Every state in the South has her own musical leanings, but Texas—perhaps more than any other—has the soles (and souls) of dancing feet stamped across its many miles. From the saloons of old to the festivals of today, music pervades the culture of Texas and threads itself into the landscape. The barn dances of Texas’s early years eventually swayed their way into the dance halls of a more modern age, and one of those oldest structures still stands, welcoming hoofers into its hallowed halls as it did some 140 years ago.
Gruene Hall, planted firmly in the rolling hills of central Texas, has been in operation since it first opened in 1878, making it the oldest continually operating dance hall in the state. Henry (Heinrich) D. Gruene constructed the hall that still bears his name, and the building’s epithet isn’t the only thing that’s remained the same over the years. In fact, not much has changed at all.
The building retains its original layout—6,000 square feet open for dancing, with a high, pitched tin roof. In a unique Texan twist, the sides of the building open to let in swift night breezes to cool sweaty skin, just as Gruene intended. A small bar welcomes guests at the front of the building, and a small stage illuminates the back of the room and beckons guests forward. A large garden serves as a welcome repose for weary dancers or guests with two left feet. Even the original advertising signage from the early twentieth century still adorns the dance hall’s walls. Time travelers from any recent decade would have trouble pinpointing architectural developments at Gruene.
But although the building has remained essentially the same, the people and performers within her walls certainly have not. When Gruene first opened the hall in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was home to weekly dances, drawing Texans from across the center of the state. Even today it’s easy to imagine the ruffled petticoats and loosened collars of generations of country dancers. Locals would gather to gossip over icy beers and trade stories between dances. Over the years the hall remained open, but her denizens shifted. During the early twentieth century, Gruene Hall was host to everything from the normal (high school graduations), to the interesting (traveling salesman), to the downright strange (badger fights).
Since the ’70’s, however, Gruene has seemed to settle into its groove. Under its current ownership, the new Gruene began focusing on up and coming artists. For years now, musicians who take the stage at Gruene Hall are songwriters in their own right, performing original pieces rather than the overplayed (and often over-appreciated) popular tunes. Gruene’s tactic has borne the seeds of success: artists like George Strait, Hal Ketchum, and Lyle Lovett all took the stage at Gruene’s as budding musicians. And the performances of new artists encouraged the established ones to take the stage, too. Over the years such household names as Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Chris Isaak, Merle Haggard, and the Dixie Chicks have all passed through Gruene Hall. The past few decades have seen Gruene Hall grow from a local venue to an internationally-recognized tourist destination. Visitors come from around the world to hear the sounds of this storied stage.
The worn floors of Gruene Hall seem to be etched with the stories of a century; the twirling heels of young lovers and the subtle, softened steps of older ones, the two-steps and swings, maybe even the deep etchings of a sharpened badger claw, all have left their own mark on this holy hall.
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