Before Willie Was Willie
Words by Blake Ells
Performance photos by Andi Rice
There’s still a sign outside of John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, that reads, “WILLIE NELSON EVERY SAT. NIGHT.” Maybe the singer and Texas native felt indebted to John T. Floore, who was his financial partner in the original Willie Nelson Music Company.
“[John T.] forgave that loan at some point when Willie could have paid him back,” says Mark McKinney, current managing partner at Floore’s. The fourth owner of the club following John T.’s death in 1975, Mark claimed the venue in 2002 when he was just 32 years old. “When Willie moved back to Texas from Nashville, there was a period of time when he played weekly gigs at Floore’s for tips.”
When John T. opened the venue in 1942, it was largely a country store and beer joint. He had left his job as the manager of the Majestic Theater in San Antonio and had soon realized that he wanted his own dance hall. The 22 miles separating Helotes from the San Antonio city center felt much farther before urban sprawl reached the suburb, and revelers would travel for miles to two-step the night away. Floore’s became known for its tamales, its bread, and its free family dances on Sunday evenings.
“Early on, when he was playing every week, Willie wasn’t ‘Willie’ yet; you know what I mean?” Mark says. “We have a recording from the early 70s of him playing a Sunday dance, which is a free early show on Sundays when people can bring out their kids. He was playing for us on a regular basis before he became ‘Willie Nelson.’”
Nelson immortalized John T. in the 1973 title track from Shotgun Willie. Most every year since the beginning, he’s returned for a fall concert at the venue.
But it wasn’t just Nelson that made the dance hall the venue that it is today. Hank Williams, Roger Miller, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have also taken the Floore’s stage. Cash filmed a scene for the 1978 CBS made-for-TV movie Thaddeus Rose and Eddie at the honky tonk. A scene from the 1994 film 8 Seconds—in which Luke Perry portrays rodeo legend Lane Frost—was filmed there too.
By the 60s, the venue evolved to include an outdoor stage to complement the indoor one; John T. quickly noticed the need for a larger dance space, so he took the party outside. Now the outdoor stage is a small amphitheater that seats 4,000, while the indoor capacity is 800. Boots and cowboy hats hang from the ceiling around the bar. Legend has it that John Wayne was among the first to hang his boots from the Floore’s ceiling; he didn’t write his name on them so they wouldn’t disappear. Ronnie Milsap signed a pair that hangs alongside those of longtime fans of the venue and Texas Rangers who have celebrated their retirement there with a beer.
Mark and his partners made some improvements when they took ownership. They upgraded the PA system, repaired the roof, did some electrical maintenance, but most important, added an air conditioner. Until 2002, the legendary Texas dance hall survived summers without any cool air. But otherwise, everything looks the same today as it did when John T. opened the place.
“I had grown up going to shows there,” says Mark “I saw countless shows there—Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, John Prine—I saw plenty of shows there before I had any involvement in it at all. It was a landmark, a historic place. But it was in need of some repairs. When we bought it, our idea was to embrace that history but to improve the facility, while maintaining the feel of a 40s dance hall inside.”
Robert Earl Keen was part of the second generation that carried the torch for Texan country music at the venue. He released No. 2 Live Dinner, a live recording from Floore’s, in 1996 and celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a special concert in 2016. Lyle Lovett, Kevin Fowler, Aaron Watson, and the Randy Rogers Band have been Texan staples at the venue over the past 20 years, with the latter releasing its own live album, Homemade Tamales: Live at Floore’s, in 2014. Dwight Yoakam plays there regularly, and this year Floore’s will welcome Americana and Roots acts from across the country, such as Tyler Childers, Charley Crockett, and Cody Canada and the Departed to name a few.
But, unless otherwise noted, every Sunday night remains Family Night and Free Dance with live music from six to ten o’clock.
“Floore’s isn’t how you would build a venue if you were building one today,” Mark says. “But that’s what makes it unique. I’ve had artists that tour the country tell me that there’s no other place like it. That’s not bragging; it’s just a funky, roadhouse honky tonk that’s pretty unique.”
In 2006, Floore’s Country Store was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2006 and 2013, the Academy of Country Music awarded it “Nightclub of the Year.”