On August 17th, 2001 I pulled into Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas with a day to kill. I cruised the outskirts of Fort Worth for a cheap motel to rest my bones for two days and found an absolute dive with a parking lot full of ruffians and the check-in attendant sitting behind bars. It was the best of the worst I could find and I was about to book myself in when a rare bout of sense came over me and I looked elsewhere. A place had to be pretty bad for me to turn my nose up at it, but my mother would have been shocked and ashamed if she knew I purposely booked myself into a two-bit hellhole like this place.
So instead I found a pricey spot just off the main tourist strip in Fort Worth called Hotel Texas and lived it up for a couple of nights in room #17. Mom woulda been proud.
The tourist strip in Fort Worth is exactly that. Two short blocks with nothing but old-style saloons, restaurants and gift shops, and wood-slat boardwalks running between them all. Everyone, and I mean everyone (except me) was walking around in cowboy boots and a Stetson hat. I sidled up one side and the other, stepping into every single saloon.
And it was a nightmare.
Visually it was perfect, almost cliché. Gruff-looking barkeeps served nothing but Budweisers to guys in checkered shirts and chaps and girls in tight jeans and leather tassels. People were stomping and dancing and having a real time while the bartenders inexplicably smashed every empty bottle they could find to smithereens by throwing them hard into big plastic garbage cans.
The problem was the music. Despite the fact that it looked like I stepped into 1870, every single bar was blasting rap or techno or whatever it was being called in 2001, and it was unbearable. Surely one of these places had to have country music…this is Texas after all, but no. I went up and down both sides of the street twice, but aside from a quick stop for a dollar beer with a taco and some refried beans I had nothing to do but to slink frustrated back to my room.
I laid there looking at the clock and getting angry. This was my first night in Texas, I had a good room in a great location and there’s no way I was going to end my night at 9:30pm. I got out of bed and hit the street one more time.
My hotel was near the end of the strip, and as I turned to walk it a third time it occurred to me that I had not checked out the few establishments in the other direction. They looked like they were all restaurants anyway, but I decided to give it a shot.
And lo, the first place I came to had a barbecue set up out front and a real live band getting ready to start playing inside. It was a cash-only place called Big Balls of Cowtown so I figured I couldn’t really go wrong. I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich and a Budweiser and pulled up a stool. The band was a four-piece fronted by a short, thick redhead, and when he started playing his Telecaster I knew I was in the right place.
He introduced himself as Redd Volkaert and led the band into a set of twangy string-popping glory. I couldn’t believe my fortune, not only did I find good music but it was live, and this guy was really, really remarkable. Astoundingly enough, I recognized him from a small blurb in a recent issue of Guitar Player Magazine. Volkaert pulled off the most incredibly versatile runs and bends up and down the neck, impeccably accurate and unendingly musical. Hard to believe, but the guy has fingers like ten-cent cigars.
When we shook hands after the set I was amazed with his fingers; they were so short and chubby I had a hard time believing he could finger a D chord let alone play as fluidly as he could. Looked like that funny picture of Picasso with dinner rolls for hands. Turns out he’s from Vancouver and his main gig was playing guitar for Merle Haggard, but he seemed to be happy as a clam setting up in the corner of what is essentially a small BBQ place and playing in front of a dozen people munching on ribs.
I stuck around for the entire second set and drank as many Budweisers as I could afford, which wasn’t many, and I just loved the music. It was gritty, sweaty, and virtuosic. It turned out to be a great first night in Texas and it was just the shortest of stumbles back to my safe, air-conditioned, and free-from-junkies-and-prostitutes hotel.
And to think I almost went to bed at 9:30!