Boot-scootin’: Texas Hill Country’s iconic music venues
Texas has always had a unique love affair with music. Fiddles and steel guitars are as ingrained in the fabric of the Lone Star State as blue bonnets, cowboy boots, and 20-ounce steaks.
In the first half of the 20th century, most Texans’ social lives revolved around their local dance hall. More than 1,000 venues could be found across the state at that time; only a fraction of those remain today. But in recent years, the tradition has begun making an unexpected comeback.
“When I was growing up, (going out to the dance hall) was the thing to do,” says Mary Baker, of Saint Hedwig, Texas. “Friday and Saturday night you’d go out dancing with your parents or, when you’re older, your friends. Everyone would be there, dancing with one another. Now we’re starting to see that again.”
In music clubs across the state, silver-haired grandparents in cowboy hats and massive belt buckles are not only sharing the floor with tattooed hipsters, they’re often doing a two-step or a Texas waltz together. People from different generations, ethnicities, and political affiliations all having a good time together, listening to music.
Austin and the surrounding Hill Country have some of the most iconic venues in the state, which isn’t surprising considering Austin is often referred to as the live music capital of the world. Here are a few places where you can join in on the fun.
The Broken Spoke
Billing itself as “the last of the true Texas dance halls,” the Broken Spoke has been an Austin mainstay for more than a half-century. Bands typically play Wednesday through Saturday. Get there early to have a bite to eat and hear an up-and-coming artist play for tips in the bar. Afterward, make your way back to the dance hall, which accommodates more than 600 music fans for headliners like “London Homesick Blues” singer Gary P. Nunn. Don’t know how to dance? A lesson before the headliner takes the stage will only cost you $8.
Owner James M. White is almost as much of an attraction as the place itself. He has been known to hold court just off the bar, looking resplendent in a red sequined western shirt, white kerchief and cowboy hat with at least a half-dozen patrons lining up for pictures with him.
While the bar has several bottled beer options, it serves only Lone Star on draft. But why drink anything else in Texas?
Cost: Dining room shows are free, but there’s a charge for dance-hall shows in the back.
Luckenbach is synonymous with Texas music, thanks to Waylon Jennings’ classic hit. These days it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but still well worth the hour or so drive from Austin. A couple hundred people can fit under the corrugated steel roof of the open-air performing area, but at less-busy times a few two-stepping couples share the dance floor with kids playing, while families munch on BBQ on picnic tables lining the back of the building.
On a recent day, the afternoon band – Small Town Habit – was more than adequate, playing a mix of original and covers of Steve Earle and Dixie Chicks songs. But much of the crowd seemed to be there for the overall experience, more than the band.
Cost: Afternoon shows are typically free (the band plays for tips). Evening show tickets vary by artist.
Walking through the screen doors at Gruene Hall is like stepping through a time portal. It’s the oldest dance hall in Texas – established in 1878 – and it shows. The front bar (cash only) is filled with ancient black-and-white publicity shots of past performers like Merle Haggard, Bruce Robison, and a baby-faced Lyle Lovett.
In the music hall, the warped gray tables look as if they’ve been there since day one; so many people have carved their names into the wood, they’ve almost worn holes through them. Advertising signs from the 1940s and 50s ring the dance floor. On warm summer nights, the gigantic windows are open to let in the breeze but covered by chicken wire to keep out folks who don’t want to pay the cover charge. The House of Blues pays designers big dollars for the kind of ambiance that Gruene Hall has acquired organically over the years.
Cost: Afternoon shows are free (but again, the band plays for tips). Evening show tickets prices vary.
John T. Floore’s Country Store
Despite the outside sign’s promise of Willie Nelson playing every Saturday night, the Redheaded Stranger isn’t often on the bill at John T. Floore’s Country Store. Instead, sold-out houses show up to see bands like the Turnpike Troubadours, one of the hottest country-tinged rock bands on the scene today.
Opened in 1942, Floore’s Country Store has two stage areas, an 800-person capacity space inside and an absolutely massive 4,000-person amphitheater outdoors. (Spring for VIP tickets if you want personal space during an outdoor show; it’s damn near impossible to move during a sold-out performance.) Of all these venues, it probably does the best job of remembering the past while appealing to current trends. Robert Earl Keen recorded ‘No. 2 Live Dinner’ here in 1995.
Cost: Ticket prices vary.
The Continental Club
Surprisingly small for a venue of its stature, the Continental Club is one of the last bastions of old-school Austin. It’s got a bit of a dive-bar vibe – faded paintings on the wall next to banners for Jameson Irish Whiskey, regulars sipping on Lone Stars. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Ely played the club regularly back in the 1970s and early 80s, before it briefly transitioned into a punk rock club. Since 1987, it’s been the place for influential Americana musicians to play low-key shows whenever they’re in town.
“You came to the right place for a good time and good music,” says Earl Poole Ball, the former piano player for Johnny Cash and current keyboardist for Haybale. The country-music supergroup plays the Continental Club every Sunday evening at 6pm. Haybale might look as if all your friends’ dads formed a garage band, but Ball, Dallas Wayne, Redd Volkaert, Tom Lewis and the other musicians have all played with many of the top recording artists in history. We’re talking Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and more. The band brings in a steady flow of regulars, so be sure to get there early to nab a good spot.
Make it happen: Cover varies.
Bonus experience: Dale Watson’s Chicken Shit Bingo
Yes, Chicken Shit Bingo is a Sunday tradition for local country-music lovers, and a pretty popular one at that. A chicken coop with a grid of numbers on the floor is wheeled into the venue and numbered tickets sold. A well-fed chicken paces the cage until it, well, ‘chooses’ the winning number. Because a watched chicken never poops – that would be pretty boring anyway – a live band performs for the crowd.
Legendary local crooner Dale Watson was one of the founders of Chicken Shit Bingo back in 2000 at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. You can still play Chicken Shit Bingo at the Little Longhorn every Sunday, but a competing version occasionally hosted by Watson can be found at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul on the same day. No matter which one you choose, be sure to line up for your number early, because they do sell out.
Cost: Free. Bingo tickets are $2 apiece.
Make the Hill Country happen
Austin is an ideal home base for a Hill Country adventure; the longest drive is only about 90 minutes away. For another kind of iconic local venue, check out Austin's Paramount Theatre, an old vaudevillian house that has staged everything from splashy Broadway shows to stand-up comics to classic film screenings. For a unique natural experience, the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area's pink granite dome heats up during the day and cools off at night, making a crackling noise. Finally, for history buffs, there's the LBJ Ranch – A park dedicated to Lyndon Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. The centerpiece of the park is the ranch house where LBJ and his wife Lady Bird lived, and where he spent so much time during his presidency that it became known as the 'Texas White House.'
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