Signs just inside the front door, next to the first beer cooler, lay out the dress code. “No profane ball caps or printed shirts. No torn or dirty clothing.” The last line, sort of a summary commandment for the Top Rail Ballroom, wraps it all up: “You must maintain a clean, well-groomed appearance at all times.”
Farther inside, neon Budweiser signs buzz back at their reflections in a huge mirror behind the main bar. On shelves, Frederic Remington bronzes stand frozen under a wagon wheel-chandelier sky. The wagon wheels are huge, dotted with amber candelabras that give warmth to the wood paneling—real wood, not that fake stuff you find in 1970s tract housing.
A friend, a fellow who knows such things, told me about the Top Rail. He said it was the real deal, the last honky-tonk in Dallas. He went on and on about the old Three Teardrops Tavern, down on Industrial Boulevard, closed down years ago, and how there was no place like it anymore, except for the Top Rail. When I mentioned Cowboys Red River and the new Gilley’s Dallas, my friend made a disgusted noise and said, “Amusement parks.”
Me, I don’t even own a pair of boots. My one pearl-snap shirt came from Old Navy, and my only Stetson is a gray felt fedora. So I’m here to find out what exactly a real honky-tonk is.
Thomas Pablo, beheader of longnecks, works the glass and the taps on a slow Monday night. With spiky hair and earrings, he’s an unlikely looking character to be working in a country bar. He hands me a Lone Star, and I hit him up for his notion of what makes a honky-tonk. He says the folks who frequent a bar help determine whether it is, in fact, a honky-tonk. “Look, a lot of our regulars are real cowboys, own ranches, that sorta thing. Get in here on a Tuesday night, and you’ll see what I mean. Oh, and you need to talk to Stanley.”
On a Tuesday night, 200 people fill the place, two-stepping around the dance floor and carousing in a fashion that suggests “honky-tonk.” The Top Rail has live music five nights a week. A waitress wearing a bandolier of shot glasses and a tool belt of liquor bottles quick-draws shots for those who are thirsty and impatient. With 50-cent wells and $1.50 longnecks, I’m not even limited to Lone Star. (Note to D Magazine editors: the beer is under “phone calls” on my expense report.)
I meet Larry, who doesn’t look a danged bit like your typical urbanite cowboy. He’s got on a polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and he’s been coming to the Top Rail for 20 years. He waves around at the Tuesday-night crowd, which continues to swell, and starts to tell me why the younger crowd will eventually take over, but he’s distracted.
The distraction is blond, doe-eyed, in her mid-20s, wearing a lacy, low-cut thing. She steps between Larry and me to lean waaaaaay over a counter to retrieve her purse, and Larry firmly plants a hand on her upturned, Rocky Mountain-jeaned rump. He says, with a big grin, “This is it. This is why we come here.”
Ass-grabbing seems an activity appropriate for a honky-tonk.
She hugs him later. They’re old friends.
The people in the crowd are all dressed differently—some golf shirts, some Western shirts. Boots, sneakers, cowboy hats, and nonprofane ball caps are ubiquitous. There’s even a couple in matching stars ’n’ bars rugby shirts, though her mullet is a lot better than his. The patrons all are well-groomed and happy, listening to country music and getting along. There’s none of the hum of mild hostility that you get in meet markets.
Larry pulls on his Miller Lite and asks me, “Have you talked to Stanley yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“Aw, you gotta talk to Stanley. He’s the one who can help you out.”
|PICKIN’ AND GRINNIN’: Folks who come to dance. Live music five nights a week. And $1.50 longnecks on Tuesdays. These are good times.|
Jerry Ferrell owns the Top Rail. You’d expect the Marlboro Man, but Ferrell’s in his mid-30s and has a tremendous amount of energy. He started out as a bartender 11 years ago and bought the business after five years behind the sticks. He’s got a quick smile and a staccato tenor, and it’s all about the music when he speaks of the Top Rail.
Music’s important in a honky-tonk, right?
“Dallas will always have country bars, and we’ve always tried to stay true to its country roots,” he says. A couple of security monitors, paperwork, and a large steer skull on the wall dominate Ferrell’s office. “The people who come here want real, honest music, something that the songwriters put their hearts into.”
The dancing. That’s also a big part of the Top Rail. Still, there are a lot of bars around town that offer dancing and play the new stuff.
“Music coming out of Nashville is killing music and country music as a rule. We look constantly for new talent, and we work where we can with local and independent labels to help promote local musicians. Go into most places, and past 10 o’clock you’re going to hear more rock ’n’ roll than you will George Jones.”
Right then, Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’” comes through the walls of the office—not quite rock ’n’ roll, but soul ain’t exactly country, either. Jerry smiles and shrugs. “You need to talk to Stanley, sit down with him. He’ll tell you what you want to know.”
The Top Rail may not be the oldest con- tinuously operating bar in Texas, but it’s possibly the oldest in Dallas. According to Brian Guenther of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, its records date back only to 1964. Prior to that, Guenther said, they are “sketchy.”
Pay attention, TABC.
Seventy years is a long time, and the stories that make up that history collect in the memories of Top Rail regulars the way old magazines accumulate in your attic. The building at 2110 W. Northwest Highway stands on the original land, though it’s the third structure to house the Top Rail. The first set of doors opened in 1934, along what used to be Highway 114.
Although the Top Rail has changed hands through the years, one of the more notable instances was in the late 1950s, when it’s rumored that partners Dewey Groom and Jack Ruby had a disagreement. Ruby wanted to gentrify the place a bit, keep out the customers who wore overalls. Groom liked things the way they were. Ruby went on to other pursuits, eventually murdering Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.
Jimmy Gibson bought the place in 1972 and kept it until 1997, when he sold it to Ferrell. Gibson still owns the land and building, but he decided the bar business was a young man’s game, so he handed the helm to Ferrell. He still pops in regularly.
“It’s a wonderful place, with a great atmosphere,” he tells me. Gibson had just returned from a classic car show, where he drove a ’32 Ford to and from Michigan. In the summer. With no air conditioning.
And the bar business is a young man’s game?
Jimmy smiles over the phone. He says I need to talk to Stanley Hawk.
“We used to have armadillo races in here, back in the ’70s,” Hawk says, eyeing the couples on the dance floor.
“Armadillo races? You’re kidding, right?”
“Naw, we’d run ’em two by two down a track 8 feet wide and 40 feet long through the bar. Course, I had my own armadillo, and we had a lot of fun with that.” He sips from a glass containing what he calls a “mediocre.”
“Where did you get the armadillos?”
“We’d go out at night and catch ’em with the lights. Y’know, sometimes you could soup up your armadillo. You’d put a little Tabasco sauce on a cotton ball and sorta reach under ’em with your finger.”
Hawk leans back easily on the bar. His carefully brushed hair is gray and silver, and through bifocals he looks around at the place he’s been in and out of since around 1942. His handshake is strong, and his arms are muscular from 40 years of fixing cars.
You can’t really learn anything about the last honky-tonk in Dallas without learning something about Stanley Hawk. Both pasts are intertwined, both have affected each other during the last 60 or so years. To define the honky-tonk, you have to define the place in its context. This is why everyone told me to talk to Hawk.
“I had a cousin who played here back in ’39,” Hawk says. He pauses to hug a lady who comes by with a “Hey, darlin’!” and gives him a big smacker on the cheek. She makes him promise to dance with her later. She wants to dance now, but Hawk’s talking to this writer fella. “Anyway, they didn’t have any drums. Just a big ol’ bass fiddle.”
“No percussion, huh? I thought every honky-tonk band had a drummer.” Behind chicken wire, I didn’t add.
“They didn’t even call it that back then. It was all called hillbilly music, what you call country and western right now.”
“So where did ’honky-tonk’ come from?”
“I dunno, but ’honky-tonk’ wasn’t a real good word for a place. That term meant it was kinda rough. Back in the ’40s and ’50s it was rough, with a bunch of soldiers coming in lookin’ to have a good time. Sometimes they’d get drunk and get into fights.”
“Did you ever get into fights?”
“Might’ve had a scrap or two, but mostly folks were pretty nice, and I didn’t get in too much trouble. Used to be if you got out of line, police would haul you out and you’d pay a $14 fine. Now you go to jail. Times change.”
I’ve never been in a bar fight. Everything I know about bar brawls I learned from movies. A guy gets himself slid down the bar on his belly, smashing bottles and shot glasses along the way. And eventually someone’s head ends up in the jukebox.
“So what makes it a honky-tonk, Stanley?”
“Well, it’s a couple things, I guess. Take a look at that dance floor. See how it curves around? That’s so you don’t get stuck in the corner when you’re going around the floor.”
A woman named Joyce stops by for a moment and introduces herself. “Did you know Stanley is the Waltz King? Girls come from all over to dance with Stanley. No one knows how to waltz better.”
He smiles. “No one’s called me that for a while.”
Twenty minutes later, he’s waltzing around the floor with a girl to a tune I don’t know. But watching the two dance, weaving in and out of other couples, I know without a doubt that I’m sitting in a honky-tonk. More than anything, I feel it.
For the rest of the evening Hawk and I talk about cars. Toward the end, he shows me his table.
“I’ve had a reserved table in here for a long, long time, but people kept stealing the signs,” he says as he gestures to it.
The table is a four-top in the middle of the room. It is covered with a few layers of yellowing urethane, beneath which are clips of faces and friends and memories from through the years. Black-and-gold lettering spells out “STANLEY HAWK” and “1987,” which was the year they dedicated the table to him in an impromptu ceremony on the dance floor.
Two weeks later, my friend, the one who first sent me to the Top Rail, calls.
“They sold it.”
“The Top Rail is under new management. You gotta talk to—”
“No, the Kelcher twins.”
In Top Rail terms, Mark and Dirk Kelcher are babies. They just turned 30. They got into the bar business 10 years ago, when they took over Trocadero’s on Yale Boulevard and turned it into Jack’s Pub, a volleyball bar. They are also part of the group that opened the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum. In this, their most recent venture, they partnered with Joe Miller, Curtis Randall, and Ted Brewster. “Originally, we were interested in the land,” Mark says. “We saw it, at first, as a strategic real estate investment.”
However, as they negotiated the deal with Ferrell and the lease with Gibson, they discovered a gem of an establishment that just needs a little polish. It is more than just a bar business. “If my peers knew about the place, they’d definitely be in there. Where else can you get pure Texas music every week? We want to put some real energy into the Top Rail.”
The Kelchers know what they don’t know about country music. To solve that problem, they brought in Randall, who played bass in LeAnn Rimes’ band for 10 years and is a former talent and music director for Cowboys West. He’s also the current bass guitarist for Gary Stewart and now a partner in the bar. There have already been cosmetic improvements and some repairs, and the advertising is about to get heavy.
Advertising? The Top Rail hasn’t advertised in years.
Mark grins nervously. He knows how it can sound. “This place is the real deal,” he says. “And we absolutely have to prove ourselves worthy of the existing customers.”
To that end, the Kelchers are routinely polling patrons, asking for suggestions and ideas. “We’ll do whatever we can to make them happy, as long as it’s legal.”
The Kelchers aren’t dumb. And Mark seems to know, at least intuitively, that the Top Rail is far more than just a building. It’s a storehouse of fond memories for a group of regulars who’ve been coming here for years, a place where they can drink a few beers and dance to their favorite songs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Top Rail is Stanley Hawk. That’s what makes it the last honky-tonk in Dallas.
So here’s to hoping that as they make repairs and start advertising, they do whatever it takes to keep Hawk happy.
An image of the Waltz King at work on the dance floor is what I take with me as I weave my Volkswagen through the parking lot around pickup trucks and Harleys. And I make a mental note to buy a pair of cowboy boots.
Billy Hutchison is a Dallas freelance writer who can’t waltz worth a damn.