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Willie Nelson playing at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, a frequent tour spot for the country icon.EXPAND
Willie Nelson playing at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, a frequent tour spot for the country icon.
Mike Brooks

Famed Honky Tonk Billy Bob's Will Reopen as a Restaurant With 20% Capacity

The concert industry remains lousy with economic strife during the COVID-19 pandemic, but country music mainstay Billy Bob’s Texas is reopening its doors next week anyway. There are, of course, some caveats before the Fort Worth venue can do that, namely a strict enforcement of social distancing guidelines and compliance with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s stipulation that at least 49% of its revenue must come from food sales. Under TABC rules, that means the reopened Billy Bob's will be considered a restaurant.

The announcement has been met with enthusiasm among some concertgoers, but when reached over the phone, Billy Bob’s general manager Marty Thomas was quick to try to alleviate any trepidation others might feel.

“Our infrastructure is already built, so I’m not concerned about the process at all,” he says. “It’s not far off [from] what we already do, it’s just now we have to make sure the kitchen is our focus, and the concert is just kind of an, ‘Oh, by the way.’

“We’re working very closely with TABC. … They don’t want you to have Hot Pockets in a microwave and call yourself a restaurant.”

Thomas says the self-acclaimed “World’s Largest Honky Tonk” will reduce its capacity to 1,200, which is 20% of its sellable capacity of 6,000 and well below the 50% cap for restaurants in place now. Each patron will have to wear a mask and have their temperature taken by a contactless thermal camera upon entry, and the dance floor will be limited to 30 people. There will also be a dedicated crew that will routinely sanitize the building’s high-traffic areas, a news post on Billy Bob’s website says.

The venue’s reopening will take place on Friday, August 14, with a show from Florida country music duo The Bellamy Brothers. Other names taking up marquee space for the remainder of the month include Tracy Byrd, Chad Prather and Josh Abbott Band.

“I am honored and proud to be one of the artists to reopen Billy Bob’s Texas,” says Burleson country stalwart Casey Donahew, who is headlining the venue on Saturday, August 22, in an email to the Observer. “Looking forward to setting a standard and format with Billy Bob’s Texas for a safe and friendly environment for patrons to support venues and musicians. I am excited and eager for all artists, bands, crews, bar and restaurant staff, and music industry personnel to get back to work!”

Playing the honky-tonk one week before Donahew is red dirt country band Flatland Cavalry, which said in a Facebook post that a percentage of the show’s gross box office receipts will benefit Lubbock venue The Blue Light.

“In wake of all these pandemic blues many local venues are struggling to keep the lights on and are seeking new ways to safely put on shows,” the post reads. “@billybobstexas reached out asking if we’d like to try and be a part of the solution in the effort to #SaveOurVenues.”

The pandemic has prompted numerous independent music venues around the country to shutter, and various experiments of socially distanced concerts have been economically infeasible at best, but dooming factors such as reduced capacity and increased overhead costs don’t seem to deter Thomas.

“We have a building that’s already built for this, so we’re ready,” he says.

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