When Billy Bob’s Texas, the 40-year-old Fort Worth honky-tonk mecca, announced earlier this week that it was hosting a concert by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and enforcing Isbell’s Covid vaccination policy for entry after a different Fort Worth venue wouldn’t, the venue’s general manager says he spent the days that followed being called “Hitler.”
But Marty Travis, the GM and face of Billy Bob’s, is unfazed.
“I don’t care if they call me Janet Jackson. Let’s just get to the show and have a good time and move on to our next gig. It’s not that big a deal,” Travis tells Rolling Stone. “But, man, it is Uproar City down here, like I ripped a picture of the pope in half.”
Travis is not only batting away Internet insults from a politicized public, he’s navigating a policy signed into law in June by Texas governor Greg Abbott that make it illegal for Texas businesses to require customers be vaccinated against Covid-19. The legislation says that businesses that make such mandates may lose state contracts, permits and licenses — including a liquor license. Still, Travis and Billy Bob’s are moving forward.
“I’m not trying to make history, I’m just trying to make a living,” he says. “I think if I stuck my neck out there and said, ‘This is Billy Bob’s policy,’ they might come after me. But I’m doing one event, one night. By the time I get to Saturday morning, nobody’s going to give a shit.”
Isbell caused a stir across the live-music industry this week when he announced that all of his upcoming concerts would require fans to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to get in. Isbell canceled a show in Houston when the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion wouldn’t abide by the policy (the venue claimed there wasn’t enough time) and moved his August 13th concert originally scheduled for Panther Island Pavilion in Fort Worth to Billy Bob’s.
“Normally, what we’re looking at are venues that are large, outdoor venues that receive some funding from the state. Their fear is that, as Abbott has threatened, the state is going to withhold funding from the venues that allow artists to put Covid restrictions in place,” Isbell told Rolling Stone. “I don’t think Billy Bob’s needs Texas’s money, because Billy Bob’s got Billy Bob’s money. So capitalism stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we’ll take the money.’”
Travis underscores what Isbell says. “As a private industry, I can do whatever the fuck I want to do,” he says. He also predicts the proof-of-vaccination policy will become so dominant in the concert industry that not even Texas will be able to ignore it. Travis offers a hypothetical show by the Eagles, who recently announced a vaccinated-only concert in Seattle, as an example.
“The one thing I learned a long time ago, this industry ain’t about politics — it’s about money,” he says. “And when you talk about the revenue that the Eagles bring to this city with hotel rooms, rental cars, the airlines, at restaurants, and all the state taxes, it’s a lot of money. To tell the Eagles to go get lost…it would be hard to throw away millions of dollars over a silly principle.”
Texas is currently in the midst of an overwhelming Covid-19 surge driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant. According to the Department of the State Health Services, the seven-day average number of confirmed cases has steadily risen since late July and surpassed 10,000 last weekend. The capital city of Austin sent out an emergency alert to its residents that described the Covid situation in the city as “dire.”
Since last September, however, Billy Bob’s has been bullish about the return of live music. To comply with Covid protocols in fall of 2020, they limited capacity, required masks, and installed a thermometer that takes fans’ temperatures as they walk in the door. Now, with vaccines available, only the temperature-check policy remains. Travis received his two-dose vaccination in the spring without hesitation — “It’s just mathematics,” he says. “There’s one percent problems and 99 percent good, I’ll take that math any day of the week” — and considers Isbell’s policy as just one more component of an ever-changing bar industry.
“To me, operationally, it’s just another checkpoint. You have to have an I.D. to get a stamp to get a drink. You have to have a ticket to get to the door. Well, now, you have to have the vaccine card or a 72-hour Covid test,” he says.
While Travis hopes to develop a long-running relationship with Isbell for the singer-songwriter’s future Fort Worth gigs, he says Billy Bob’s currently has no plans for other vaccination-only concerts.
“Next weekend, I’ve got Kid Rock,” Travis says. “And he don’t give a shit about nothing.”