(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Well, the honky-tonks in Texas were my natural second home
Where you tip your hat to the ladies and the rose of San Antone.
I grew up on music that we called western swing.
It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king
— Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills Is Still the King”
I love good honky-tonks and dance halls. And Texas has been home to some of the best and the biggest. They really began to flourish after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and taverns, dance halls and honky-tonks began to function as a sort of social center for the working class population that was also the country music audience. The dance halls especially have continued to serve as family gathering places where you can bring your kids, eat barbecue, drink cold beer, listen to good music, dance and socialize with your friends and neighbors. And maybe slip out and cheat with someone you just met.
The dance halls and honky-tonks also changed the sound of country bands over the years. Finding it difficult to be heard above the noise in large joints, bands such as Ernest Tubb’s pioneered modern country’s sound by adding electric guitars for more amplification and by adopting drums to provide a loud dance beat. And song lyrics began to focus on drinking, honky-tonking and cheating and cheap romance. And the halls and the honky-tonks turned into the proving grounds for aspiring young artists and groups, and that’s where they earned their spurs.
And the tradition endures. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours gave way to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and then to Jerry Jeff Walker and Pat Green and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Randy Rogers and countless others. If I go back to Austin tomorrow, I know that I can walk into the great Broken Spoke beer joint out on South Lamar and that Alvin Crow or Gary P. Nunn or Dale Watson or Bruce Robison will be playing on that worn old stage that night. And that I can still order a good chicken fried steak there. It’s a wonderful time machine.
Pat Green, who is no stranger at all to Texas dance halls, has assembled a book about some of his favorite joints in Texas. Dance Halls & Dreamers is a lavish book of pictures and remembrances of several of Texas’ best-known dance halls.
Green’s own memories of his experiences are interspersed with stories from other artists and many photographs from the halls. Jack Ingram reports on the Bandera Cabaret in Bandera, Kevin Fowler on the Coupland Inn & Dancehall in Coupland, Cory Morrow at Luckenbach Dancehall in Luckenbach, Randy Rogers Band on Schroeder Hall in Schroeder, Green on Gruene Hall in Gruene, Cross Canadian Ragweed on Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin, Willie Nelson on Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, Robert Earl Keen on John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Ray Wylie Hubbard on Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas and Wade Bowen on Saengerhalle near Gruene Hall. The best line in the book comes when Green refers to the behemoth Billy Bob’s Texas as the “Wal-Mart of dance halls,” which it is. But it’s also a crucial and vital link in the honky-tonk tradition.
I just realized that I’ve been to only half of those halls in the book, but I’ve been to other joints that I remember fondly, such as the Broken Spoke and Dessau Hall and the Barn. And some not so fondly, such as Gilley’s in Pasadena, which was just a huge, seedy dump.
But so many other beer joints are actually treasured memories. In many ways, they do represent just a dream. But the reality remains there. The bare brick walls, the worn hardwood floors, the neon beer signs on the walls, the old wooden tables and chairs, the occasional bullet holes and blood stains, the parking lot potholes and all the stories that are embedded in those old walls. The romances, the seductions, the arguments, the fights, the warm family reunions, the sunny afternoons whiled away with pitchers of frosty Shiner beer and platters of hot nachos, the just plain good times, all played out to music.
This is something the American Idol scenario could never envision. The idea of real reality. Imagine that.