(Editor’s note: Author Luke Gilliam and photographer Guy Rogers III worked with singer-songwriter Pat Green to capture the essence of a vital part of Texas history in the new book, Pat Green’s Dance Halls & Dreamers. Distributed by the University of Texas Press, the project highlights 10 of the state’s legendary live music venues and some of the musicians who play there.)
When I started doing this show biz stuff, the places that meant the most to me were the places I would go hang out and watch music. Those places were Gruene Hall and Luckenbach. There was another place called London Hall that I thought was pretty cool. Some of the pictures I took and some that my friends took at London Hall ended up on the first record.
I think the cool thing about these dance halls is everybody has their own stories and their own connections. That becomes part of the feeling and the lore. “My buddy did this the last time we were at that dance hall” or “You should have seen it, we almost went to jail” or “We got out by the skin of our teeth.” That becomes part of the excitement, the personal memories and personal experiences in these beer joints that last a lifetime. As long as bands keep coming and playing, you can re-live those memories over and over again. You can sit in your truck with your kid and say, “Your old man did this right here in this spot and saw this guy sing these songs.”
Dance halls will get in your blood. I’m a visual person. That’s where I take a lot of focus in my life. I look at places and I remember how I felt and what I did there and how my life was coming together then. Not only do dance halls have to have that unmistakable feel with hardwood floors and certain things that go creak and bump in the night, but also they have to have the history to go along with it. Gruene Hall is the oldest dance hall in Texas. You can walk around and look at the pictures on the walls in that place and know it’s something special. I look at the floor at Gruene Hall and it has been danced on so much. There are ruts in it where the boots have scooted over the floor. There are indentions by the nails.
Luckenbach is out in the middle of nothing. I remember Texas Monthly put Jerry Jeff Walker on the cover of an article about the dance halls in Texas and he was standing at the front door of Luckenbach. I had never been to Luckenbach before that day, but I thought, “Man I’ve got to go see this place, that looks really special.” I want people to be aware of how great this scene is and what’s happening in Texas music and have an appreciation and awareness for where this music started. Watching shows there, I remember that excitement; you could feel it. Everybody felt the same way when Robert Earl Keen would come to Luckenbach and we would crowd around the windows if it was too crowded on the inside.
As an artist, dance halls are a totally different experience with the music. They are comfort places for me. They are the place I go to enjoy myself, not necessarily where I go to work. I still feel that same feeling when I walk in the front door of any of those places. I feel the feeling I felt when I was coming to see Robert Earl, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Jack Ingram and Jerry Jeff Walker play at these landmark places. It’s just over the top to realize that I’m trying to put people in there instead of being one of the people coming out.
People are standing or sitting right up by the stage, so it’s an intensely personal show. The connection between myself and the crowd always seems like it is right there in your face. They can reach out and touch your boots. It’s not only more special for them, but more special for me. I love playing in stadiums and for crowds of 20,000-plus. And I love playing beer joints with neon signs on every single wall, where it’s crowded and smoky. But there is nothing more nostalgic than walking into Floore’s Country Store and knowing all the people who have walked up on that stage and put their feet on there and sang to the crowd. Especially to people in Texas who know these places and know the songs. These places are so old and people write songs about them, so people go out of their way to include them as tour stops. To me, those are the kind of places that deserve our respect.
That’s where this book originated — out of reverence. As a Texas musician, growing up here all my life, getting the opportunity to write down my thoughts as well as the thoughts of some of my best friends who grew up in this scene seemed like a sensible thing to do. I know enough of these places, that’s for sure. I’ve been there a ton of times. I’m pretty sure I had something to do with the bills getting paid.
When we went in to record the Dancehall Dreamer record, I was more proud of that song than any other song I had ever written. I thought that was the best one I’d ever done. I generally still feel that way to this day. The only way to make a connection with people on a mass level is to speak the truth. At the time in my life, all I ever dreamed about was making something happen in the dance hall and honky-tonk circuit. That’s all I was doing was dreaming about filling up those places. The record led straight down the road to doing a book like this. Here we are now.
If you are an interested, educated person, something like this book would catch your eye. It is not only a piece of Americana with the musicians and the people involved, but it’s also a piece of history with the dance halls. Those are very real places to people like me, maybe more important than the regular mundane places, because that’s where I got the notion that this is something I wanted to do. I’ve been to all these dance halls and there are things you just don’t know about the places. Most people go in, have few beers, a few laughs and get out. Hopefully somebody will get more out of the experience by knowing what happened there and what went on with the places.
I’m confident that the folks and the places in this book are going to be stories people want to hear and want to know. All the places are in Texas and all the guys in this book are people who experienced a large portion of their careers in Texas. Without being born in Texas and raised in this place, there is no way I would have come to music in this light. The common thread is the state of Texas, the people that are here, the culture that is here, it’s so diverse, it makes so much sense to people like us. If you are not from here, it will take you a minute to let it get a hold of you. But I guarantee if you let it get a hold of you, you will never want it to let go. And that’s what I love about these places and the state of Texas and the people who sing about it.
Excerpt and images from Pat Green’s Dance Halls & Dreamers used by permission of Dance Halls & Dreamers Publishing LLC.