Mar
30

The Closing of Willie’s Place & Carl’s Corner

March 30, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Outlaw History  //  11 Comments

Finding myself in Dallas as a refugee last Winter, and trying to figure out how to make a move to Austin for over 9 months, I burned a pretty good path between the two Texas cities. One of the few bright spots of the 3+ hour trip that I probably made a dozen times was “Willie’s Place”, a truck stop and so much more that sits at about the half way point between Big D and ATX, near Willie Nelson’s boyhood home of Abbot, in the small town of Carl’s Corner.

Willie’s Place was built about three years ago. Though it wasn’t very old, it was the last of a dying breed of unique places that America can boast, where commerce happens, but not at the expense of regional taste and local appeal. The only thing done there on a national scale was the broadcast of the XM/Sirius “Willies Place” programs by DJ’s Dallas Wayne and Bill Mack from a studio in the Willie Nelson theater. That’s right, this truck stop had a studio, and a theater, as well as tons of Willie memorabilia filling the walls and display cases, and a one-of-a-kind “Blue Skies” cafe. What it didn’t have was a well-recognized company logo out front, like 98% of the gas stations and truck stops in America do. It had a hand-painted sign.

I never saw a show there, never bought one of the stupid trinkets in the Willie gift shop. But every time I stopped there, I would walk past the display cases filled with gold and platinum records, pictures from the past, and other cool pieces of history. And I’d always walk down into the big theater in the back and just stand in it’s emptiness, trying to soak up the energy left over from the last live performance, and appreciate the layout, the acoustics, and the attention to detail. It’s a place Willie played many times, as did many other big name country artists. I’d also make sure to buy something on my way out the door–a drink or a snack–to cast my vote that a place like this remain standing.

I’m sure it was destined to fail. The idea was too grand, and too pure. I mean let’s face it, Willie has a history of building big and bellying up. He’s made a career, and a philosophical approach to life out of it. So when I heard that “Travel Centers of America” had bought the place on the courthouse steps earlier this month, I guess it wasn’t too much of a shock. And it’s not like I can get too much “angry-old-man-syndrome” over a place closing that didn’t even last five years. However the truck stop at Carl’s Corner has been a staple of the Texas highway culture for much longer, and the music culture too, hosting Willie’s Annual 4th of July picnic in 1987. Willie and the truck stop’s namesake, Carl Cornelius, are long-time friends and partners in the “BioWillie” biodiesel venture.

In ’87 they were expecting 80,000 for the picnic because the site would make it possible to draw from Dallas and Austin. 8,000 showed up, and Willie took a bath in red ink.

Growing up in Texas, I would always enjoy looking for the cool roadside ads between Dallas and Austin for Carl’s Corner, and then the big painted truck on top of the diesel bays with the dancing frogs, and Carl’s creepy face made out of a crescent moon that seemed to sell the backwater as some cosmopolitan hip joint. It seems to me they were already fading and falling apart even when I was growing up; like the good times and unique texture of Carl’s Corner was already fading away.

What really irked me when I read the news of the closing was the quote from Travel Centers of America spokesman Tom Liutkus when explaining how they are retrofitting the facility into a “Petro Stopping Center”.

We will have an Iron Skillet Restaurant, which truckers, year in and year out, consider the best food on the road…and the site has been pre-approved as a Dunkin’ Donuts location.

Really?

In some ways I was OK with the whole thing until I read this, and its insensitive and flippant tone, because it reminded me that Willie’s Place will now look like every other Petro Stopping Center in the country, whether it is in Ohio, New York, Florida, or California, and the propaganda about having “the best food on the road” reiterates to me that the new owners have no clue what Willie’s Place or Carl’s Corners was, or could be. Sure, turn the Blue Skies Cafe into an Iron Skillet. Take all the Willie trinkets out, and replace them with the crap every Petro station has. But why not leave the theater, make an effort to book shows there, leave some of the memorabilia on the walls for the charm? A Dunkin’ Donuts is not an incentive or even a consolation prize. It is an insult to what Willie’s Place and Carl’s Corner was.

And it also makes me think of this newly-named “Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown” tour that is going down this Summer, put on by the same folks that do the Warped tour. I smelled something fishy from the get go with this. Then last near when I was hoping to attend the Dallas stop, they canceled it and many other dates from poor pre-sales.

This year they have added Willie’s name in hopes of bringing it into the black. I wonder what odds the residents of Carl’s Corner give on that happening.

The new Petro Stopping Center at Carl’s Corner is planning to open in April, right about the time I need to make a trip up to Dallas. But I won’t be buying anything, I will be leaving something behind. I wonder if Travel Centers of America spokesman Tom Liutkus has ever heard of an upper decker.

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Willie Nelson will be performing on Late Night with David Letterman tonight (3-30-11)

See More Pictures, and Read More About Willie’s Place and Carl’s Corner

11 Comments to “The Closing of Willie’s Place & Carl’s Corner”

  • as a diesel mechanic and a musician, i find this extremely sad. why does everything have to become corporate?

       1 likes

  • bummer.

       0 likes

  • I 2nd the upper decker! Please tweet this.

       0 likes

  • When ever I would drive through the country I would always look for places like these for my stops. There’s a few in Montana, and others scattered about, but most of them are now giant corporate owned “travel plazas” complete with a Wendy’s, and a Subway, and they all sell the same stupid fucking Budweiser caps.

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  • Trigger, I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on this years Country Throwdown Tour. I’m probably going to be going just for Willie, Jamey, and Randy Houser. But I was checking out some of the acts that are going to be at the Blue Bird Cafe and some of them sounded interesting. Especially a girl named Erin Enderlin.

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    • I may put an article out about it in the future, but it just seems weird to me, like it has from the beginning. I was skeptical about it last year, and then my worries were validated by canceled dates. Now I look at the places they are playing this year, and it even seems MORE weird. Like in Texas, it is not coming near any major city. They are going to Corpus Cristi and Mission. Mission is a tiny town RIGHT down on the Mexico border, and Corpus has a huge Spanish population. I mean clearly they are targeting Mexicans to come to this thing. But why? Then they’re playing Gilford, NH and Vermont. Two dates in Arkansas, but only two in Texas? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

      If you see some bands you’re interested in seeing at the date coming by you, I say go to it. But don’t be surprised if it gets canceled. The lineup for each date i think is a little different, so it kind of makes it hard to comment on the lineup for each one.

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      • It seems like there targeting smaller venues…maybe because they know they can’t sell out the bigger ones? It’s actually going to be in York, PA. This is about an hour from where I live and is not a major city / venue by any stretch. I was actually quite shocked to see them playing there. I really don’t think Willie has the pull he once did, especially in the sad state that country music is in.

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      • I’m going to the throwdown here on June third (Nashville). They chose to have it at a new, small amphitheater. I think 4500 total capacity. I havent been there yet, first year it has opened. Very excited to see Willie for the first time, and to see Jamey again in a smaller venue than last time (opening for kid Rock). The rest of the acts I could care less about seeing.

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  • That just feels cold and not quite right.

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  • we were at willie place xmas 2009 and it was an amazing place… too bad the people bought it couldnt have continued on as it was….why not..Why can’t people hold on to good ole classic country music and the atmosphere that was created there…its a crying shame its gone….Ontario Canada

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  • Well this sucks. I guess I haven’t driven 35 in a little over a year. I, also on refugee status in Dallas, am heading to Austin today. Was looking forward to stopping. At least I got to see Willie at his 4th of july bash in Cowtown last year. I will probably stop at the other Hillsboro spot that has all the jerky and terrific turkey sandwiches!

       0 likes

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