My, my how time flies! 2018 will mark 40 years that Race Rutledge has been performing at Texas Nite Life.
Born and raised in Vernon, Texas, and a class of ’61 graduate from Vernon High School, Race’s big dream was to be a professional football player. He played all the sports in high school, and he even tried out for the Dallas Texans football team. They ‘red-shirted’ him which to Race means that if enough guys get hurt during the season they would call him up.
But his first love has always been music. He says his musical roots go way back to when he was a young boy, sitting between his mom and dad in church listening to his mother’s angelic voice singing harmonies and his father’s strong melodies. He knew at an early age that there was a place in his heart for music.
He has been writing songs as long as he can remember. He recalls sitting on the back steps of their home on Marshall Street in Vernon singing some songs he had written. His momma came out and asked him how he can come up with all those songs. “I thought everybody could do it,” Race says. “In my head I thought it was like breathing, or walking, or talking. And when I found out my momma couldn’t do it, I started crying.”
When he was in seventh or eighth grade he and some friends would all go to Allingham Park and play their guitars and sing. He had been playing with a fellow named Howard, who Race says had a hard time chewing gum and walking at the same time, much less carrying a rhythm on guitar. When they would play together Howard would blame the off rhythms on Race. Race would rebut saying, “No, it goes like this… can’t you feel it?” One day at the park a fellow a little older than they were named Roy Orbison was at the park singing and playing with them. Race was on top of the songs, hitting those three chords. Roy asked Howard what his name was. When he told him, Roy said, “Howard, if you can’t play the rhythm, just don’t play.” Race says he felt so vindicated he wanted to jump up like a cheerleader.
After high school Race played music on the road. It wasn’t long before he realized that being a road musician had a lot of evils associated with the lifestyle. “I’m not saying that all musicians are into drugs, but there are a few. I’ve always been afraid to try drugs because I didn’t know that if I did it once, I may be hooked.” He felt he needed to get away from it, so he wound up playing as a single act in Denver, Colorado for about six months. Then in 1962 he got in at Circus-circus in Las Vegas. After playing there a while he says he made a few mistakes and had some people after him so he had to leave.
Race became a police officer in Abilene in 1965. His son Quin was born around this time, and Race worked his way through Hardin-Simmons University majoring in Law Enforcement. He says that he really loved police work. It was one of those jobs that you couldn’t wait to get to work. He was point man on the riot team, and once was grazed by a bullet during a bar fight.
When he left the Abilene PD, he taught law enforcement at Cisco Jr. College and played music at the Sylvania club in nearby Breckenridge at night. The president of the college approached him about spending his nights playing honky-tonks, and that it wasn’t a good image for a teacher to portray, and he would have to stop. Needless to say, he didn’t stay there much longer. Then he started teaching at Vernon Regional Junior College and continued to play the clubs at night. Again, the staffers at the college were concerned about the image of him playing bars. This time he told them, “I have to feed my family, and music is my best talent. If music is what you do, then you have to take it seriously.”
In November of 1978 the owner of then Donovan’s Country, a nightclub out on the Archer City Highway, approached Race and asked him if he would be interested in buying the club. His asking price was $150,000 with $50,000 down. Race went down to the bank to see what he could do. The loan officer told him that these nightclubs come and go, and would need some collateral. Race told him that he has people following him around since he can remember, and knows he can make it work. He says he found that his total worth at that time was $22,500. Race gathered the money and went to the club and stacked all the money in piles, with the hundred dollar bills on top of stacks of 10’s, 20’s and 50’s. The owner asked how much was there and race told him $22,500. The owner said the down payment was to be $50,000. So, Race started picking up the piles and shoving them in his pocket. Then the owner, seeing all that cash, agreed that it would be enough for the down payment. Race was now the owner of the new Texas Nite Life.
In the beginning Texas Nite Life was open seven nights a week, and Race was cleanup man, band, waiter, and bartender. Now it is open only on Friday and Saturday nights. When they went to only two nights a week, the band complained that they couldn’t make a living on that, so Race created a moving company to supplement their income.
Race has played at Texas Nite Life every weekend for the past 40 years with the exception of one week he was down with the flu, and a period of just over 400 days after the building caught fire the day after Thanksgiving in 2011. They had a fog machine that they would use for the shows, and Race saw the smoke thinking it was the fog machine that had been left on. He told his son Quin to go turn it off, and he discovered the fire. Sadly, lost in the fire were more than 30 notebooks full of songs that Race had written over his lifetime.
Race says that for the next 400+ days he would work on restoring the building from 5 a.m. until late at night, sometimes sleeping in his clothes only to get back up at 5 and continue working. He re-opened on New Year’s Eve of 2013. When it comes to Texas Nite Life, Race doesn’t consider it a bar or a nightclub. It is a dance hall. Dancing is the main attraction here. “When you get off work during the week you can go to Joe’s bar for a beer, but if you want to dance, that’s our specialty,” he says. And when it comes to performing he says that he learns the songs that are requested. “I keep track of what people want to hear, I learn it, and I play it. I think that doing that has kept people coming back time after time. There are people that have been coming here since they were in their 20’s, now they’re in their 60’s,” he boasts. “It’s like a very large family. The same people have been coming for years, and pretty much sit in the same spot, and everybody knows everybody. There’s never been much trouble started here. It’s like a neutral zone between family members.”
He says that people come from all over to dance at Texas Nite life. Places like California, Florida, and even from overseas. And the mechanical bull is also a big attraction. He tells the story of a couple from Ohio that was visiting their friends in Oklahoma City, and via the internet found that the mechanical bull here was the closest one to them, so they made the trip just to ride it. He also says that when he plays songs from The Urban Cowboy movie, people line up to ride it.
A Christian man, Race says that in his house, it’s God first, then family which include his wife Elsie, his son Quin and his daughter-in-law Theresa. He also says that you should keep your best ten or twelve friends very close, because they are the ones that will influence your life the most. And he also feels a deep sentiment for his dancers. He boasts that he has the best dancers around. And he is currently working on a gospel album of ten songs, all but one are original.
With a strong family and loyal following, 40 years doesn’t seem like such a long time, and the way things look Race Rutledge and The Texas Knights will grace the stage at Texas Nite Life for many years to come.