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Rodeo, Concerts Highlight Famed Texas Club - 2002-06-18

In 1980, the hit movie Urban Cowboy popularized western-style entertainment and honky-tonk bars. The movie, starring John Travolta, was set in the gigantic Gilley's Club outside Houston, Texas. There, patrons could dance to country music and compete on bull-riding machines. Ft. Worth, some 400 kilometers north, caught the western fever and created a similar club in 1981. Instead of man-operated steel bulls, however, owner Billy Bob brought in live animals and professional bull riders. The Houston-area club closed down after a 1989 fire, but Billy Bob's went on to become a revered institution in Ft. Worth, and arguably the world's largest country-and-western club.

Eight seconds is all it takes, but it is eight seconds of riding almost a ton of fight and fury. In the rodeo world, a rider must stay on a bucking and twisting bull for at least eight seconds in order to qualify.

"You've got spurs on your boots and your hand in the bull rope and you just try to hang on with your hand and your legs and you try to stay in the middle of the bull," says Billy Bob, "If you get on one side or the other, you'll fall off." And sooner or later, you will fall off.

Cory Turnbow, from nearby Cleburne, Texas, says bull riding is not exactly a fair sport - the bull always wins. But if you can stay on its back for the required time, you feel victorious. "I feel great 'cause I rode the bull and I got off of him without hurting anything," he says, "So I feel great."

For Cory Turnbow, this victory also means he can go back to rodeos and bull riding competitions which he missed for the past year after he got hurt in a bad fall. But is there a good fall from a mad bull? Mr. Turnbow says no, but there are ways to avoid serious injuries.

"The main thing," he observes, "is you try to land on your hands and knees and that way 'cause if you are falling from straight up in the air, if you landed on your feet, you could break a leg or break an ankle. [For] me it's better off I land on my head cause that's the hardest part of my body and it saves your ankles and your wrists. And your neck is the only thing that's sore the next morning."

Over the past two decades, more than 25,000 bulls have bucked in Billy Bob's indoor arena. Mechanical bulls are human-operated and their movements can be adjusted, but live bulls are rough and unpredictable. The club's co-owner and marketing director, Pam Minick, a former Miss Rodeo America, says only professionals are permitted to compete here.

"It's not like somebody comes and has a few beers and says 'I want to try it'. These are actually professional athletes," she said, "A lot of them you'll see in the world standings. In fact, the guy that won last week was from Australia. We've had several bull riders from Brazil, and a lot of them, of course, from Texas and Oklahoma."

It is not only bull riding that attracts people to Billy Bob's. The famous Texas club has three dozen bars, a large restaurant, two concert stages, two dance floors, a gift shop, a dozen pool tables and, of course, the bull riding arena. It gets 500,000 visitors each year, about five percent of them international. Pam Minick says the club can hold up to 6,000 people at a time.

"We call Billy Bob's the world's largest honky-tonk," she laughed, "and you may say, what is a honky-tonk? Well, it is a nightclub, it's an entertainment center, it's country music and it's the only club that we know of in the world that's actually got bull riding right inside - so you could literally be eating dinner, watching bull-riding and a concert within five minutes of each other."

Many people come to Billy Bob's to dance western-style under the glow of a mirrored saddle - the Texas version of a disco ball. Pam Minick says cowboys and city folks alike flock here to sip a cold brew as they listen to country music stars.

"One night when we had Hank Williams, Jr., in concert, we sold 16,000 bottles of beer. Now that does not include mixed drinks or draft beer. Last week, when Willie Nelson was in concert, we sold $67,000 worth of beverages. That included non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages as well, but that's a lot of beverages."

The world's largest honky-tonk is located outside downtown Ft. Worth, in the historic Stockyards area. It was built in 1910 as an open-air cattle barn, and during World War II it was an airplane factory. For a while it housed a department store so large, the stock boys used roller skates to get around. "[The club] slopes from the top end down to the stage area. And that was because when it was a cattle barn, they could just take a big old fire hose and hose out all the manure from the cows, but now it makes an excellent elevation for concert seating," Ms. Minick noted.

Billy Bob's Texas has won five "Club of the Year" awards from the Academy of Country Music and the "Country Music Venue of the Year" award in 1997. Its Celebrity Wall contains hand impressions of some of the biggest names in country music, including Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Loretta Lynn. The mirrored saddle above the main dance floor was used in the movie "Rhinestone" with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone. The club also has been featured in many television shows. Billy Bob's is a honky-tonk, but it is also a Texas landmark.