[3 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Pat Green’s Dance Halls & Dreamers is a heavy, heartfelt love letter to Texas music, a historical pictorial of famous faces and favorite places. It’s a coffee-table treasure of tall tales and ice cold beer. Though it bears Pat Green’s name, this tour of Texas’ most beloved venues was really created by every musician to ever stand on one of these stages, by every fan to ever swing across these floors and by every owner, manager and staffer to ever sling a long neck Lone Star.
Journalist Luke Gilliam penned this collection of stories, which includes interviews with several superstars, reminiscences of rising musicians, secrets of staffers and local lore. Green’s personal perspectives and sidebars on legendary characters provide an inspired and intimate portrait of the Texas music community, its spirit and its roots. It’s the actual pictures that give this volume its authenticity. Photographer Guy Rogers III captures 236 awe-inspiring images of the places and people that are the essence of the Texas scene. Many of the full-color, full-page shots are so realistic, it’s as if you could step through the door and walk right up to the stage!
Located right on Main Street in the small town of Bandera is The Bandara Cabaret. More than 70 years old, the Cabaret has its share of outlandish stories and distinguishing features. There’s the mysterious hump in the floor, which is useful in telling the regulars from the tourists. There are old-timers’ tales of bar fights with the likes of Patsy Cline. There once were “baby benches”—for young parents to deposit sleeping children while they danced the night away—where picnic tables now ring the dance floor.
Country singer Jack Ingram’s parents brought him to the Cabaret when he was young. It’s the kind of place that inspires, says Ingram, where a kid in the audience thinks, “Shit, man. I can do that.” A few years ago, a For Sale sign inspired a similar thought. Matthew Franek first considered owning a dancehall after seeing Pat Green play at the Bandera Cabaret. He and his wife Kimberly bought the place because they thought it would be fun and because they couldn’t bear to see its demise. In fact, they narrowly saved it from being turned into an antiques mall.
Like all the landmark buildings in Dance Halls & Dreamers, the Cabaret’s not just a beer and live music venue, it’s a part of the history, a part of the family, of the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. It’s a place where, “You might fight, might get laid, might get drunk, whatever… [But] you are going to be taken care of; somebody is going to drive you home.”
The Coupland Inn & Dancehall will take care of you in a different way. Its owner, larger-than-life colorful character Larry Kelso, refers to the inn as a “bordello and breakfast”, and the décor as “early 1900s whorehouse.” Comprised of three separate buildings, the Coupland also has a restaurant steps from the dancehall door. The dancehall itself features an extremely large dance floor, a bar shipped over from Europe in 1886—now riddled with buckshot—and a large painting of a topless woman in garters and stockings.
Singer Kevin Fowler speaks fondly of The Coupland, and dance halls in general, noting that in Texas, it’s what people do for fun. “You go to the dance hall, see your band, [drink] some beer… have a good time.” The dancehall has a close-knit sense of community to it that the rest of the country doesn’t get, says Fowler. He adds, “If I had every beer that has spilled on that dance floor, I could drink for a lifetime.”
In Luckenbach, the music is the” social lubricant”, according to co-owner Kit Patterson (grandson of Hondo Crouch, who bought the town back from the brink of extinction in 1970). The dance hall, and the town itself, are built on the music (I mean, hell, Luckenbach’s got the song!). Luckenbach’s citizens are mostly musicians, though Willie’s not there as often as tourists might like to think.
The unofficial motto, available on T-shirts at the general store/post office/beer joint, is “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.” Or, as manager Neal Brown likes to say, “Nobody is more somebody than anyone else!” Cory Morrow concurs, “Every artist becomes tangible, approachable when you get here.” Ray Wylie Hubbard describes Luckenbach’s laid back, walk-around-town-with-your-beer vibe and its close-knit sense of community a little differently, “Luckenbach is a goofy as can be…There’s a sense of absurdity and integrity.”
Like Luckenbach, Schroeder Hall shares its name with the town it’s in. It makes you wonder. Which came first, the towns or the dance halls? It might be hard to tell with Schroeder Hall, as the town of Schroeder is described as having “no discernable population.” Built in 1890, the hall claims to be the second oldest in Texas, and it’s definitely the most isolated. The big, white, barn-like building isn’t hard to find, just “drive to the middle of nowhere…and take a left.” It’s a trek, but it’s worth it. “Everyone from Merle Haggard to Ray Price to Willie has played this joint.” says Randy Rogers (The Randy Rogers Band) of the hall’s attraction. He says people don’t go to Schroeder Hall for any other reasons than to “have a good time, listen to music and dance.”
Gruene Hall, in New Braunfels, is trademarked “Texas’ Oldest Dance Hall”, and it is another place devoted to preserving the history, the music and the good times (Texas’ “holy trinity”). George Straight played Gruene in 1975. Since then Albert Collins, Aaron Neville, Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett, Keb’ Mo’, Koko Taylor, Garth Brooks, Earnest Tubbs, The Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, of course, and even Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard have graced Gruene’s. Pat Green calls Gruene Hall the quintessential Texas dance hall, “It’s history co-mingling with a few cold beers and good music.”
Barbeque goes well with good music, too. Manager Mike Anderson will often explain to customers that Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin was the brainchild of C.B. Stubblefield, who opened his first barbeque-and-live music joint in Lubbock in 1968. Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughn frequented that stage, which closed in 1984. Stubb’s briefly reopened on Austin’s east side, but went out of business in 1989. In 1995, the current location at the corner of 8th and Red River was purchased by a group of owners and Stubblefield passed away shortly after. The restaurant, with only 21 tables, is always overflowing (This writer has, on three separate occasions, waited almost two hours for a free table that never materialized.), which is a testament to the homemade sauces and slow-cooked brisket.
The outdoor stage area is often overflowing, too, although it holds considerably more people, with a capacity of around 1,800. Stubb’s hosts every sort of artist imaginable, from country and blues legends to indie rockers and electronic pop stars (It also holds a gospel brunch every Sunday with live gospel music on the indoor stage with a “make-your-own” Bloody Mary bar—just in case grits and God can’t cure your hangover from Saturday night’s show!).
It’s said of Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, “[If] you can’t get laid in this place, you’re queer, blind or crippled.” It’s a strange thing to say about a place that looks like the kiddie castle at a theme park from the outside. Billy Bob’s is billed as “The World’s Largest Honky Tonk”, and on its 25th anniversary, the staff wore T-shirts commemorating the halls numerous numerical accomplishments (28 million beers, 14 million visitors, 7,800 musical acts, 220 employees, 45 Willie Nelson concerts, etc.). It’s got everything, a professional bull-riding arena, slot machines, a Live at Billy Bob’s record label, the so-called “Guitar Bar”—where stars have signed and enshrined their instruments, a wall of fame where celebrity hand prints hang immortalized; there are pool tables, a photo booth and, of course, a gift shop. Pat Green lovingly says,“It’s the WalMart of dance halls!” Willie Nelson’s road manager, Poodie Locke calls Billy Bob’s “The Mecca of honky-tonks.”
John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes doesn’t have all the neon bells and whistles of Billy Bob’s, but one store sign does advertise, “Everything Nearly”. And it does have a five-foot-tall armadillo. Floore’s also has home-baked bread, fresh tamales, and homemade sausage in its café. Founder John T. Floore set up his one-stop shop (groceries, drinks, dance hall, and real estate) in 1945, when Helotes was the midway point between San Antonio and Bandera, to lure customers off of the highway. Bob Willis, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and naturally, Willie Nelson, have all played Floore’s backyard stage. Locals like Frank Fernandez have been coming to Floore’s for 35 years, through all the ownership and staff changes because of the personal, friendly, familial way Floore’s treats people. Says Fernandez, “It’s a historical place, that’s where you get the life span.”
The organization behind Sons of Hermann Hall has been around since 1840, but Jo Nicodemas has only been regularly booking live music the Hall in Dallas since 1990. Everyone working on show nights is a volunteer, and it’s this community spirit that gives Sons of Hermann Hall a special place in the hearts and minds of musicians who have played the second floor ballroom stage. Big name artists often stop in just to say hello to Jo when they’re playing larger venues around Dallas. She has been known to treat struggling artists to breakfast and to supplement their gas money.
Jo’s great big smile, generosity with the bands, and fondness for hugging also completely make up for what’s known as “the load out from hell”. Two flights of nearly vertical, sharp and sometimes slippery metal stairs are the only way to get equipment into the ballroom, so it can be a dangerous undertaking. Entering the ballroom itself is like stepping back in time. Ornate, possibly antique fixtures, large wooden ceiling fans, and embroidered window treatments frame the floor with scrolled steps leading on to the small stage with the brilliant blue backdrop. Soundman Kevin Brown fell in love with the room the first time he saw it. “It’s mostly the atmosphere,” he says. Ray Wylie Hubbard likes to play Sons of Hermann’s crowds, saying, “It’s not a nightclub. It’s set up more like a theater. It has a deep sense of integrity about it.”
Built in 1959 from an old Army barracks, Saengerhalle was at the opposite end of the spectrum from an intimate, theater atmosphere, boasting more than 10,000 square feet. It was called “The Coolest Dance Hall in Texas”, because of the five industrial air-conditioning units it takes to keep a place that size comfortable. Among its more distinguishing features was the cemetery out behind the backstage area. It had been said that Saengerhalle was haunted. Staff members, owners, musicians and customers claimed to have had otherworldly experiences, such as the time one former owner put all the chairs on the tables for the night, before locking up the office, only to return to find the chairs on the floor again.
Saengerhalle was in New Braunfels, where it competed with Greune Hall. It had an outdoor deck and sand volleyball courts. Holes in the dance floor were patched with old Texas license plates. What patrons and artists loved most about Saengerhalle was its family atmosphere. The hall’s neighbors made up a core group of regulars. Saengerhalle closed its doors in 2006. It’s now a Church of Christ. Says former owner Eric Chase, “If you love it, then support it. If not [it’s] going to go out of business.”
In the introduction of Dance Halls and Dreamers, Pat Green talks about how everybody has their own stories of experiences at these dance halls, and how those connections grow and carry over to become part of the history of the place itself. It’s those connections that keep the Texas music community alive, and the venues are a vital piece of that. Each honky tonk is held together by the memories of all of the patrons, owners, bartenders and bouncers, and the music of all of the artists that have ever been there, as much as by the wall timbers and the floorboards. Each one is an important part of music history, yet every one is completely unique. Just like Texas.
Pat Green’s Dance Halls & Dreamers describes these ten dance halls with such loving detail that readers will be plotting roadtrips by the time they turn the last of the 184 pages. For those that can’t spend sick days driving south or miss work mapping out their own musical memory books, this is truly the next best thing. Put your boots up, have a beer, and enjoy the tour.