So excited! I get to see Willie Nelson & Family tonight in Helotes!` Janis and I are on our way! We like to go early. Meeting up with friends from all over.
HELOTES, Texas — John T. Floore’s Country Store is comfortably nestled behind a tall wooden fence just beyond the outskirts of San Antonio. You can’t miss it — because the place has a huge sign out front. In fact, everywhere you look on the property, there’s a sign. And they’re all worth reading. To wit: “They said it couldn’t be done. And, by golly, it couldn’t!”
Floore’s, as it’s known, has been here since 1946, built as a store and dance hall by John T. Floore. He’s mentioned by name in Nelson’s song, “Shotgun Willie,” and Floore was Nelson’s partner in the original Willie Nelson Music Co. In the early days, Nelson used to play there every Saturday night. (There’s a sign that says so.) Floore died in 1975, and after his death, a box was found with dozens of his clever quotations. They’ve been scattered on the wall ever since, hanging around with multiple cowboy boots, wagon wheels and tons of framed photos of famous country singers.
Behind the restaurant is a stage, dozens of new picnic tables and a spread that can hold a few thousands folks. A giant tree serves as an elegant canopy over the patio.
“It’s something that’s been built over the last 60 years, rather than some kind of commercial building,” says general manager Stewart Rogers, who grew up nearby and started working there as a teenager. Now 29, he returned to the club after earning a college degree in history. “People spend millions of dollars trying to replicate what we have here. It’s something that’s been evolving ever since they opened in 1946.”
From the very start, Floore’s has attracted fans of live music throughout the Hill Country, and back in the day, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Ray Price all performed there. Robert Earl Keen recorded his highly regarded 1996 concert album, No. 2 Live Dinner, there. To this day, the club nurtures local talent like Kevin Fowler, Reckless Kelly and the Randy Rogers Band. Even the Wednesday night steak dinner is accompanied by live music. Early in his career, Jack Ingram remembers driving from Dallas to check out the scene at Floore’s
“I went there to play and fell in love with the place,” Ingram says. “[I thought] ‘Oh yeah, this is it. This captures everything about why I’m doing this.’ I’ve probably played there, over the years, 30 times. It’s the cold beer and the tamales and sitting outside, watching kids dance on a cement dance floor while somebody’s playing music. It’s the kind of family fun that Disney hasn’t reached yet.”
Ah, the tamales. While there’s always been a café at Floore’s, a full kitchen opened in June 2006, serving delicious tamales, sausages, homemade bread and more. This allows Floore’s to stay open during the week. There’s a sign out front bragging on the menu.
It just so happened that Nelson himself was performing there recently, and every age imaginable was represented. If you wanted to jump on top of a picnic table for a better view, you’d have to elbow your way through some exuberant retirees. Inside the bar, I chatted with Wayne McGiboney, a San Antonio resident who told me he and his friends once sat at the foot of the indoor stage in 1970 when Nelson played for four hours — a work ethic that Nelson has held onto. “It was one of the red-letter nights of my life,” McGiboney said.
Thanks to Budrock “the Illuminator” Prewitt, lighting engineer for Willie Nelson & Family, for sharing pictures from Floore’s Country Store today, before the band’s show tonight.
“That’s the thing about the Hill Country, too,” says Ingram. “Willie is their guy and has been since he played there every Saturday night. I think there’s something really cool about a gathering place. We don’t have a whole lot of those anymore. It’s a destination point for not just music lovers but for people who want to be with each other. You don’t get that very often anymore.”
Ingram said he first played there in 1994. In 1996, he held his wedding rehearsal dinner there. He wasn’t crazy about the people who ran it at the time, though.
“The reputation was, if you go out there and play, you’ll be treated like s**t,” Ingram said. “The guy that owned it, uh, he just wasn’t known for his hospitality, let’s put it that way. But everybody wanted to play there anyway, which speaks volumes about just how strong the vibe was.”
Now on its fourth owner, Floore’s has been given a second life. They’re hooked up to city water for the first time. A new roof has been installed, along with air conditioning. A retro neon sign in the corner of the yard is shining once again. The picnic tables and the wooden fence are also new, along with a few outdoor bars. But even with extensive improvements and the encroaching city limits of San Antonio, the vibe hasn’t changed.
“It’s a relaxed atmosphere. That’s something that we, as management, are trying to keep intact,” says Rogers. “We want all of our customers to feel relaxed when they come in. No stress — because of what it is. It’s a beer hall. Come and enjoy yourself.”