For North Texan music lovers, a trip to Billy Bob's is a rite of passage. A historic tourist stop by day, the self-proclaimed World's Largest Honky Tonk transforms nightly into a top Texas concert venue, attracting some of the most acclaimed country music and rock 'n roll acts of all time. From the silver, shining rhinestone saddle dangling from the rafters in a disco ball's stead to the world-famous mechanical bull, Billy Bob's offers the definitive ode to both kitschy Texana and serious songwriting history.
While it may seem that Billy Bob's was always among us, the story begins in 1980, when Billy Bob Barnett and Spencer Taylor decided to transform a 100,000-plus square foot former department store into a nightclub. As renovations began, Barnett set the opening date as April 1, 1981. (Like any smart business owner, he knew to safeguard for potential construction setbacks with an "April Fool's" loophole.) But the club did wind up opening that day, with an inaugural performance by the Gatlin Brothers. Waylon Jennings followed with back-to-back shows on April 2 and 3, and lines stretched around the block for Willie Nelson's on April 5 and 6.
From that blockbuster opening week, Billy Bob's has evolved into a landmark within the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. In honor of its first 35 years, the club will host a series of anniversary events, including concerts featuring Jennings' son, Shooter Jennings, on Nov. 10 and Nelson, himself, on Nov. 12.
Two-step down memory lane with these eight epic honky tonk moments, culled from the Billy Bob's Texas timeline, in honor of the club's first three and a half decades:
Merle Haggard buys the house a 40-gallon round
You might know him as an Okie from Muskogee, but in January 1983, Merle Haggard was better known for his affinity for whiskey from Ontario.
If you've never heard his song, "C.C. Waterback," a raucous account of wild partying with George Jones, now's a great time to give it a listen. Haggard recorded it as a duet with Jones and, while during a subsequent performance at Billy Bob's, decided to celebrate the single's reaching the Billboard top ten by buying the house a round of Canadian Club.
Billy Bob's goes bankrupt
No one wants to look back at the hard times -- that is, unless you're trying to write a great country song. Though Billy Bob's had hosted exclusive shows by Grammy Award winners, forefathers of Texas country music and rock 'n roll legends like Roy Orbison, the honky tonk was facing the end of the line in January 1988.
Country music's popularity was waning, as was the Texas economy, and Billy Bob Barnett was forced to file for bankruptcy and lock the doors. He left the keys with Don Jury for safekeeping as he set out to find the capital to reopen.
By November, Jury had formed a partnership with businessman Holt Hickman and Steve Murrin, known as the unofficial "Mayor of Cowtown." They reopened and, as the Haggard song goes, sought out just to "make it through December." They did, and Haggard and Jo-El Sonnier headlined the annual New Year's show, ringing in a brighter 1989.
Written in stone
It was that year, 1989, when one of Billy Bob's most famous traditions began. Artists swinging through town leave their handprints in slabs of concrete, which hang in the "Celebrity Wall of Fame." It's hard not to feel a sense of awe when pressing your own palms in the indents left by long-gone legends Conway Twitty, Gary Stewart, Johnny Cash and the like.
It's not just superstars who have crossed over to the great honky tonk in the sky that you will see on the Billy Bob's wall -- or just country artists, for that matter. Next generation notables you'll see are Jack Ingram, Jamey Johnson and Ryan Bingham, the last of whom also broke a longstanding Billy Bob's record.
On Jan. 25, 2014, Bingham fans bought 17,002 bottles of beer during his show, surpassing the 16,000 bought during a Hank Williams, Jr. concert in 1986.
Here's a full list of artists who have left their mark on Billy Bob's Wall of Fame.
Inspiration befalls Alan Jackson
Despite Georgia-born Alan Jackson's best wishes, Dallas still isn't in Tennessee. But, one of his most acclaimed songwriting efforts did spring forth from a trip down to North Texas.
Invigorated by the crowd at an appearance at Billy Bob's in 1990, Jackson went back to his tour bus and penned "Dallas," which became his fourth number one hit when it peaked on the charts the following year.
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... Garth Brooks hitting the big time
Garth Brooks has sold more albums in America than any other solo artist in history. It's true; he's outpaced Michael Jackson and even Elvis Presley. And, anyone who recalls the frenzy when the formerly-retired superstar announced his epic seven-show concert series at the AAC in 2015 won't be surprised to learn that Brooks has long held such sway in North Texas.
During his storied career's initial ascent, Brooks was scheduled to play Billy Bob's in November 1990, but the venue was not allowed to promote the show until after he'd taken stage at the State Fair of Texas in October. To promote the show, Billy Minick -- who, as general manager and with help from his marketing-savvy wife Pam Minick, had returned the club to glory following the 1988 shutdown -- arranged for an airplane to fly over Fair Park, hauling a banner announcing the Billy Bob's concert date. Onstage, Brooks noticed the plane and pointed up, drawing the crowd's attention.
Tickets sold out in 12 minutes the following day.
On Nov. 21, 1990, the superstar appeared for the final time at Billy Bob's -- so far -- where he performed and even judged a "Garth Brooks Lookalike Contest."
It's all in the movies
Billy Bob's has provided on-location filming for a number of movies, television shows and music videos including Baja Oklahoma, starring Lesley Ann Warren, Peter Coyote and Nelson, in 1988. Chuck Norris' Walker, Texas Ranger, and the original Dallas television show filmed a number of episodes on location over the years, and rocker Bret Michaels' runaway hit reality TV show, Rock of Love, rolled through in 2008.
The club also hosted the world premiere of the bull-riding biopic 8 Seconds in 1994. But, perhaps the best-known movie to film on-site was 1992's Pure Country, starring none other than Texas royalty King George Strait. An incognito Strait and his wife, Norma, reportedly partied with crew members during the filming in the club's VIP room. While much of the Billy Bob's footage landed on the cutting room floor, a small scene in the bathroom made the final reel.
This isn't it. But, it's a sweet scene, nonetheless.
Pat Green launches the 'Live at Billy Bob's' record series
While many came before him, Pat Green reinvigorated Texas-based independent song-craft in the late '90s and early 2000s. He made his Billy Bob's debut in 1998, when he became the first artist on -- and a test case for -- the venue's burgeoning record label, Smith Music Group.
Initially, that honor was slated for Haggard, but producers were not eager to take a risk attaching such a legendary artist's name to the experimental new venture. Instead, they recorded Green's Live at Billy Bob's, and it went on to be one of the now well-established label's best selling records to date.
Green came back in 2000 with a sold-out show, and he has since sold-out 15 times -- the most of any artist at the venue.
Willie picks the perfect spot for his picnic
Nelson was one of the very first artists to take the Billy Bob's stage, and he also has a long history hosting his roving Fourth of July picnic in Cowtown.
A "mostly annual" event since 1973, the picnic first came to Fort Worth only in 2004, and since then Billy Bob's (along with the greater Stockyards area) has been the site of it seven times now -- more than any other single venue. Fort Worth is tied only by Austin as the city to play host the most times, just surpassing another historic Texas destination, Luckenbach.
In 2012, the picnic's all-star lineup featured Grand Ole Opry star "Whispering" Bill Anderson, a cornerstone of classic country music, who made his Billy Bob's debut at 74 years old. But, age means little for the brightest stars, as 83-year-old Nelson continues to prove.
He'll command the Billy Bob's stage again on Nov. 12 as part of the 35th anniversary celebration.
This is just a taste of Billy Bob's Texas' immense history.
Learn more by scrolling through the official Billy Bob's timeline online.