On the Nature of Texas Honky-Tonks
I remember Rob's Place in Robstown. It was not the first honky-tonk I was ever in, but it became, in 1940 when I was eight, the capital of my honky-tonk heart, the place where Nashville radio WSM’s Grand Ole Opry took on a local reality, for it was there that the greatest country music stars came, the very singers and players you heard on the old Magnavox in the living room at home. It was there that I first saw in the flash Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and, yes, the daddy of honky-tonk music, Ernest Tubb. We had heard Tubb on KOMO out of San Antonio, and later on KGKO in Fort Worth. When he sold beer he was the Texas Troubadour, and when he sold flour he was a Gold Chain Troubadour, and I tell you the night he came to play at Rob's Place, sporting Jimmie Rodgers’ $2,000 guitar and promoting his first record for RCA ----- besides were "I'll Get Along Somehow" and "Blue-Eyed Elaine" ----- we and everybody within 50 miles were there with our hearts in our throats. Uncle Earl and Aunt Arbie drove over from Corpus Christi, and I remember asking Arbie if it was disrespectful to get up and dance when a star like Ernest Tubb was singing.
"No honey, he wants us to," she said, and grabbed me up to glide around the floor as if I were a real man.
Robstown was about 40 miles west of Corpus and the coast, once a part of the Driscoll Ranch and named after that family’s patrón, Robert. A flat of cactus and mesquite, the area had been transformed by farmers into a great savannah of grain and cotton. Then oil had been discovered, and that had brought the likes of us and the honky-tonks, of which Rob's Place was the favorite. I didn't know if a Rob was the proprietor, or if the name of the place was a play on the name of the town. We were just oil patch people. We didn't walk into a dancehall and introduce ourselves to the management. We just put on our talc and hair oil, bought a bottle of hooch (which we kept hidden in the car, requiring many trips back and forth between the dancing and the drinking), paid the cover, and enjoyed ourselves. Rob's Place was a long, low rectangle of a building, white slapboard, which faced U.S. 77 south of town. The club backed into a field of black gumbo, which in the spring and summer was high with milo maize and in the winter was a dangerous bog if daddy had a little too much beer and didn't keep the car on the caliche.
As you entered, the front part of the building had a bar on the right side and on the left, tables and chairs and a couple of pool tables and marble machines and a shuffleboard. If you were hungry, you could get cold cuts and hot links at the bar, which only served beer and pop. If you wanted to dance you had to walk through a gate in a little wooden fence that cut off the dance floor from the front. During the day there was no cover and you could dance to the jukebox as long as you had the nickels and quarters. At night if the house band was playing you paid $2 to get in and had your hand stamped with magic ink so you could come and go without having to pay cover again. On special weekends, when a big-name outfit was playing, the cover was doubled and you had to arrive early to get a table around the dance floor. If you were called to dance or pee, you always left a member of your party to hold down your place and watch the purses.
The toilets may have been inside or outside. It didn't matter. They were always filthy. It didn't matter to us, but it must have been a mess for the ladies.
The accommodations were always tawdry, but hell, so were we and our dreams. Our lives were plain enough, or had them before we left the farms and moved up and down the highways getting closer to the cities and their enticing ways. We began to try to make things fancier than they were and ended up making them trashy. Only we didn't know it. We had never heard the word “kitsch (it wasn’t coined yet, but we wouldn't have known it anyway).” Mother went right on gluing sequins onto the new plastic bottles Johnson & Johnson was using for its baby oil. Why not? Our greatest country music stars wore shiny scales on everything, even their guitars. My cousin Crystal Ball wasn't named that for nothing. Her parents may have never seen a real crystal ball, but they had danced under many a glittering glass-and-plastic revolving ball. But more about Crystal Ball and our sense of taste later. The point is that honky-tonks were cheap places frequented by low class (which is not a crime) customers. They were not particularly dangerous places, although somewhere. If a fight broke out, the best bet was to keep dancing. The tone of a place depended more on the management than the customers. You can take any class of people and find among them a slice of Life and character which runs the gamut from good to bad, and certainly this was true, is true, for honky-tonk folk.
----- Bill Porterfield, "The Greatest Honky-Tonks in Texas," 1983. This is a super look at Texas honky-tonks by the venerable Mr. Porterfield, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 81. I've been meaning to see how many of the honky-tonks he writes about in this book are still extant. Great book, by the way, as was everything he ever wrote.
Beauty is only skin deep but Texas is to the bone.