When Ray Benson and his band, Asleep at the Wheel, started playing western swing in 1972, they found themselves booked into lots of traditional Texas dance halls. Built by German and Czech immigrants to Texas, the halls were places the whole family could go to hear traditional music, as well as Texas swing from the likes of Bob Wills and Milton Brown. By the 1970s when Asleep at the Wheel had its first dance hall gig, music had changed a lot. But dance halls had rules.
“We got booked at the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio. There was an eight-foot picture of Bob Wills behind the stage,” Benson says. It was the kind of place where people danced the cotton-eyed joe, the schottische, and the Paul Jones. Benson says a sign warned bands not to play any rock-and-roll.
Next week, Benson is reviving memories of the old Texas dance halls by headlining a week-long tour of a few that remain.
“There used to be over 1000, and now they’re approximately 400, and most of those are only part-time,” Benson says. Gruene Hall is one of the exceptions, where people go all the time.”
Benson says he supports a non-profit organization that pays to refurbish dance halls in communities where they still exist.
“Some of them…like in Blanco, the Twin Sisters – this is a 130-year-old hall. They had a hole in the roof, and so we did a GoFundMe to raise the money to fix the hole because they do one dance a month, and it’s by the community,” Benson says.
The week-long dance hall tour is organized like a grand tour. Participants travel by bus to different destination each day, taking two-step lessons, visiting distilleries, and dancing to the music of featured performers including Benson, Dale Watson, Lee Ann Womack, Hot Club of Cow Town and others.
Benson says full tour packages are sold out, but that day tickets are available.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.