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‘You won’t last’: Lil’ Red’s survives, thrives with old-time country

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Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

Traditional country/western music and dancing entertainment venue in the Fort Worth Stockyards

121 W Exchange Ave.

Fort Worth 76164

817-740-0078

longhornsaloonfortworth.com

“We don’t tolerate any trouble. It’s a place where no means no and people know that. We have a policeman on the weekends. If you start any trouble, you’re going to jail.” – Craig “Red” Copeland, owner of the Longhorn Saloon.

Sheila Lambert of North Richland Hills heads up a cosmetology school. She also relishes country and western music and dancing and hanging with like-minded friends.

She’s also single and seeks out a safe environment. She finds it three nights a week at Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

“I like coming here because it’s great entertainment at a great price,” Lambert says. “I’ve made a lot of great friends and a lot of connections. As a single woman, I feel safe. I meet a lot of great people. I love coming here. I come every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. I bring my friends here. It’s the greatest place in the Stockyards.”

On a recent Wednesday night, she and her posse of friends sat around a table near the dance floor. A traditional county and western group played in the background. The wooden dance floor was filled with patrons. It was one lively atmosphere.

Five years ago, Craig “Red” Copeland and his wife Jane renamed and reopened the dance hall – originally known simply as the Longhorn Saloon – which had fallen into disrepair after being closed and reopened sporadically for a decade. The Copelands cleaned it up, persevered through some challenging times and built a thriving business.

Prior to running the nightclub, Craig Copeland, 66, was in the rodeo business. He worked in marketing for the Mesquite Championship Rodeo and also worked for a high-profile rodeo livestock stock producer named Jerry Nelson.

“We didn’t know anything about running a bar,” Copeland says. “But I knew what I liked. I figured if I liked it, other people would. Before we opened, bar owners around here would come around to see what we were doing and I would tell them that we were going to do old, classic country music such as Ray Price, Faron Young and Lefty Frizzell – that kind of music. Every one of them would say, ‘You won’t last 90 days. You won’t last 120 days. You’ll go bankrupt. I hope you have a lot of money.’ Everybody said it wouldn’t work. But since we’ve opened, there have been some who have gone out of business.”

Lil’ Red’s is open Wednesday through Sunday. A live band performs Wednesday through Saturday. It’s a big hit with customers, especially those who grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, went out to dance on Saturday nights and boot-scooted to stars such as Ray Price.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find, the true traditional country music,” said Linda Smith, a regular customer who works in the oil and gas business. “I grew up on people like Ray Price and Gene Watson. Johnny Bush. We used to go to [a nearby club in the Stockyards], and now we come here.”

Nancy Fitzgerald, a nurse, said she’s also a regular.

“I love to dance,” Fitzgerald said. “This is one of the few places that I feel safe as a single woman. It’s not a pick-up place. I come here to dance and there’s a lot of gentlemen who like to dance.”

Jim Abney, who’s had a career managing horse sales and exhibit halls at major horse shows, also warms up to the atmosphere.

“I just like the music and to do a little dancing,” Abney said “For an older man, it’s great because a lot of older people come here. But there are also a lot of younger people who come here. I know a lot of the people. It’s really a good place to come and visit. They get a lot of good bands here.”

Honky tonk-style dance halls often gain a reputation of being rough and rowdy with heavy drinking and fighting. Though alcohol is served at the Longhorn Saloon (along with pizza and other food items), Copeland says customers know they must treat each other respectfully.

“We don’t tolerate any trouble,” Copland says. “There ain’t no cussing, fussing and fighting. We run a nice, clean club where we don’t tolerate any foolishness. Women can come in here, they don’t have to worry about somebody pinching them. It’s a place where no means no and people know that. We have a policeman on the weekends. If you start any trouble, you’re going to jail.”

The dance hall’s success is commanding attention. RFD-TV’s Penny Gilley Show is scheduled to begin taping its new season at Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon on May 15. The weekly half hour variety show has been originating at the Palace Theater in Grapevine.

The establishment recently received an Ameripolitan Music Award for outstanding venue. The Ameripolitan Awards, presented during a recent ceremony in Austin, honor those who promote and portray traditional country music and entertainment.

The dance hall also attracts big-name acts. Longtime recording star Moe Bandy is scheduled to perform on March 17.

Today the club is profitable and commanding respect, Copeland says, but getting it to that point took some tenacity, especially in the early days.

“When we started, I wasn’t rich, but we had some money saved up. We didn’t go in and do anything that costs a lot of money. I remember how my wife got down on her hands and knees for about a week and scrubbed the floors and the walls because the place was filthy. There were things that I wanted to change, but I didn’t do it until I was positive that it was going to work.

“There were times that things were pretty slow. But they kept getting better every week. It was like we got to a place where we had 52 straight weeks where every one of them was better than the last one. It might be by only $20 better, but each week was a little better than the last one. We just put every penny back into things.”

Jane Copeland says she and her husband have different talents and they

combine their skills to make the business successful. “I’m probably more on the business side and the daily affairs,” Jane says. “But Craig handles all of the music. He’s a great PR guy. We try to make sure people have a good time. We draw a crowd of people. We have a great dance floor and we have great music.”

The dance hall is filled with an array of memorabilia the Copelands call “Craig’s Museum.” The museum features beer, tobacco, and rodeo memorabilia as well as pictures of some of country music’s most famous stars.

One reason that the dance hall thrives is because the Copelands are great people to work for, says Bethany Allen, the manager. Customers also say the Copelands are very personable.

“I work for the most amazing owners,” Allen says. “They are so humble and sweet. Everybody who works here is family to them. The environment is like nowhere else.”

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