The rowdy reopening of Billy Bob’s Texas, billed as the world’s largest honky-tonk--or cowboy bar--sent a powerful signal that Texas has bounced back from the shock of collapsing oil prices three years ago.
“The big question tonight is--what’s a honky-tonk?” said Steve Murrin, one of the 200 employees who poured beer, roped bulls, swept floors or barbecued beef ribs for Thursday night’s 2,500 customers.
“I can’t describe a honky-tonk, but I can show you one,” he said. “It’s a place where you expect a little beer, a little music and maybe a stabbing or shooting once in a while.”
During the day Murrin operates a 2,000-acre working horse and cattle ranch near Fort Worth, but at night he works at this converted cow barn with 42 bars, a live indoor rodeo and seating room for 6,500 customers.
The official reopening of Billy Bob’s, closed for 10 months after its owner, Billy Bob Barnett, declared bankruptcy, ranks high among the unofficial economic indicators measuring the financial health of Texas.
Barnett had tried to leverage the income from his famous bar, founded in 1981, to create an entertainment center and tourist stop from the once-bustling cattle stockyards surrounding his establishment.
But after Texas went from boom to bust when world oil prices fell in 1985, he declared bankruptcy in 1987.
“Billy Bob’s is just one beer joint, but when it shut down, the world thought the city of Fort Worth was done for,” Murrin said.
Ken Brixey, the bar’s new manager, said the reopening of Billy Bob’s “is a signal, and a strong one at that.”
Billy Bob’s, which covers 100,000 square feet of floor space, was founded in the heart of what was once a major port-of-call for cattle drives. Beside it is the oldest active U.S. livestock auction house, and behind it is the oldest indoor rodeo coliseum.
Many of Billy Bob’s top managers are real cowboys. General Manager Billy Minick is a former professional rodeo cowboy who competed in the national championship finals for bull-riding.
Now his job is to keep one eye on the six or seven live bulls that roam a large pen inside Billy Bob’s, and the other on drunks.