression, Texas oil fields stayed relatively busy, and the gritty, small towns that sprouted behind the flow of black gold were filled with folks carrying a bit of pocket-change. Country musicians scraped by during these lean years by playing for blue-collar workers in taverns peddling alcohol on the sly. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many of these joints went legit, and new bars sprang up on the outskirts of these boomtowns, where both the tax-rate and the police presence was low. The owners hung neon on the walls, cleared a space for dancing, and placed a jukebox in the corner. Those who darkened the doors to drink beer and slip nickels into the Wurlitzer took to calling the place a honky-tonk.
From the beginning, music played a pivotal role in the honky-tonk. Up until then, country music was defined by hillbilly music and western swing, but inside honky-tonks the genre began to evolve. The pastoral and religious themes of hillbilly acts were soon displaced by lyrics that explored the wild side of life. But it was more than the lyrics that changed. To compete with the clamor of beer-drunk roughnecks, the bands—often just a fiddler and guitar picker—had to get louder. They added pianos, stand-up bass, and pedal steel. The guitars were plugged into newfangled amplifiers. What became most important was the beat: a steady, shuffling rhythm you could dance and drink to over the din. The new sound was called “honky-tonk,” and no one pioneered or perfected this style quite like Ernest Tubb. The Crisp native jumpstarted the subgenre with his 1941 classic, “Walking the Floor Over You.” (Check out our list of classic Texas honky-tonk tunes.)
Tubb had good timing. World War II brought profound changes. Rural populations dwindled as families moved in droves from their farms to factory jobs near cities. Missing their small-town ways, these newly-urbanized Texans flocked to the honky-tonk to seek familiar comforts and good times. Of course, they didn’t always find good times. The venues were often rough, “bucket of blood” outposts on two-lane county highways crowded with brawling servicemen and laborers. At some joints, chicken wire was stretched across the stage to shield the performers from brawls. Even with a barrier, a career honky-tonk musician—and anyone else who frequented these places—could expect to get in a scrape from time to time.
Despite the likelihood of fat lips, the forties and fifties are considered the golden age of the honky-tonk. On any given weekend, you could see Tubb at the Sky Line Club, in Austin; or Johnny Horton at the Green Lantern, in Monahans; or Hank Thompson at the Esquire Ballroom, in Houston; or any of a slew of famous Texans like George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Floyd Tillman at joints across the state. On the radio you heard Hank Williams beckoning you to come “Honky Tonkin’.” And on the jukebox, Kitty Wells lamented “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Soon, what began in Texas honky-tonks made it to the Grand Ole Opry and, via radio, into homes across America.
Rock’n’roll eventually came to dominate the airwaves, and mainstream country music moved toward the orchestral Nashville sound, but in Texas, the honky-tonk continued to thrive. At places like Austin’s Broken Spoke, Johnny Bush, Willie Nelson, and other so-called Outlaw Country musicians brought hippies and rednecks together over a shared passion for longnecks and straight country music. But it was the release of Urban Cowboy, in 1980, that embedded the idea of a Texas honky-tonk into the national consciousness.
Mickey Gilley’s namesake nightclub in Pasadena became the model of the neo-honky-tonk. Like the primitive prototypes of the thirties, Gilley’s served as a gathering spot for rural Texans who relocated to the Houston-area to work in the petro-chemical plants. Gilley’s, however, expanded on the traditional entertainment offerings by adding punching bags, a shooting range, and, yes, a mechanical bull. The club was also huge, with a dancefloor the size of a football field and enough event space to accommodate 6,000 revelers at a time. Soon, bar owners all over America were scrambling to put mechanical bulls in their newly-rebranded “honky-tonks.”
Perhaps this is where the trouble began. Now any venue that occasionally played country music and served beer might call itself a honky-tonk, despite its clientele, architectural style, or operating ethos. Although the original Gilley’s closed in 1989 and burned to the ground the following year, the neo-honky-tonk country nightclubs it spawned are still going fairly strong. Billy Bob’s is one of them. As time went on, the Fort Worth club doubled-down on the gimmicky entertainment tactics and Disney-Land proportions and, though it closed briefly in 1988, today Billy Bob’s continues to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.
And though it feels to this correspondent like more of an amusement park than a honky-tonk, Billy Bob’s does in fact have its charms. Which is why, if you happen to scoot across its dance floor on any given Saturday night, you just might see me there.