In the early seventies, Ray Benson and his western swing group Asleep at the Wheel decided to leave their home base in the San Francisco Bay Area—with a slight detour through West Virginia—behind. Willie Nelson, who was shifting away from the current Nashville scene and formulating his own scene—what would later become known as “outlaw country”—convinced Benson and his band to come to Austin and help foster a return to roots-oriented country music. At the time, the genre had become very pop-heavy and formulaic, and record companies forced acts to conform. The antidote was bands like Asleep at the Wheel, who played classic honky-tonk music in the style of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, and Johnny Bush, the songwriter behind Nelson’s hit “Whiskey River.” Texas dance halls (chronicled in detail here) became their proving grounds. Benson quickly came to understand what it meant when a certain sign was posted on a piano in good ol’ boy establishments: “No rock and roll.”
“Dance halls are really where we learned what it was to be a Texas band,” Benson says. “We played Texas music, but when you play the Texas dance halls, you understand: Oh, you gotta do ‘The Cotton-Eyed Joe.’ Oh, you gotta do the schottische. And then all of these songs that go along with the kind of dancing they were doing. The dance floor was sacrosanct—you didn’t clog up the dance floor.”
Benson and his band, an ever-changing lineup that has racked up nine Grammys, have since moved on to theaters, opera houses, and performing arts centers. But they haven’t forgotten where they started. Next week, Benson will host the Texas Dance Hall Tour, a weeklong deep-dive into the greater Central Texas area highlighted by afternoon and evening concerts at a number of classic old dance halls. Another ten or so more obscure dance halls will be visited during the day. A little added incentive will the bourbon tasting, a buggy museum tour, and dance lessons for all the essentials: the swing, the waltz, and, of course, the Texas two-step.
Benson will kick things off on Monday with an acoustic performance at the Pearl Stable, in San Antonio, the former home of the Pearl Brewery draft horses. He is bound to dispense his comprehensive knowledge of Texas dance halls and perhaps tell anecdotes about more memorable ones that have gone away, like the Farmer’s Daughter, also in San Antonio, where a huge picture of Bob Wills hung above the stage, or the Skyline Club, in Austin, where Hank Williams last played. Or perhaps he’ll hold court on the Silver Spur Dance Hall, in Bandera, where Frank Sinatra sang with the Tommy Dorsey Band, or the Cotton Club, in Lubbock, host to acts ranging from Elvis Presley to Benny Goodman back in the day.
“You go back in history—c’mon, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, George Strait, Willie Nelson. This is where we all, from that lineage, learned and played, because there weren’t big concert halls for Texas country music in the forties, fifties, and sixties,” Benson explains. “Part of why we saw ourselves as outlaws, even though that was kind of a hilarious thing in the seventies, was because Waylon, Willie, Asleep at the Wheel, everybody worked these places, where people drank, people smoked pot, maybe took pills, who knows what. This was where the night people went as opposed to the good upstanding folks of the community who went to bed at nine o’clock.”
The Texas Dance Hall Tour will then make its way to Twin Sisters Dance Hall and Fischer Dance Hall, two vintage spots in Blanco, on the second and third nights. Dale Watson, the Ameripolitan crooner who earlier this year released a duet album with Benson titled Dale & Ray, will show his love for dance halls, appearing with both Benson and Asleep at the Wheel in various iterations. A day trip to the famed Luckenbach Dance Hall, near Fredericksburg, on Thursday will allow everybody to be somebody, as the saying goes. On Friday, Grammy winner Lee Ann Womack is slated to perform at Sengelmann Hall, a beloved place in Schulenburg that underwent a major renovation nearly a decade ago. Saturday’s finale will feature Asleep at the Wheel with the Quebe Sisters, a western swing fiddle trio that played on Kacey Musgraves’s Christmas album, at Fair Pavilion, in La Grange, where the Best Little Cowboy Gathering is held every March.
The tour was conceived to increase awareness and raise funds for Texas Dance Hall Preservation, a nonprofit dedicated to doing all it can to prevent these cultural institutions from vanishing altogether. Dance halls, which enjoyed a heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have served a variety of purposes and offered a spectrum of musical stylings, from country to conjunto to polka, over the years. Some continue to regularly hold dances, while others are available for weddings and parties, and still others have been repurposed from a dancing, gathering, and beer-drinking space into antiques shops, schools, or churches. However, there are many that have languished and are either vacant and dilapidated or have become storage spaces for owners who don’t have the means to do anything better with them. Texas Dance Hall Preservation estimates that at their peak, there were around a thousand dance halls across the state. That number has dwindled to less than four hundred today.
“Small communities where many halls still exist have aging populations and limited funds to maintain a hall,” says Deb Fleming, the president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation. “Demographics have shifted and even if the younger generation is still active in an area, they are not dancers like their parents and grandparents were. It takes a community, dance hall champion, or a special group to really spearhead the survival of a hall.”
Fleming conceived the idea for the tour with Benson’s son, Sam Seifert, who manages Asleep at the Wheel. The band had played benefits for Texas Dance Hall Preservation in the past. Part of the purpose of the tour was to build on that momentum and promote the legacy of Asleep at the Wheel’s spiritual godfather, Bob Wills, whose signature sound was forged in dance halls. Fleming and Seifert scouted locations and identified places that varied in style, history, and community involvement. Their hope is to leave attendees spellbound by the simple charm and romance these spots evoke and to educate them on what makes dance halls positively Texan.
“When we talk about the economy of Texas, what do we export?” Benson posits. “We export Texas a lot, which is this image and this thing, and I think that as long as we keep places like this around, people will come from all over the world to experience just that. Gruene Hall has been a real success story in that respect—you can say, hey, this is what made Texas. It’s such an Americana thing: something that is so American and so Texan that it exists nowhere else.”
Various locations, March 20–26, texasdancehalltour.com
OTHER EVENTS ACROSS TEXAS
The final days of SXSW are all about the music, and that means opportunities to see a lot of Texas acts—whether you have a badge or not—but the one at the top of many itineraries is Spoon, the Austin rock band with a new album, Hot Thoughts, out on Friday. See them break in the new songs on Friday at the VuHaus day party at the Austin Convention Center (3 p.m.) and later at Waterloo Records (6 p.m.) followed by a Saturday morning set (11 a.m.) as part of KUTX Live at the Four Seasons.
Various locations, March 17–19, sxsw.com
DALLAS / HOUSTON / NEW BRAUNFELS
Going to Church
On the strength of her 2016 major label debut album, Hero, Arlington native Maren Morris won one Grammy, for best country solo performance for the song “My Church,” and was a nominee for three others, including best new artist, which is why you should go to any means necessary to score a ticket to her sold-out shows at House of Blues, in Dallas and Houston, and Gruene Hall, in New Braunfels.
Various locations, March 23, 24 & 25, marenmorris.com
Would You Rather?
Journalism legend (and Wharton native) Dan Rather has taken to social media with zeal, posting incisive commentary on the state of politics and beyond through his News and Guts platform. But he is an oral communicator at heart, and he will speak from that place when he recounts his sixty-year career as a guest at the “Wrapped in Red Luncheon,” hosted by the American Red Cross of Greater Houston.
Hilton Americas-Houston, March 23, 11:30 a.m., redcross.org
The Herbs and Spices of Life
After a keynote talk on Coriandrum sativum, the polarizing plant bearing both the herb cilantro and the spice coriander, the schedule at the twenty-second annual Herbal Forum at Round Top will even out with programs like “Perfumes, Potions, and Other Plant Aphrodisiacs: The Science and Chicanery of Aromatherapy,” about cutting-edge research on smell, and “Bokashi Composting,” about indoor composting.
Round Top Festival Institute, March 18, festivalhill.org
It takes a special kind of person to watch others furiously stuff their faces with hot dogs and buns dipped in water, but consider that the people doing said gorging on Saturday at the Alamodome will also be competing for a chance to participate in Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. You might just see the next Joey Chestnut, a contestant at last year’s contest, who set a record after consuming seventy dogs.
Alamodome, March 18, 1 p.m., majorleagueeating.com