In front, there’s a cash bar where you can buy a Shiner Bock or a Coke. I scanned photos of the artists who have played here — George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Garth Brooks, Jerry Jeff Walker.
The back looks essentially like a barn with a stage. Long tables and benches with years of graffiti etched into the wood line up like picnic tables. Bands perform daily, and whether the lyrics are about love, the moon or 18-wheelers, there’s something sweet about watching the dancers: Some looked as if they’d been moving together for generations; others were young enough to still be wearing patent-leather Mary Janes.
En route to my next stop, driving over roller coasters of asphalt as far as I could see, I saw firsthand why this beautiful area of Central Texas is called Hill Country. I arrived in Luckenbach, about 90 minutes northwest of Gruene and outside the town of Fredericksburg, which still maintains much of the German culture brought over by its original settlers. Luckenbach opened as a trading post in 1849, and it still sits more or less in the middle of nowhere, with a general store, a dance hall and a tollbooth-size tavern. The 1977 Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson song, “Luckenbach, Texas,” made it famous.
I showed up on a weeknight for what they call a picker circle — a few guitarists sitting around, playing acoustically. Three musicians sat in the corner of the bar, where every square inch of wall was covered with patches, stickers, dead animals, signs and photos. I found myself standing around the wood-burning stove with about a dozen locals, sipping Lone Stars, listening to the tunes.
The dance hall was closed for the night, but the bartender grabbed his keys and switched on the lights for me to peek in. I added that to my growing list of places for my next visit. I was realizing that many halls — like Anhalt Hall (between Austin and San Antonio), the beautifully restored Sengelmann Hall (between San Antonio and Houston) and Floore’s Country Store (outside San Antonio) — have dances only on the weekends. So I hit the ones I could, making notes for a return trip one day.
One more for the road
I spent the next couple of weeks in West Texas, and on my way home, I made a quick stop in Fort Worth to see what’s known as the world’s largest honky-tonk: Billy Bob’s Texas. After the quiet of Big Bend, I was a little traumatized by the size and touristiness of the place, which includes real bull-riding, souvenir shops, several dance floors and even a saddle-shaped disco ball.
My last stop was Dallas. The cop I’d met in Austin was in town for business, and we’d arranged to meet for a Western swing class at Sons of Hermann Hall, an old fraternal organization known for its live music and swing dances. The instructor talked us through the steps and turns, and we rotated partners. The crowd was mostly young, but I also danced with an older man wearing a button-down shirt with a gun pattern. By the time the cop made his way back to me, we had both mastered the steps, and by the time the band played Frank Sinatra’s “South of the Border,” we were feeling confident. We were even getting ourselves back into step after a turn.
“Not bad,” he said of my dance skills, as we left the hall. But he implied that I could use some more practice. I laughed. I’d never be a Texan, but I had a feeling that the music and the two-stepping would always be with me. I told him that I’d be back, and I knew that I would be.
The next day, I packed up my boots and my pocket knife and headed east.
Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.melaniedgkaplan.com.