The way to a true Texas dance hall—not the urban simulations, with their cosmetic trusses, last-call footraces, and she’s-mine testosterone—is through the country, a long drive by pastures and cornfields and cattle guards, past driveways that look like roads and roads with numbers for names. You’ll half think you’re lost on the way, then feel a shock when you get there, not at the size of the structure but at the number of trucks parked outside.
An older couple at the front door will take your money and smile like they know you. They’ll gab at length, if you linger, about the bands they saw here when they were kids, dropping names like Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers, the Texas Top Hands, Johnny Bush, acts you can tell you ought to know better.
You listen, but your eyes go to the dance floor. If the band hasn’t started yet and the floor is empty, you’ll notice the long, dark planks, probably pine or oak, shining from decades of being polished by boot leather. They show none of the proverbial sawdust, just splashes of light reflected from Christmas lights hanging from the rafters. As you scout for an open table along the worn clapboard walls—where parents pull supper from small coolers and granddads fold brown bags on half-pints and kids itch to go slide on their knees in front of the bandstand—you’ll keep looking back at the floor.
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It fills the instant the music starts. The band is probably another you don’t know, maybe Billy Mata or Bobby Flores. No matter what hall or which band, certain songs are guaranteed: “Heartaches by the Number,” “Crazy Arms,” “New San Antonio Rose,” “Corrine, Corrina.” Songs with different beats drop in and out, “A Night in May Waltz” and “Yesterday I Waited for You Polka.” Though some of the songs shuffle and some of them bounce, you realize that all of it’s dance music. That’s the whole point. And when you see a little kid learning to two-step by balancing on her grandfather’s feet, you’ll ask yourself, “Has this always been here?”
You can’t just open a dive bar. Forming the sturdy bulwark of regulars takes years. Generally speaking, only a bar that is itself of legal drinking age can be grizzled enough to be a true dive. The carpets and surfaces need time to marinate, and as in a cave, its walls must accrete decor over many, many years, like the slow growth of stalagmites and stalactites.
And the customers should have been around awhile too. Dives are often places of regret and consolation, not optimism and anticipation. “Ninety-
nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice,” Willie Nelson once said. “That’s what makes the jukeboxes play.” Ninety percent of those jukeboxes are in dive bars.
Speaking of music, that’s another giveaway. No matter how old and ramshackle the building, a place that is first and foremost a live-music venue is not a true dive bar. Which is not to say a dive can’t have live music, especially if most of the bands’ members are also regulars at the bar when not on the tiny stage and if the music’s volume is subdued enough to allow for conversation.
By Larry L. King
From “The Beer Joint,” originally published in March 1976
You might say I grew up in beer joints and early learned their many uses.
After work, the grunge of the oil patch under our fingernails and its greasy scents in our pores, we made a beeline for the nearest beer joint whether in McCamey, Odessa, Wink, Jal, Eunice, Hobbs, Monahans, Midland. Nobody asked if you were 21. The presumption was that if you performed a man’s work you were entitled to a man’s recreations; more than once a deputy sheriff, constable, or policeman wiped blood off me, advised me to watch my ass, and offered to drive me home. You could get hurt in those places then; I think it was the sense of wild adventure offered by West Texas beer joints that most attracted me. Macho conduct was much in vogue; fast action might be had in beer joints even in dull, dusty burgs boasting only blinker lights, a single picture show, and one-gallus parsons. I ultimately found a joint too rough for my tastes: The Nip ’n Sip, in Odessa, which was closed down by the authorities during the early fifties oil boom after gunplay and switchblades became too prominent.
As I grew older, I came to appreciate the gentler, more social qualities of certain beer joints. The shuffleboard games and pool tables with their familiar nicks and clicks. The tall tales in bull sessions attracting newsmen, trial lawyers, and other natural raconteurs. The quiet old men sucking their beer bottles and seeking nothing more than the shade. The beery banquets of hard-boiled eggs, salted nuts, pretzels, potato chips, spicy boiled beef, and similar stomach junk. The jokes and the camaraderie when the telephone rang and a half-dozen voices rang out: “Tell ’er I ain’t here.”
Chitlin Clubs, Roadhouses, Conjunto Bars, and More
By Michael Hall
From “Music Clubs,” originally published in March 1999
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.
For all of their differences, these nightclubs, bars, and honky-tonks have one thing in common: a deep connection to their communities. They serve as places for people to gather and talk. 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.