STEP INSIDE A SMALL-TOWN LIVE-MUSIC club in Texas and you’ll hear the sounds of the people who live there: country, blues, cajun, conjunto, polka, folk, maybe even rock and roll. The music is often played only on weekends or sometimes once a week, if that. The musicians aren’t always the best. At one roadhouse I heard the worst drummer alive, though if the crowd noticed, they didn’t say anything. At other places, you might hear something wonderful: a lost song or rhythm, a singer who never made it in the big city, an accordion player who never felt he had to try.
Most of the establishments listed below are nightclubs, bars, or honky-tonks; a few are restaurants. (We did not include dance halls, which are in a class by themselves). For all of their differences, they have one thing in common: a deep connection to their communities. They serve as places for people to gather and talk, to have a good time with others who know their name. They sit around tables in groups and couples, drinking beer—cheap and, usually, American—or cocktails created from setups bought at the bar and bottles of whiskey or gin brought from home. And, of course, they dance. The most vibrant clubs are the ones where the older folks come out to dance to the music of their youth and the young stop in out of curiosity. Most of the kids don’t stay long, but some do—maybe long enough to keep the music alive.
Step outside an urban club and you hear the clatter of the city. Step outside a small-town club and you hear things that make you feel as if you’re in a Hank Williams song: the bass rattling the thin walls, a solitary car rushing by on the lonely two-lane highway, the wind, and the slow drift of the darkness.
Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, Bandera
SILVER DOLLAR IS EVERYTHING A honky-tonk should be. There’s a Pearl beer sign behind the bar, a Dolly Parton pinball machine, sawdust on the dance floor, and more beer signs, animal heads, and pictures of various country music and American icons, like Hank Williams, John Wayne, and Elvis, covering the walls. And then there’s Arkey Blue, whose music is all over the jukebox (twenty songs are his) and whose photos—he’s usually wearing a cowboy hat and a red bandanna—are everywhere. There’s even a carved-wood homunculus standing next to the jukebox wearing a hat and a red bandanna. Who, who is Arkey Blue? The Fredericksburg native, born Arkey Juenke, has been playing music in Central Texas for decades. In 1959 he formed the Blue Cowboys, and nine years later he bought the Silver Dollar, where he’s been playing ever since. (Other bands play there too: Dusty Britches on Wednesdays and Gary Wright and the Road Kill Band on Thursdays.) The little club, in the cellar of an old building on Bandera’s downtown strip, is generally full of locals, hunters, and in the dude-ranch season, tourists. On Fridays and Saturdays, after his band plays for a while, Arkey gets up and sings some of his songs, such as “Fast Women, Slow Horses, and Wine” and “Backstreets of Bandera.” “To write a good country song, you gotta live it,” he says. “My whole life is in my songs.” 308 Main (830-796-8826). Music: Wednesday through Saturday 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Cover: $5.
The Trio Club, Mingus
THE GHOSTS OF BOB WILLS and the texas Playboys haunt the Trio Club, and they’re still having a good time. So are the ghosts of the thousands of North Texans who have danced there over the years. Opened in 1952, the Trio has hosted everyone from Wills to Gary Stewart, modern stars like Jody Nix, and lesser knowns like CB Sutton and Outcast and Tony Douglas and the Shrimpers. Joe and Linda May bought the hangar-shaped building in 1995 and haven’t changed a thing: country and western ( old country and western), beer and setups, and a Sunday matinee. The walls are clean and barely adorned, and the booths and tables are in vintage shape. (Don’t sit at a table with a paper towel under the ashtray; that means it’s reserved. As soon as you find an unclaimed spot, the waitress will lay paper under your ashtray too: Welcome to the club.) The bands play from a cavelike room set back from the dance floor, a throwback to an era when the musicians themselves were less important than the music they played and the floor space they took up. At the Trio it’s the dance that matters, and before the first instrumental break of the first song, the floor is filled with couples eddying counterclockwise. Most have been dancing together for years. 908 S. Mingus Boulevard (254-672-5664). Music: Saturdays 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sundays 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Cover: $5.
“THAT TABLE, THOSE PEOPLE ARE FROM Falfurrias. That table is from Alice, and those people are from Ben Bolt”: Mario de la Garza knows everyone at his club, which is one of the few old-time conjunto nightclubs in South Texas. It was just a small cantina when he bought it in 1969 (he says he was the first Latino to own a building in Premont), but today it’s a much larger room. People come here from all over South Texas—mayors and sheriffs, migrant workers and retirees—for the traditional stuff; de la Garza prides himself on featuring old-time conjunto, whether on the jukebox or onstage. Some performers, like Mingo Saldivar, are legends; others, like Los Compadres, are hardworking dance bands. Almost all conjunto groups include an accordion, a bajo sexto guitar, bass, and drums, and at Mario’s they play to a large dance floor surrounded by tables that start emptying as soon as the accordion leads off the first song of the night. “They all come to have a good time,” de la Garza says. “It’s something they wait for every week.” U. S. 281 at the corner of Southeast First