Western Swing: December 2010 Archives

UPDATE: More info on the Tommy Duncan gala and the special guests on Billy Mata's schedule page -- scroll down to January 15 for all the details.

The life and music of legendary western swing vocalist Tommy Duncan will be celebrated in his hometown of Whitney, Texas, with an all-day festival on the centennial of his birth this coming January 15. Whitney is southwest of Fort Worth, about 10 miles west of the southern junction of I-35 W and I-35 E at Hillsboro. It's a bit over 300 miles from Tulsa.

Events will begin with a parade at 11:30 a.m. in downtown Whitney, to be followed by a classic car show.

At 4:30 p.m., the doors will open for the Cowboy Formal Dinner-Dance at The Forum, where Tommy Duncan used to play. The dance will feature Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition with "very special guests," according to the flyer.

There will be a raffle for a custom pair of commemorative boots, and you can "visit the Texas Mint to see the future location of the Tommy Duncan and Western Swing Museum, Tommy Duncan Mural, and Tribute Walk." You can also sponsor a brick in the Tribute Walk.

Seating at The Forum is limited. Some overnight accommodation is available.

For tickets, more information, or to sponsor the event, contact:

Pam Townley, Project Director
254-694-0888 or 817-456-4601

I spoke to Billy Mata during a break in the Texas Tradition's performance at the newly restored Sisterdale Dance Hall. He had sung "Misery" in the previous set; I was struck by how much he sounded like Tommy Duncan on that tune and told him so. (In particular, his smooth baritone reminds me of Duncan's voice at its mellow peak in the late '40s.)

Mata told me about his efforts to give Tommy Duncan his due; people know Bob Wills's music, but often they don't know anything about the man singing the song. Duncan was with Wills from their days together as Light Crust Doughboys in the early '30s until they parted ways in the late '40s, and neither Wills nor Duncan did as well without the other. Although they reunited in 1959, it was too late -- rock-and-roll was ascendant and western swing was in decline. Duncan died in 1967, too young and too soon to enjoy the western swing resurgence of the 1970s, led by the Original Texas Playboys and Asleep at the Wheel.

I mentioned that I'm from Tulsa; Billy and his band have played Cain's Ballroom as part of the annual Bob Wills Birthday celebration. I told him that was the second dance hall I'd visited during my sojourn in San Antonio (I'd heard Jody Nix at Anhalt Halle a few weeks earlier) and had found out about this dance from a Texas dance hall calendar on the web. There are an impressive number of dance halls, particularly in the Hill Country, that hold at least monthly events, and a large number of bands that travel the circuit, but I'm not aware of anything like that in Oklahoma.

Mata said there's a strong dance hall preservation movement in Texas. Texas takes a lot of pride in its history and traditions, and he mentioned San Antonio's successful preservation of historic buildings as an example. He'd like to see the dance hall movement spread north into Oklahoma. Those country dance halls used to exist in Oklahoma -- my grandpa danced to the Texas Playboys at Glenoak, Oklahoma, back in the 1930s -- but I don't know how many are still up and running or even standing.

At the dance, I picked up the first disc in a planned three-volume tribute by Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition: This is Tommy Duncan: Volume 1, covering his early years with Bob Wills. It's a great album, and, in addition to Billy singing 16 Tommy Duncan tunes, the album features playing and reminiscences from Tommy's former bandmates Johnny Gimble and Herb Remington. When Herb joined the Texas Playboys in 1946, he was assigned to room with Tommy on the road, and he has some funny stories to tell.

Here's Tommy Duncan singing "Home in San Antone," from the western film Lawless Empire.

MORE about Sisterdale Dance Hall, recently restored and reopened to the public by attorney Wayne Wright and his family:

Boerne Star, March 3, 2010:

"All of us owe a commitment to future generations to preserve our Texas culture and heritage. Our historical buildings are an integral part of that culture and heritage," he said. "Our family feels fortunate that we can play our small part in this instance to further the Texas Dance Hall Preservation movement. Our family are only caretakers for the Sisterdale Dance Hall. The real owners are the future generations who live the Sisterdale area."

The dance hall was built by the German settlers of Sisterdale in the late 1880s as an Opry House and Dance Hall. Vereins of that period were often used for community meeting places, post offices and places for socializing and most certainly music and dance. The Wrights want to revive that tradition for future generations.

Also, on the property is a stone, fort-like structure with gun ports thought to have been used to protect its occupants from Comanche Indian attacks. The original ranch house and some of its furnishing are in very good condition and had been in use by the previous owner. There are several other buildings on the site that will be researched and considered for use.

Houston Chronicle, May 8, 2010

"If we lose our dance halls, we've lost a major treasure -- like losing our missions," Wright said...

His commitment to preservation goes back to his upbringing on a North Dakota farm. Sisterdale's beauty also has taken a hold on Wright since he's purchased ranches in the area over the years.

"I think it's the prettiest part of the Hill Country," Wright said. "The trees are a little greener. The water is a little fresher. There's nothing like it."

His interest in the state's dance hall preservation movement has intensified his determination to make an impact.

"We'll set up a preservation trust to maintain it in perpetuity. That's the goal," Wright said. "Maybe we can establish a precedent with this."

He believes the Sisterdale Dancehall was constructed between 1884 and 1890 and may have been used as an opera house by German intellectuals who immigrated to the Hill Country several decades earlier.

During a recent business trip to San Antonio I had to stay over the weekend. Making the best of it, I looked around for some good live music. Texas, particularly the part settled by central European immigrants (Germans, Czechs, Poles, Alsatians, etc.), has an impressive number of dance halls, some in town and some in the middle of nowhere. You may have heard of Austin's Broken Spoke or the dance hall at Luckenbach, but there are dozens more that hold dances every month or so.

I found out that Jody Nix and His Texas Cowboys would be performing at Anhalt Hall, north of San Antonio and in between Boerne and New Braunfels. The dance hall at Anhalt has been around over 100 years, and it belongs to what may be the oldest farmers' co-op in Texas, the Germania Farmer Verein.

Jody Nix is a singer and a southpaw fiddler. He sang several numbers and played drums on Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: For the Last Time, the Playboys' final 1973 recording session under Bob Wills's leadership. (Jody's dad, bandleader Hoyle Nix, played fiddle and was substitute hollerer on that session.) Over the four-hour dance, Jody took a lot of requests, and it seemed that every second or third song was a Bob Wills tune, ranging from traditional fiddle tunes like "Ida Red" to New Orleans jazz tunes like "Four or Five Times."

Next to the big dance floor there were long picnic tables where the regulars set up camp, bringing in snacks and hard liquor (the bar had beer and setups). Smoking was restricted to outside. Another concession stand offered sausage wraps (smoked sausage in a tortilla), chips, candy bars, and soft drinks. Signs warned "POSITIVELY NO DRINKING IN HALL" and "NOTICE: INDECENT-UNCOMMONLY DANCING IN THIS HALL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED -- THE VEREIN." Another sign banned blue jeans, which nearly everyone was wearing.

It was a fun evening. The only downside: I didn't dance. I seemed to be the only person there on my own. That meant I had no dance partner, and I thought it'd be rude to try to horn in on a group or a family. In hindsight, I might have mentioned to the ticket taker or the bartender that I was from out of town, and that might have gotten me introduced around to some folks.

If you're way down Texas way on a Saturday night, find yourself a dance hall and treat yourself to some traditional country, western swing, rockabilly, tejano, red dirt, polka music or some combination of the aforementioned. Here are some helpful Texas dance hall websites:

Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc.: Includes a calendar of upcoming dances with links to dance hall and performer websites.

A long list of dance halls with photos and historical information at honkytonktx.com

An article about dance halls on the Texas Hill Country Trail website, featuring dance halls at Anhalt, Kendalia, Gruene, and Luckenbach.

And here's the song by Asleep at the Wheel that inspired this entry's title:

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Western Swing category from December 2010.

Western Swing: November 2010 is the previous archive.

Western Swing: January 2011 is the next archive.

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