Some of the sweeter things in life unfold in an old Texas dance hall. Acoustic guitars and wailing fiddles somehow sound a little bit better reverberating off of worn wooden walls. Beer always seems a couple of degrees cooler when sipped between sweaty swirls around an un-air-conditioned dance floor. And as singers bare their souls to the strangers in the crowd, it’s next to impossible not to slide your boot-clad feet across the time-weathered planks and belt out each word to every song you know along with them.
Within the iconic white wooden exterior of Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall, you’ll find some of the best live Americana and Texas music playing every day of the week, ice-cold, cash-only beer, and a timeless Texas charm that spills out from the open-air side flaps onto the surrounding sidewalks and street. Nestled in the heart of the historic district of Gruene, this legendary dance hall built in 1878 remains a requisite stop for any musician playing the Texas circuit, and it’s been the birthplace of dozens of now-famous singers and songwriters spanning George Strait to Lyle Lovett.
In a way, I owe my existence to it too. My grandparents met here in 1955 during a Gruene Hall Saturday night dance when my grandpa led my grandma onto the dance floor, stepped all over her feet and fell madly in love. For the next three Saturdays, he waited patiently outside of Gruene Hall until he finally caught sight of her again. They were married within the year — a union that led to four children, 10 grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren and counting. Each time I’m back here listening to live Texas music, I think about their love story and wonder about all of the others that must have unfolded inside this 6,000-square-foot dance hall.
Like two-stepping back in time, Gruene Hall is one of those Texas institutions that seems impermeable to change despite all of the transformations happening around it. Sure, this now-famous dance hall pulls in big names and attracts tourists from near and far, but whether you’re waiting in line for a beer at the cash-only bar, gathered around the brightly lit stage in the back or playing a round of horseshoes with your kids on the sprawling dirt lawn just off to the side, you’ll find an unwavering timelessness flourishing here.
“Gruene Hall’s timeless feel really is because it hasn’t changed,” says proprietor Pat Molak, who has owned Gruene Hall along with Mary Jane Nalley since 1975. “It’s pretty much as we found it — just some new wiring and a little bit of new plumbing. The dance floor, the backdrop, the flaps, the chicken wire on the windows and the front of the hall are all the same.”
Ever since Molak and Nalley found the classic old gem, they have made an effort to keep it the same — today Gruene Hall has a Texas Medallion from the Texas Historical Commission and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Advertisements from the 1930s and 1940s hang in the hall and around the stage, and black-framed pictures of celebrities who have played here since the mid-'70s adorn the walls, adding authenticity to its throwback feel. But no matter how famous the person playing on stage might be, a big draw to Gruene Hall has always been the intimate experience it offers that allows artists and fans to interact together in close proximity.
“It’s a priceless setup that ended up being almost perfect,” says Molak. “It’s small enough that you get to see the artist and you’re not lost. The artists love it because they are right there in the middle of their fans.”
As a result, now-famous musicians who launched their careers at Gruene Hall decades ago still possess a love for and loyalty to the place.
“They started here and love the joint,” Molak says. “They feel the same thing we do. Lyle, George and Robert Earl — it means a lot to these guys. Jerry Jeff was there the first spring we found the hall.”
Molak says a big reason behind this is because artists know what a priceless place Gruene Hall truly is.
“You walk in and feel like you’ve never left,” Molak says. “They feel the spirit like everyone else.”
IF YOU GO:
Distance from Austin: Just over 45 miles and just as many minutes separate downtown Austin from Gruene Hall.
Fun facts: Did you know that in the 1800s, Gruene Hall held its weekly dances and hosted events spanning from high school graduations to badger fights? Or that Hal Ketchum built the basketball goal in the Gruene Hall beer garden? There’s also a “Willie door,” which, according to Molak, was crafted by moving the homemade stair steps up to the side flap by the men’s room so Willie Nelson could crawl in. “The men’s room becomes the green room (no pun intended) and everybody gets a kick out of it,” says Molak. “They don’t have to walk through the crowd and get to use an iconic entrance. A lot of the bigger names use it and even some that don’t really need to use it, but they want to use it because Willie used it.”
Famous artists: Check out some of the famous artists who have played at Gruene Hall over the years, from timeless talents like the aforementioned Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker to iconic bands and musicians spanning Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks and Hootie & the Blowfish, at gruenehall.com/famous-artists.
Must-see shows: Whether you’re listening to the multiple Grammy-nominated, 2-million-album-selling artist Pat Green perform “I Like Texas” or “Take Me Out to a Dancehall” or two-stepping to the music of honky-tonk hero Dale Watson, you can’t help but sing along. With music every night of the week and shows every weekend during the day as well as at night, one thing is for sure: This quintessential Texas dance hall offers plenty of opportunities to get in touch with your Texas roots and boot-scoot. “It’s close to 500 shows a year,” says Molak. “That’s a lot of action for an old joint that’s still going strong.” Find upcoming shows at gruenehall.com/calendar.
Free music: Gruene Hall features live music every day, year-round. Most shows are free Monday through Thursday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while Friday and Saturday evenings are generally ticketed cover shows. But at Gruene Hall, which averages at least one show per day, two shows on weekend days, and only closes on Thanksgiving and Christmas day, there’s a whole lot of live music to be heard that won’t cost you a penny.
When to take the kids: Every day before the sun goes down, you can see kids running around on the fenced-in dirt lawn outside the hall, refueling with bags of chips and soda available for purchase (there’s a nearby ATM if you forget your cash) while their parents supervise from a picnic table and soak in the free live music. It’s also a time-tested spot to teach your kids how to two-step. For “Cover at the Door” shows, kids 10 years old and under pay half price.
Walk to dinner: One bite into Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar’s juicy half-pound burgers, complete with a side of original round-cut fries, and you will be a big fan of the food served from this former cotton gin that has been cooking up South Texas favorites since 1977. Right across the street, nosh on an array of revamped American classics such as sliders, dogs and nachos at Mozie’s while enjoying a drink from the full bar complete with all-sports TVs and air conditioning. Or traipse down a few feet to the Gruene River Grill, a rustic restaurant overlooking the Guadalupe River, for a plate of country fried steak smothered in homemade cream gravy.
Stay the night: Rest your head at Gruene Mansion Inn (gruenemansioninn.com), one of the first buildings in Gruene, built in 1872. The property, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Texas Historic Landmark, began as Henry D. Gruene’s historic Victorian home and cotton plantation. Today the bed and breakfast’s rustic elegance accommodations are restored century-old barns and homes outfitted with fine fabrics, antiques and handcrafted furniture.
More at gruenehall.com.
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