Willie Nelson's Restaurant in Carl's Corner, Texas

by John Cagney Nash
Willie Nelson's Blue Skies Cafe restaurant closed in January 2011.

Willie Nelson's Blue Skies Cafe restaurant closed in January 2011.

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Carl's Corner is on Interstate 35E at FM 2959, approximately 25 miles south of Waxahachie and approximately 8 miles north of Hillsboro. In the 2000 census Carl's Corner had a population of 134. The town was founded and then incorporated in true Texas style by Carl Cornelius in the late 1980s; Cornelius appointed himself mayor so he could subsequently legislate himself as municipal judge, then order himself legally able to sell alcohol at his truck stop. The 960-acre site occupies one of the most visible locations in the U.S., on a slight rise above I-35, a road referred to as "Main Street, Texas" by truckers.

Willie Nelson and Carl's Corner

Willie Nelson won the hearts of his fans by representing and defending the working man of the United States in his songs and movies; this ethos permeated every inch of the Carl's Corner property. Nelson has had a long and storied connection with the truck stop, having been born in Abbott, 15 miles south of Carl's Corner. He and the town's founder have known each other most of their lives and share a number of leisure interests. The truck stop has unofficially changed hands many times during the pair's marathon dominoes battles, in which Nelson and Cornelius gamble for several days and nights straight over the property rights.

The Truck Stop

In its most recent incarnation the truck stop's main space comprised several distinct areas: A gift shop at the fore was dedicated to Nelson's storied musical and film career, displaying memorabilia benefiting his charities including Farm Aid and his 4th of July Picnics. The walls featured banks of several thousand framed pictures of Nelson, his family and memorabilia of other performers such as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe, all posing with fans from around the world. There were also many gold and silver records and a collection of guitars owned by Nelson and other Country music icons. A handsomely appointed bar at the rear of the property was called Whiskey River. A large enclosed bay beside the bar alternately served as a pool hall and a parking garage for Honeysuckle Rose III, Nelson's tour bus, depending largely on his mood. The entire complex wrapped around a large performance space called Night Life Theater, laid out so that Nelson could make eye contact with any fan waiting in line at the bar; this he frequently did during impromptu performances, usually signaling for wine. Inside the theater was a multimillion dollar studio from which Sirius/XM Radio broadcast channel 64, "Willie's Place," concentrating on outlaw country artists, new and old. Parking was abundant and free, with a massive concreted truck lot to the north, and the forecourt sold both regular gas station fuels and Nelson's own biodiesel product, called Bio Willie.

The Blue Skies Cafe

Latterly called the Blue Skies Cafe, the Carl's Corner restaurant was a large, cafeteria-style traditional diner served from an open kitchen; standards of hygiene and practice could always be monitored by the public. Waitstaff seemed culled from a Hollywood casting directory labeled "Happy, Homely, Bottle-Blonde Waitresses with a Past," and portions were large. The menu featured a great deal of variety, albeit all country fare: meat loaf, massive fried breakfasts, chicken fried steak and cold beer for breakfast. Nelson was a regular face in the restaurant, usually enjoying the all-day breakfast menu with a handful of local friends.

Closure

Following several months of local rumors, Carl's Corner Truck Stop and Willie's Place restaurant, bar, gift shop and performance space all ceased trading on Jan. 31, 2011. The property had been dogged by what some would consider bad luck and others might suggest was bad management: Waco radio station KWTX (kwtx.com) quoted co-owner Steve Gilcrease as stating "It could have been different, but we had three years for a lot of fun." There were three Grand Openings, a First Annual Barbeque Cook-Off that was never followed up, and one splendidly chaotic pre-4th of July party when Nelson had all the headline acts that were scheduled to play the massive Fort Worth Stockyards the next day perform for free at Carl's Corner. A few hundred spectators were catered for, and some 25,000 turned up; mostly good-natured mayhem naturally ensued. The property was foreclosed by its bankers following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to Convenience Store Petroleum (cspnet.com). Cornelius was listed in the action as president, with Nelson listed as an equity holder. New owners T.A. -- properly called TravelCenters of America (tatravelcenters.com) -- took over and closed down the property on Feb. 1, 2011; the biodiesel plant behind the complex was not part of the foreclosure proceedings and is still owned by Nelson. T.A. initially stated it planned to reopen the property as a Petro in April 2011, but at the time of publication it remains closed, with a fleet of bulldozers stationed to raze the bar area to make way for 18-wheeler service bays.

Photo Credits

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