The festivities are kicking off April 14 with a show by Robert Earl Keen and Randy Rogers Band. The indoor/outdoor venue in Helotes, Texas, known as the birthplace of Willie Nelson, was founded by Nelson’s friend and early business partner, John T. Floore, who inspired Nelson’s song “Shotgun Willie.” Artists that performed there include Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and B.B. King. We spoke to Mark McKinney, a local who joined a group of investors 16 years ago to take over the venue and revitalize it; it was McKinney’s indoctrination into the music business and he’s been booking talent there ever since.
When you took over the building, what first surprised you?
Well, I had grown up in the area and been to a lot of shows here. The venue itself had this immense history but it was in pretty rough shape. It was just a time where the physical space needed to be enhanced and fixed without killing the unique feel. When you walk in the main building you still feel like you’re walking into a place built in the 1940s. So that was a delicate operation.
Then we’ve expanded the number of shows, the types of shows, the production.
So basically you just needed to get it up to code?
Yeah, basically. One good example is that Floore’s is an indoor/outdoor venue with a 4,000-capacity amphitheatre and 800 capacity inside. The inside was built as a Texas dance hall. So when we took over 16 years ago, that building still wasn’t air-conditioned, which, in south Texas, is fairly brutal about half the year. It had swamp coolers. So we put ductwork onto the roof and down through the swamp cooler vents. That’s where the air conditioning comes through. We didn’t want to ever kill the feel or the vibe of the property but we had to modernize it and make it user friendly. But with every change you’re keeping in mind it’s an old venue and you don’t want to change the feel of it.
I was thinking that, in a place like that, an artist may or may not be interested in having a modified green room.
Uh, yeah. We do bands that are used to several green rooms and different things and here there’s one big green room. That’s another example. We did add a shower and bathrooms.
But I figure some bands would rather be in a green room once used by Patsy Cline than to hear it was torn down and replaced with something modern.
Right! The bands that play here get it and appreciate that it isn’t like other venues. It being unique is a very positive thing. There aren’t many joints out there like this one, if any.
Well, not in Texas. Someone at the Ryman is probably reading this right now and waving a hand in the air. “Hey, we’re kind of like that.”
(Laughs.) Well this has more of a roadhouse, honkytonk dancehall feel to it. But we do bigger shows, bigger acts relative to our size – the 4,000-cap outdoor area is where the bigger things happen, obviously.
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Any anecdotes to share?
One of the things Floore is probably most known for is that Willie Nelson has been playing here for more than 60 years. He played here in the last few years and we had a torrential downpour at the start of his show. That was probably one of the more magical nights because we had a packed house, sold-out show and absolutely nobody left. We have an amazing picture of the rain coming down in sheets. All you can see onstage is Willie, and Bobby Nelson on piano. Literally just a wall of rain coming down. The fans wouldn’t leave so Willie wouldn’t leave.
Another one recently that sticks out in my mind: Merle Haggard would play here and we were one of the last four or five shows he ever played. He was ill for a while and then the week he passed away Dwight Yoakam was here. Dwight played this incredible show to a sold-out crowd and played a ton of Merle songs. It was almost as if it was part of his personal celebration / grieving process.
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Do you get a lot of surprise performances?
We did a show a couple years ago that celebrated the 20th anniversary of a Robert Earl Keen album recorded here. He had a lot of surprise guests, notably Lyle Lovett, who did some songs that ended up on an album of this show. None of it was planned; they didn’t plan to make an album. Willie has had some surprise guests over the years, obviously.
Where do you think this venue stands in the minds of visiting artists?
I think there are two categories of artists. I think there are artists that have played Floore’s before, multiple times, and get the uniqueness. There aren’t many venues like this around. Dwight Yoakam is one who has been incredibly loyal. Gary Allan is another who has said it’s one of his favorite venues and comes back every year.
The other category is the artists who haven’t played it before and they see there are some limitations, like one green room. Parking for three buses and an 18-wheeler gets kind of tight. It’s built in the 1940s so there are a lot of amenities that weren’t built for shows this size. Those artists, when they play it, are won over before showtime because once they put the whole picture together, they say, “Oh wow.”
One that comes to mind was Huey Lewis & The News a couple years ago. At first we had to explain to them it was a country store. But they enjoyed it and have come back since then.
If you talk to
So can you give a tour for artists? Can you say, “This is a hole punched in the wall by Hank Williams?”
No, not really (laughs). The indoor ceiling has a bunch of cowboy boots and hats. Different artists put them up there. The legend is that one pair was left by John Wayne but they never wrote down which ones because they knew they’d disappear. There are stories like that.
So do you still stand by the claim on the signs out front that you have the world’s best homemade tamales, sausage and bread?
Absolutely. Tamales mainly. We don’t do the bread anymore. The signs have been out there since the ’40s. Tamales are kind of a unique thing to the venue. It’s a big thing in San Antonio. A lot of bands, when they show up, the first thing they want is beer and tamales.