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D Magazine’s 40 Greatest Stories: Behind the Scenes at Billy Bob’s Texas

Barbara Adair was the backstage waitress at Billy Bob's Texas.
Barbara Adair was the backstage waitress at Billy Bob’s Texas.
Amy Cunningham was a young editor on the staff of D Magazine when her boss, then-editor Rowland Stiteler, came to her with a “dream assignment.” She was to go undercover at Billy Bob’s Texas, the “world’s largest honky tonk” in Fort Worth, which had opened earlier that year.

It was thrilling to tackle a story modeled after Gloria Steinem’s famous stint at the Playboy Club and almost as pleasurable to know that she wouldn’t have to show up at the D Magazine offices to do any other writing or editing for seven whole weeks. All she needed to do was land a job as a waitress and take notes on cocktail napkins.

Her effort resulted in the feature “Honky-Tonk Angel,” which appeared in the March 1982 issue of D and ranks among the 40 greatest stories ever in the magazine.

I asked Cunningham, who spent many years more as a magazine writer but is now a funeral director in New York (more on that career change here), to reflect back on the piece, and on her interactions with the women she worked with at Billy Bob’s and wrote about — none of whom knew they were speaking with a journalist. Her response:

I just re-read the piece for the first time in twenty years. I think I’m best with those poetic drink orders. I’m less impressed with my girlish portrayal of the class divide.

I did not stay in touch with any of my waitress friends and only spoke to Tammy once after the piece was published. I think she was puzzled why I never “came out” to her as a journalist.  I would have tried to be a better friend today, and not roll up and go home to my neat life and cute Dallas apartment, as I did.

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the assignment was all the great music she got the chance to hear while serving drinks.

I saw Willie, Merle, June and Johnny Cash. For a fleeting time I stopped being the bookish person I was and navigated the boozy world of the big bar business. In truth, as I look back on that whole period, I was tormented by my own ambitions at the time, working so hard to be some kind of nationally recognized writer that I couldn’t connect with real people of any kind, thought only of writing and who was on top.  Even when I read other people’s things, even the work of my friends, I was reading in a competitive manner. I don’t operate that way anymore I am happy to say.

As for any lingering after-effects of the experience:

Everybody on the  editorial team, by the way, called me “Amy Bob” once the piece was published, and the name within that intimate, most beloved, sweetly cherished circle–Fred, Chris, Liz, Rowland, Hansel, Matt, Lisa–still sticks.