I’ve been in Fort Worth for less than three hours and Blake Shelton has already ruined my night. Every Thursday at 7:00 p.m., the honky-tonk institution Billy Bob’s hosts free line-dance lessons, and since my hip replacement has finally healed, I figured, why the hell not? But the country superstar has taken over the joint with a free show that starts at 8:30—so, no tippin’ my cowboy hat tonight.
Billy Bob’s general manager Marty Travis notices my forlorn look, grabs me by the arm, and drags me into the club, barking out facts like he’s Sergeant Hulka wearing a Stetson. “A hundred thousand square feet for up to six thousand people,” he says as I break into a near jog to catch up with him in the memorabilia room, which houses guitars from a who’s who of country luminaries along with a giant mural of a guitar pick, made of little multicolored picks, that Travis designed himself for a favorite regular. “Live bull riding Friday and Saturday nights,” he continues, gesturing toward the Panhandle Arena, which smells of dirt and fear. “I’ve got Blake tonight, Travis Tritt tomorrow, and Kool & the Gang on Saturday. You want a shot?” A bartender fills eight shot glasses with Crown Royal, and Travis passes them around to anyone who sticks a hand out.
Bottoms up, Fort Worth.
While Austin and Houston grab most of the attention when it comes to Texas music, Fort Worth—nicknamed Cowtown—has its own distinct history. Bob Wills began to play his version of Western swing at dances around town, revered Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt and jazz great Ornette Coleman were both born here, and superproducer T Bone Burnett honed his chops at a studio located in the basement of a local radio station. Founded in 1849 as part of the U.S. Army’s plan to secure the West Texas frontier, Fort Worth sits in the shadow of its gilded neighbor Dallas, but there’s a fierceness among residents who are protective of the city’s grittier Texas spirit—a popular T-shirt around town reads, “Don’t Dallas My Fort Worth.” And though the city’s music scene has mostly flown under the national radar, these days more people are taking notice, due in large part to soul phenom Leon Bridges, who still calls Fort Worth home.
It seems suspect to pin Cowtown’s rise on one person, but the locals don’t exactly dispute the theory. Aligning with Bridges’s growing fame, a number of bars, venues, and restaurants have popped up in recent years—especially on Magnolia Avenue just south of downtown. But while Bridges tours the world, others have picked up the torch back home.
Austin Jenkins, along with his partners, Josh Block and Chris Vivion, runs Niles City Sound, the homegrown Fort Worth studio that produced Bridges’s debut album, Coming Home. The threesome are tireless champions of the city’s music, sometimes inviting acts to come in and record for free. “I think Leon showed people you can actually make art here and have it noticed,” Jenkins says. “Fort Worth has a renegade spirit. You tell us we can’t, we’ll show you we can.”
We’re sitting in the second-floor control room of the studio the day after my Billy Bob’s visit. It’s housed inside an old warehouse once used by a golf equipment company. Vintage guitars and a Steinway grand piano fill the space, and the room drips with history. The 1960s-era recording console came from a Nashville studio where the likes of Loretta Lynn and George Jones recorded, and the two analogue tape machines once belonged to Dan Healy, the legendary sound engineer for the Grateful Dead. “I could stay here all night, so we better leave and get a drink,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins and Vivion—Block is on dad duty tonight—are in charge of the evening’s festivities, and we repair to the neighboring bar Shipping & Receiving. It’s a funky haunt with a giant chandelier over the bar and vintage punk-rock show flyers lining the walls (from the owner’s time in New York City), though the venue showcases everything from country to jazz. After I suck down a delectable Salty Lady, a locally brewed sour beer, we caravan over to Joe T. Garcia’s, an iconic Tex-Mex palace near the Fort Worth Stockyards. Stretching out over an entire city block, Joe T.’s has a leafy plaza bursting with clinking glasses and mariachi bands. The fajitas and enchiladas—I know it’s heresy—I find only passable, but the margaritas make my face tingle.
Suitably fortified, we head to the Stagecoach Ballroom, one of the last great Texas dance halls. The band is churning out some classic honky-tonk sounds, but just before I make it to the dance floor, they take a break and the house DJ spins the Atlanta rapper V.I.C.’s song “Wobble.” No matter how many times I’ve heard it, the transition from honky-tonk to hip-hop is still a strange moment, but the mash-up has been going on for years in country bars, and the regulars in cowboy hats know all the words.
Much as I love a good cowboy joint, it’s time to get serious about seeing what else Fort Worth has on tap. In the West Seventh Street area, a few miles north of Texas Christian University and the college-bar danger zone, sits Lola’s, which has a beautiful patio, a.k.a. the Trailer Park. Such up-and-coming singer-songwriters as Grady Spencer and the scrappy Vincent Neil Emerson cut their teeth here, but tonight a local musician named Nathan Brown is churning out an array of electronic sounds with his back to the audience.
We snake our way to the Magnolia Motor Lounge, the neon-soaked bar where the Legend of Leon began. This is where Jenkins first saw Bridges play. As the now well-known story goes, Jenkins had stopped in for a show featuring Quaker City Night Hawks, one of Fort Worth’s best rock bands. Bridges had just finished his shift washing dishes at a nearby steak house, rode his bike to the Magnolia, and was performing solo acoustic numbers during the band’s breaks. Jenkins invited him to come record on the spot. “I knew right away he had it,” Jenkins says above the din. “I never anticipated how big he would get. I just wanted to get him into the studio.”
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We saunter down to what ends up being my favorite stop of the night, Fred’s Texas Cafe. Fred’s started out as a lunch counter in 1978—“Bacon grilled cheese and a Budweiser is my lunch here,” Vivion quips—but the current owner, Terry Chandler, turned the lot next door into a patio and live music venue. There’s never a cover at Fred’s, and a gentle breeze blows through from the street. Tonight, gunslinger Eric McFadden is cranking on his guitar, but you’re more likely to see such Red Dirt scene stalwarts as Cody Wayne, or you might catch the Japanese punk three-piece TsuShiMaMiRe, who make it a point to stop in twice a year because they’re smitten with Fred’s anything-goes vibe. It’s been two hours and a few drinks since Joe T.’s, so I feel no shame in ordering one of Fred’s cheeseburgers—which some claim to be the finest in Fort Worth—along with another Salty Lady (seriously, it’s the best beer I’ve ever had).
We take a quick pass through the burgeoning Near Southside neighborhood, popping into the Twilite Lounge, a recently opened room with a Big Easy atmosphere, a small stage, and po’boys on the menu, before ending our night back at Shipping & Receiving to catch the tail end of Austin roots rockers Western Youth’s set. Familiar faces from earlier in the night start to appear, and there’s a palpable sense of community and inclusiveness, arguably a less cutthroat vibe than in Austin or Nashville.
“There’s never been a cool factor here, which I think is really cool,” Jenkins says. “We’re just a bunch of good ol’ boys, but we’re letting our freak flag fly.”
Keep Cowtown weird, y’all. I’ll come back for line dancing as soon as I can.