Bud Kennedy

What makes Fort Worth ‘funky’? Let’s start with the Horned Frogs

What makes Fort Worth Funky Town?

Fort Worth's nickname is a nod to music, a honky tonk and lizards.
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Fort Worth's nickname is a nod to music, a honky tonk and lizards.

What’s so funky about Fort Worth?

For starters, no other city has a daily longhorn cattle drive, a hall of fame for cowgirls or a Top 20 college football team named for a lizard.

For 30 years, first blues-music hosts and then offbeat artists, musicians and shopkeepers have called “Cowtown” and “Panther City” by another nickname, celebrating the mix of soul and stubborn independence in “Funky Town Fort Worth.”

“What other city can you hang out with longhorns, see world-class art and professional ballet and eat amazing tacos all in biking or walking distance?” asked craft ice-cream shopkepper Kari Crowe, whose West Magnolia Avenue shop, Melt Ice Creams, sells a flavor made with locally blended TX Whiskey and chunks of apple fritters from a bakery named Funkytown Donuts.

In the 1980s, the city was first dubbed “Funky Fort Worth” by R&B and hip-hop performers sustaining the city’s rich legacy of blues and jazz, which crosses racial lines from saxophonists Ornette Coleman and “King Curtis” Ousley to writer-producer T Bone Burnett or singer Delbert McClinton.

In 2000, when Austin librarian “Red” Wassenich, who grew up in Fort Worth, saw that Central Texas city losing its odd, freaky side, he came up with the rallying cry “Keep Austin Weird.” The quick T-shirt response here: “Keep Fort Worth Funky.”

Wassenich, 67, remembered the Fort Worth of his Paschal High School days as decidedly funky.

“The Stock Show was an interesting contrast to snooty Dallas’ State Fair,” he emailed.

“Downtown used to be largely pawnshops and cheap diners. The TCU mascot was a Horned Frog, not the usual eagle or mustang. … I know that Fort Worth has gotten slicker, but it still has the rough edges that are comforting, like Billy Bob’s.”

But before Fort Worth’s funk became fodder for T-shirts in hip south-side shops, it was all about the music.

“We called it ‘Fort Party Worth,’ ” said Willis Johnson, for 36 years the host of a morning rhythm-and-blues music and news radio show on Grand Prairie-based R&B station KKDA/730 AM, which shared promotions with 104.5 FM (“K104”).

We started calling it ‘Funky Fort Worth.’ That’s where it started.

Former KKDA blues music radio personality Willis Johnson

In 1986, crowds came by the busload from Dallas for KKDA blues shows starring Benny Latimore or Betty Wright at a Camp Bowie Boulevard nightclub named On the Boulevard.

One of the popular club dance songs of the time was a 1980 hit written by a Minnesota radio host, “Funkytown.”

“We started calling it ‘Funky Fort Worth,’ ” Johnson said.

The shows eventually moved to a bar near downtown, the Players Club.

Actor Jimmy Stewart became so fond of Fort Worth that he, and his distinctive voice, narrated this 1977 promotional film “Fort Worth: The Unexpected City.”

“We had a run from ’86 to ’97 that was unprecedented,” he said: “That’s where it started.”

The first passing reference to “funky Fort Worth” found in published archives in in Texas Monthly in 1989. A 1990 wire service review of a McClinton album refers to his “Fort Worth funkiness.”

McClinton, 76, is from a generation of both white and African-American blues singers who performed in Jacksboro Highway or Mansfield Highway roadhouses where the stage was surrounded with chicken wire to deflect thrown beer bottles.

There is no shortage of music history in Fort Worth, from singer Willie Nelson selling Bibles door-to-door and smoking his first marijuana joint to comedy-club server-turned-superstar Kelly Clarkson, to singer Leon Bridges bussing tables at a downtown steak grill.

A 2003 candidate for mayor ran on the slogan ‘Keep Fort Worth Funky’ and called for city action against any ‘TLF’ — ‘tragic lack of funk.’

“Funky town” still referred to music in 1997, when a Usenet hip-hop discussion group user wrote: “I was born in raised in Ft. Worth, Tx. (aka Funkytown) and I feel its my duty as a true product of hip-hop culture to let the world know that southern hip-hop is becoming a force in the music industry.”

But around the turn of the 21st century, “Keep Fort Worth Funky” became less about music and more of a mantra for supporting local businesses, local characters and an offbeat way of life.

In 2003, the late filmmaker Andrew Hill used the slogan to run for mayor and called for urgent city intervention to address any “TLF” — “tragic lack of funk.”

Hill promised to hire more “funky, quirky” city employees. (He also said a vote for him was “quite possibly a wasted one.”)

Fort Worth entrepreneur James Zametz had grown up in Arlington listening to hip-hop. In 2011, he took over a website promoting “Keep Fort Worth Funky.”

“It’s a take on ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ because most people know what that means,” he emailed.

“Keep the history and culture of our city intact. Help keep local arts local and help it grow, including music. … We would hope for our fans to wake up every morning thinking how they can support local [people and businesses] throughout the day.”

State Sen. Royce West, a Dallas lawyer and graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, has at times represented both Dallas and Tarrant counties in the Texas Legislature.

The nickname “funky town” stuck for Fort Worth’s active nightlife, he said.

“Though it has the appearance of being a conservative city, the nightlife is very vibrant — it can be very funky,” he said, naming the nationally famous old Caravan of Dreams jazz club downtown and the current Scat Jazz Lounge.

Last year, an Austin American-Statesman reviewer acknowledged Fort Worth’s claim.

A report on Fort Worth’s West Magnolia Avenue vibe added to the line:

“Keep Austin weird. Keep Fort Worth funky. And keep Dallas 30 miles away.”

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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