Twenty-one years ago, Jerry Jeff Walker's 'Live at Gruene Hall' sketched portraits wasted ('Trashy Women') and wistful ('Little Bird'). The legendary songwriter, a beacon since the New Braunfels venue's revival in the '70s, has found the balance timeless.
'("Live at Gruene Hall") is one of our more popular products,' Walker says. 'I've always enjoyed playing live, as opposed to sitting in a studio trying to get an attitude.' The 68-year-old's May 13 show anchors Gruene's 35th anniversary month.
American-Statesman: How have you seen Gruene Hall evolve since 1975?
Jerry Jeff Walker: It's the same now as it was. But there wasn't anything in the town except Gruene Hall and the saddle shop over in the corner, which now sells antiques. They didn't have the Gristmill (restaurant) at the time.
What first led you to the venue?
Willie (Nelson) was looking for a place to permanently have his Fourth of July picnic. We rode around in the countryside looking at property and wound our way around and stopped at Gruene Hall to have a beer. (Owner) Pat Molak said, 'Hey, Jerry Jeff, you think you'd ever want to play here?' I said, 'Yeah, I like stuff like this.'
Did you play soon after?
Yeah, I was the first to play there and kind of helped get it going. I used to play maybe three or four times a year. This (anniversary show) is a little different. I don't usually play when we get into summer.
Why did you choose to record the live album there?
I'd done (1973's) 'Viva Terlingua,' and it had been successful. I tried to duplicate the feeling of what we did with 'Viva Terlingua' in a different way. Chris Wall had just come to town, and I'd just learned (Wall's songs) 'Trashy Women' and 'I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.' I knew 'Trashy Women' would be a catchy thing.
As a performer, what's most unique about Gruene Hall?
It takes people out of a concert hall situation or a back yard patio and puts them in a real dance hall. It has really good acoustics. There's something about old wood. I didn't like it when people stood, because it blocks the sound and I felt trapped. I put chairs in there and limit it to 600 (people). That way, the sound can get out. People like going there and having a beer and wearing their jeans.
Have you ever suggested that Pat install air conditioning?
No. That's why I don't play after about the middle of June (laughs). It can be pleasant, or it ... it depends on whether the wind's blowing right when they open the side walls.
Many established artists return to Gruene long after they fill larger venues. Why?
It's centrally located. There's (the amphitheaters), but that's not the same thing. You drive into the parking lot and it's all dusty and (expletive) and you walk way over and you stand all around. It's too big. I think Bob Dylan once said, 'Good music needs four walls.'
Do you have anything special planned for the anniversary show?
Like what, playing in my underwear? (He laughs.) I mean, that's the whole thing. We'll have as normal an evening as we can and have as good a time as we can. That's enough.
'One of the greatest dance halls of all time'
George Strait's cowboy hats stiffen at curves. Always have: As an aspiring performer, the San Antonio area native already abided by country music traditions that Jerry Jeff Walker mightily challenged. The pair's duality enlivened Gruene Hall's earliest evenings.
'The first time we played Gruene Hall, it was on a Sunday afternoon for 50 cents at the door, I think,' says Strait, 57. 'We didn't care about the money, though. We just wanted to play at one of the greatest dance halls of all time. We wanted to prove to (owner) Pat (Molak) that we were worthy of a weekend night.
'A Friday or Saturday night at Gruene Hall is something special. Me and the Ace in the Hole Band had some great times there that I will never forget.'
Thirty years on, Strait answers to a nickname ('King of Country') befitting his résumé (a record 57 chart-topping hits).
'People were relaxed and just happy to be there'
In 1986, Lyle Lovett's self-titled debut immediately deepened brows throughout the country music landscape. The Houston area native sharpened early story songs ('Farther Down the Line,' 'This Old Porch') at Gruene Hall's Sunday afternoon 'acoustic gig.' 'I was playing at a little hamburger joint in San Marcos called Grin's,' Lovett recalls. '(Gruene Hall owner) Pat (Molak) and a lady working for him named Nadine started booking me on Sunday afternoons. It was great fun.
'On Sunday afternoons, people were relaxed and just happy to be there. They're happy to be in Gruene and happy to be hearing music. The audience is laid back, really casual, yet really appreciative. It's the furthest thing from the uptight folk music listening experience. The doors would be open and the breeze would be blowing through the screen doors and people would be wearing shorts. Behind the bar, Hal Ketchum would lean through the window and play harmonica.
'(Performers) come back to (perform at) Gruene Hall because of Pat and the history. Pat and Gruene were there for us when we needed them. That's what keeps you coming back and working with promoters over the years. It's because of a relationship you build. The music business is like any other business -- you remember the folks who were there for you when you first started out. You remember the folks that took a chance on you. Pat has been generous like that with so many of us over the years.
'Any time you get to play a place like Gruene Hall, you're including yourself in the context of all the people who've played there in years past. As a so-called "artist," it's a tremendous kind of underscoring that you belong in that community. If you can add your name to the roster of people who've played there before you, it reassures you that maybe I'm not just fooling myself. Maybe I do belong here. That's a great feeling.'
-- Brian T. Atkinson
Gruene Hall and the surrounding historic district are celebrating 35 years since it was revitalized. Below are some highlights from events during May, the anniversary month. More at 830-629-5077, gruenetexas.com or gruenehall.com . Gruene Hall is at 1281 Gruene Road, New Braunfels.
Bob Schneider: 10:30 p.m. Saturday. $20
Jerry Jeff Walker: 9 p.m. May 13. $40
The Subdudes: 9:30 p.m. May 14. $20
Joe Ely Band: 10:30 p.m. May 15. $20
Americana Music Jam (featuring Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chris Knight, Charlie Robison, the Trishas, others): 12:30 p.m. May 16. $50
Asleep at the Wheel: 10:30 p.m. May 22. $22.50
Tish Hinojosa and friends: 1 p.m. May 30. Free