Travel & Destinations

Bob Phillips: Traveling the Backroads of Texas

Texas Country Reporter Bob Phillips Reminds Us “Everyone Has a Story”. 

(See “Bob’s Best Quick Trips from DFW” at the end of this article.)

Photos by Kim Leeson.

With each of the 7,500 Texans to whom Bob Phillips has introduced us on Texas Country Reporter… with each of the state’s more than 1,200 cities, towns, villages, and wide spots in the road he’s visited to meet them… with each of the three million miles he’s driven to get there… he is reminded over and over again of what he’s long held true:

Every person matters. And every person has a story.

“That’s really to me what it’s all about,” Bob said. This year, he celebrated 50 years of doing the beloved show. “It’s a constant reminder there are really good people in the world living good lives.”

Adding to their charm and talents is their humility. Usually, each asks him, “Why do you want to talk to me?”

They’re not, after all, household names with stories everyone knows. They’re not million-dollar athletes or high-tech gurus or high-falutin politicians.

Bob lets others talk to those folks. Instead, he brings into our living rooms such people as Christine Londenberg of Robinson, Texas, who paints the dots on dominos. Or Milton Watts, a Marion County bait shop owner who happens to be an amazing poet. Or Dick and Bonnie Cain, who burst with happiness at living way out in West Texas without electricity, running water, or internet connection.

Bob and Kelli Phillips on Location in San Antonio TexasThese are salt-of-the-earth, everyday Texans whose lives Bob; his co-host and wife, Kelli; and the Texas Country Reporter crew — most of whom have been with him more than 30 years — honor with every question asked.

“We need to be celebrating all the positive things,” Bob said.

“For years, I’ve said TCR is a celebration of life. It simply is that.”

Bob’s New Book: A Good Long Drive

BookCover W1In his latest book, A Good Long Drive (University of Texas Press), he elaborates:

“Most of us live our lives with a little bit of doubt about whether we measure up, whether we’re as good as others; whether we’re… important. Then TCR comes to town and says, ‘Wait a minute. Take a look at what this person does for our world.’ We hold a light and a magnifying glass up to them so everyone can see for themselves who they are.”

Bob’s book magnifies who he is and how he came to be there. He writes eloquently about the circuitous path that transformed a poor kid from Old East Dallas into an experienced host and producer of the longest running independently produced show in the history of television — a show so popular it has its own annual festival in Waxahachie, drawing upwards of 50,000 loyal viewers. Bob is also the founder of his own production company.

Bob’s writing reminded me life is made up of what-ifs, setbacks, chances, naysaying naysayers, caring about others, and, most of all, listening to those who believe in you — even if you’re not sure you believe in yourself.

One of those people was Ann Voss, Bob’s high-school journalism teacher. Her faith in him overshadowed the negativity of his high-school counselor, who had told him he clearly was not college material.

“Bobby,” Mrs. Voss said, “you can do whatever you want to do, but you have to want it. I think you have a talent for writing, and you especially have a talent for writing about people.”

Six months, after he turned 18, Eddie Barker, news director of the local CBS affiliate, came to talk to Bob’s journalism class. Afterward, Bob steeled his nerves and asked Mr. Barker for a business card.

“What are you going to do with this?” Mr. Barker asked before handing one over.

“I’m going to call you, sir, and ask for a job,” Bob said.

Which he did. And Mr. Barker — who was my dad — hired him.

“What if,” Bob said, “I hadn’t said anything to him? My life is full of that. ‘What if? What if?’”

(A slight aside: Dad suggested he go by Bob and not Bobby. “He told me, ‘Bobby doesn’t sound right for a reporter,’” Bob said. “‘Nothing is wrong with Bobby, but Bob is more everyman.’ By God, I believed that, and I did it.”)

“I could go on all day about your dad,” Bob said to me when we talked. “Eddie Barker told me to have curiosity about life: ‘Don’t just let it happen and wash over you. Ask questions and find out things.’ He had this feeling that if you let it wash over you without giving it thought, you didn’t have a purposeful life.”

Bob continued: “He’d say, ‘Get out there. Find out what’s going on. Be truly interested in people.’”

Admittedly, my dad (whose quick temper and subsequent quick cooling-off were legendary in the newsroom) fired Bob numerous times (and almost promptly rehired him). Decades later, when my dad was dying, Bob, bless him, visited Dad in the nursing home and brought that up.

“He got real quiet,” Bob said. “Then he said, ‘I’m sorry about that.’ He paused again and then said, ‘But you learned from it, didn’t you?’”

Bob said he did.

Dad was whom Bob approached about starting a Texas version of CBS’s popular On the Road with Charles Kuralt.

Bob wasn’t the first host, but once he took the reins of it, he didn’t let go. (He and Kelli recently sold TCR to Texas Monthly but will continue to host the show).

“As I look back on what we were doing, we were evolving from ‘Hey, ain’t this cool?’ stories to ‘Look what this person has done in their lives!’ stories,” Bob said.

“The longer I did it, the more important it felt. By the time we’d been doing this for 10 years, I realized this is what I’ll be doing the rest of my life if I can.”

Within the show’s first two years, Bob and Kelli had received 12,000 letters from viewers. Real letters, written on paper with a pen, put into an envelope, affixed with a stamp, and mailed.

As the Vietnam War raged, generations weren’t seeing eye to eye. Riots raged through cities and protests pored across college campuses.

But TCR provided a respite. It provides one today, in a nation grappling with mass shootings, a pandemic, and political unrest.

The show works for so many reasons on so many levels.

First, this is Texas, and Bob firmly believes it only could work here.

Bob Phillips Releasing an Owl into the Wild in Amarillo Texas
Bob releasing an owl into the wild in Amarillo, TX

“We’re different,” he said. “Some of that’s good and some bad. The art is embracing this whole thing we call Texas and being a Texan.”

Secondly, no one who appears on the show is ever poked fun at.

If a guest doesn’t want to answer a question, they’ll never be pushed to do so.

“That’s part of the mantra of TCR: All people are different,” Bob said, who never plans in advance what he’s going to ask until he asks it.

“We’re here to honor that. We may not agree with you, but what difference does that make? I’d challenge any viewer who doesn’t know me to tell me if I’m liberal or Democrat or Republican, because you’re not going to figure it out.”

He continued: “Most people assume, ‘Bob’s like me.’ Well, you’re right. I respect your right to be and to do who you want to be and do.”

After filming each segment, Bob asks the crew if they have anything they want to ask. The show is, after all, a give and take. It’s listening and being interested and caring — reflections on how Bob was raised and what he wants to evoke.

“My mom and dad were good people,” he said, “and what they planted inside me was to do the right thing. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Have I always succeeded? Heck, no. I’ve made huge mistakes like everyone else. But that’s one of the reasons this has been perfect for me. I’m very realistic about people. I know there are bad people out there, but I believe there are more good people who do the occasional bad thing.”

Kelli and Bob in Big Top Candy Store, Austin, TX
Kelli and Bob in Big Top Candy Store, Austin, TX

So for as long as he and Kelli can, Bob will keep inviting into our living room people we otherwise would never meet, about whom we’ll think long after the next episode of the show begins.

Some of those folks once earned enviable salaries, but were otherwise unfulfilled.

Finally, as they have told Bob again and again, they garnered the nerve to do what fills them with meaning.

That’s one takeaway Bob said he hopes happens when viewers tune in: “That this will give [viewers] the nerve, the guts, the intestinal fortitude to do what they really want to, rather than how they think they should.”

And perhaps most importantly, he said: “I hope people come away feeling like there are more good people in the world than bad.”

Bob Phillips is the founder and host of Texas Country Reporter. He and the show are celebrating 50 years of traveling the back roads and towns of Texas with his wife and co-host, Kelli.


Bob & Kelli Phillips of "Texas Country Reporter"
Bob & Kelli Phillips of “Texas Country Reporter”

Bob’s Best Quick Trips from DFW

As Kelli and I travel all over Texas, we typically take the back roads that route us through the small towns along the way. We often find ourselves wandering into some great places when we have time to browse. And we always need to eat, so we’ve enjoyed wonderful food all over the state.

Here are some suggestions for trips you can take starting from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All of them are good for singles and couples; some are great for “girl trips,” and there are even some for your kids and grandkids to tag along.

Just know this: Sometimes we are swayed as much by the atmosphere of a particular spot, or the story or person behind it, as we are by the food or other offerings. Don’t rate these places too harshly.

There is something wonderful about every place we recommend. Never judge a book by its cover, because we happen into many hidden gems that can be a little scary at first glance.

Abilene, TX

About two hours west of Fort Worth is a town where lots of folks think the real west begins. Abilene is that — but it’s also a modern, thriving town with plenty to do. One of the first things you’ll notice is the many storybook character sculptures displayed throughout the downtown area. Kids love these. You will, too.

Something else in Abilene loved by the kid in all of us is Candies by Vletas, where chocolate is king and taste is extraordinary. There are several great restaurants in Abilene, but Kelli and I tend to frequent Copper Creek and Cypress Street Station. We’ve been known to visit nearby Buffalo Gap to enjoy one of Tom Perini’s famous ribeyes.

Do not miss a visit to Frontier, Texas. You’ll see and hear the compelling story of Abilene and the Old West told in a very creative way. This one is great for kids, too.

If you time your trip to Abilene right, you can stop at Mary’s Café in Strawn, five miles north of I-20 on highway 16, for an early lunch or supper. Mary is known all over the state for her Chicken Fried Steak, and the atmosphere feels like a movie set. But it’s as real as it gets.

Waxahachie, TX

Looking for something closer? Waxahachie is only 30-minutes south of DFW. You’ll think the town square really is a movie set and you’ll be right: The whole town is. Thirty-three feature films have been made in this town, three of which won Academy Awards.

There are lots of food offerings, here. If you want casual and quick, Farm Luck Café on the square is place. If you want a vibrant atmosphere along with good food and drinks, visit our friend Big Al’s across the street. Folks travel from all over to visit The Dove’s Nest just a block south of the town square for both shopping and good eats. And then there’s El Mexicano for some great Tex-Mex. We think you can’t go wrong with any of these listed, or the other offerings around town for barbecue and comfort food.

There are some great little shops surrounding the courthouse. Be sure you closely examine the architecture and adorations of that famous courthouse for indications of a behind-the-scenes story I can’t tell in a magazine like this one.

And don’t miss seeing the delightful gingerbread houses scattered all over Waxahachie, especially along Business Highway 287 (Main Street) as you enter the town from I-35.

Stephenville, TX

Someone asked me the other day where they should stop as they travel Hwy 281. When I said Stephenville, they thought I was joking.

But this town is no joke. Its town square is what Kelli calls “cute,” and the old courthouse is surrounded by some great shops and eateries.

Slim Pickens Outfitters is primarily an outdoor store where you can get the latest in camping gear and outdoor fashion. They can fix you up with whatever you need in those areas. And there are several other little shops Kelli loves to “poke through” when we’re visiting.

Stephenville is home to one of our favorite casual dining spots anywhere: Greer’s Café. Veteran food and wine expert Philip Greer is behind this little surprise housed in the old Dawson Saloon. Phil did a first-class renovation of this charming 1890s building and brought to town a menu consisting of everything from comfort food to fresh fish offerings he rushes in from the Texas Gulf Coast. We’ve only had great meals here at both lunch and supper. Phil now offers breakfast on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Word on the street is his café has become the go-to spot for the locals.

A long-time fan favorite in Stephenville is Hard Eight Barbecue, which the owners bill as “Real Texas Style BBQ.” And boy, does it live up to that name. It’s now a local chain but it’s still very good.

While you’re in the area, take time to wander down the road to Dublin, TX, to visit the old Dublin Dr. Pepper Bottling Plant. It’s here where they used to turn out DP made with real Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. The makers of Dr. Pepper severed ties with this place years ago, but it’s still charming and offers bottled drinks you won’t find in many other places.

These are but a three of my suggestions for quick trips out of DFW. But a lot of the fun is finding places like this on your own. I didn’t mention places like McKinney because they’ve been doing it right for so long, most people have already been there. If you haven’t, go to their town square and start exploring. Grapevine is another example of a can’t-go-wrong place to visit.

You could spend a lifetime picking a direction or a destination and seeing for yourself just what you can find anywhere across our great state.

Trust me: I’ve done just that. And the surprises never end.


Leslie Barker

Leslie Barker is a native of Dallas and has been writing ever since she can remember. Most of her career was as a staff writer at the Dallas Morning News, covering primarily health and fitness. You can follow Leslie on her blog at:

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