Time tends to stand still and some of the sweeter things in life seem to unfold within the iconic white lap siding walls of Gruene Hall. Inside Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall, you’ll find some of the best live Americana and Texas music playing every day of the week, ice cold, cash-only beer, and a timeless Texas charm that spills out from the open-air side flaps into historic Gruene.
This legendary dance hall built in 1878 remains a requisite stop for any musician playing the Texas circuit and it’s been the birthplace of dozens of now-famous singers and songwriters spanning George Strait to Lyle Lovett. In a way, I owe my existence to it, too. My grandparents met here in 1955 during a Gruene Hall Saturday night dance when my grandpa led my grandma onto the dance floor, stepped all over her feet and fell madly in love. For the next three Saturdays, he waited patiently outside of Gruene Hall until he finally caught sight of her again. They were married within the year––a union that led to four children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren and counting.
Each time I’m back here listening to acoustic guitars and wailing fiddles reverberating off of the time-worn wooden walls and singers baring their souls from the small lighted stage, I think about their love story and wonder about all of the others that must have unfolded inside this 6,000-square-foot dance hall.
Like stepping back in time, Gruene Hall is one of those Texas institutions that seems impermeable to change despite all of the transformations happening around it. Sure, this creaky-floored, un-air-conditioned dance hall has, like the rest of the world, made some adjustments due to COVID-19––staffers wear masks; face coverings are recommended for all guests and required for ticket-holders; wine barrel table seating is now staggered across the dance floor; all tables, inside and out, are set up for social distancing; and ticketed show capacity is roughly 25 percent what it used to be. But despite these safety modifications, you’ll still find an unwavering timelessness flourishing here.
“Gruene Hall’s timeless feel really is because it hasn’t changed,” says proprietor Pat Molak, who has owned Gruene Hall along with Mary Jane Nalley since 1975. “It’s pretty much as we found it––just some new wiring and a little bit of new plumbing. The floor, the backdrop, the flaps, the chicken wire on the windows and the front of the hall are all the same.”
Ever since Molak and Nalley found the classic old gem, they have made an effort to keep it the same––today Gruene Hall has a Texas Medallion from the Texas Historical Commission and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Advertisements from the 1930s and 1940s hang in the hall and around the stage, and black-framed pictures of celebrities who have played here since the mid-’70s adorn the walls, adding authenticity to its throwback feel. But no matter how famous the person playing on stage might be, a big draw to Gruene Hall has always been the intimate experience it offers that allows artists and fans to interact.
“It’s a priceless set-up that ended up being almost perfect,” says Molak. “It’s small enough that you get to see the artist and you’re not lost. The artists love it too.”
As a result, now-famous musicians who launched their careers at Gruene Hall decades ago still possess a loyalty to the place.
“They started here and love the joint,” says Molak. “They feel the same thing we do. Lyle, George and Robert Earl––it means a lot to these guys. Jerry Jeff was there the first spring we found the Hall.”
Molak says a big reason behind this is due to the fact the artists know what a priceless place Gruene Hall truly is.
“You walk in and feel like you’ve never left,” Molak says. “They feel the spirit like everyone else.”
Internationally recognized as a destination tourist attraction and major music venue for up-and-coming as well as established artists, Gruene Hall has played host to many now-famous musicians spanning Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and The Chicks over the last 45 years.
Gruene Hall also has a storied history that predates its popularity. Back in the 1800s, Gruene Hall held its weekly dances and hosted events spanning high school graduations to badger fights. In the outdoor beer garden, there’s a basketball goal that Hal Ketchum built. There’s also a “Willie door,” which, according to Molak, was crafted by moving the homemade stair steps up to the side flap by the men’s room so Willie Nelson could crawl in.
But whether you’re listening to multiple-Grammy-nominated artist Pat Green perform “Take Me Out To a Dancehall” or swaying to the sounds of an up-and-comer that might be tomorrow’s next biggest star, there’s nothing quite like taking it all in from this quintessential Texas dance hall.
This month, take the short day trip to this Texas institution to tap your boot-clad feet to the tunes of Kody West on April 3, Wynonna Judd on April 16-18, and Eli Young Band on April 24. Find more upcoming shows at www.gruenehall.com/calendar.
If You Go
Gruene Hall is a 1-hour drive south of Austin.
Rest your head at Gruene Mansion Inn (www.gruenemansioninn.com), one of the first buildings in Gruene built in 1872. The property, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Texas Historic Landmark, began as Henry D. Gruene’s historic Victorian home and cotton plantation. Today the bed and breakfast’s rustic elegance accommodations are restored century-old barns and homes outfitted with fine fabrics, antiques and hand-crafted furniture.
Gruene Hall features live music every day, year-round. Most shows are free Monday through Thursday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while Friday and Saturday evenings are generally ticketed cover shows.
Eat & Drink:
One bite into Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar’s juicy half-pound burger, complete with a side of original round cut fries, and you will be a big fan of the food served from this former cotton gin that has been cooking up South Texas favorites since 1977. Or traipse down a few feet to the Gruene River Grill, a rustic restaurant overlooking the Guadalupe River for a plate of country fried steak smothered in homemade cream gravy.
Before you go, familiarize yourself and impress your friends by looking up some of the famous talents who have played at Gruene Hall over the years at www.gruenehall.com/famous-artists.