Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Storyteller Visits Gruene Hall

All the Federales say they could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away out of kindness, I suppose.
“Pancho and Lefty,” by Townes Van Zandt

GRUENE, TEXAS — The power of story told in song resonates with many of us. We can recall song lyrics learned three decades or more ago — while forgetting the name of a co-worker one happens along at the grocery store, or where you laid the car keys.

Most of us can only regurgitate the chorus of memorable songs without the prompting of actually hearing it played. Somehow, though, if a song is playing on the radio, or being sung in Gruene Hall, the words return to even the most involved of songs — those that deliver a narrative, as does “Pancho and Lefty.”

That’s why an overflowing crowd at Texas’ oldest dance hall stood and sang the chorus to “Pancho and Lefty” at noted troubadour and writer Rodney Crowell’s direction, as he sang the stanzas in his final encore. Van Zandt’s song, first recorded in 1972, tells the tale of a Mexican bandit who is betrayed by his sidekick Lefty and killed. Lefty manages to escape into the United States and live out his life quietly in Ohio, though possibly with a guilty conscience.

A few folks there might not have known the chorus, but darned few. Crowell encouraged the crowd to sing and remained silent, praising the increasing volume of each rendition. It was a sweet ending to a memorable night of storytelling, both in song and prose, by the 60-year-old southeast Texas native.

Crowell is not famous, not in the pop-radio way of younger stars like Keith Urban or Alan Jackson. He has written many songs that others have made famous — “Shame on the Moon,” a hit for Bob Seger; “Til I Gain Control Again,” which topped the charts of Crystal Gayle, to mention two. In the late 1980s he posted five straight No. 1 singles and was widely known for his marriage to Rosanne Cash, the Man in Black’s talented daughter. Since then Crowell has had a respectable if unspectacular career, if measured by records sold. By any other measure, he is one of America’s songwriting icons, as he proved Saturday night.

Gruene Hall was built by town founder A.D. Gruene in 1878 and has only modestly changed since. The dance hall is legendary for its raucous concerts, dusty ceiling fans vaguely stirring the air as boots scoot on a battered wooden floor. There is no air-conditioning. The ceiling fans are woefully inadequate, leaving patrons at the mercy of whatever breeze wafts in from the Comal River through the screened windows. I have ineptly danced here to some fine bands, usually holding on to a longneck beer to give me balance.

This night folks sat in folding chairs on the dance floor, crowded into the benches and tables further back — or they made do with standing. Up on stage perched a table lamp like you would see in someone’s living room, sitting on a tall end table. Tonight, Rodney Crowell would perform solo, playing one of two acoustic guitars, and read from his just-published memoir of growing up in Jacinto City. It’s called “Chinaberry Sidewalks.” He had to wear sunglasses when reading because of the spotlight’s glare.

Since Gruene Hall has been around since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, it is possible this is not the first time someone has conducted a book reading there interspersed with belting songs, while the hall’s patrons sat quietly with none of the usual back-channel chatter and beer-bottle clinking of most concerts — even of the sit-down variety. But it probably hasn’t happened often. Several hundred folks listened as Crowell told of his parent’s legendary fights, one of which sent them both to the emergency room; of stupidly following the mosquito-fogging truck on his bicycle, a memory we East Texas transplants share; of being smitten in sixth grade with the beautiful girl who ignored him — and the disastrous results that followed when he crashed his bicycle into the rear panel of a teacher’s prized vintage vehicle.

Then Crowell, a skinny guy with curly gray locks and a face sporting some mileage, would sing a few songs, weaving together a narrative of his childhood, of loves won and lost, of battling personal demons — performed deftly with wit and grace. Two hours later, the journey ended. Crowell sauntered through the crowd, shaking hands and smiling. He was headed to the table set up by Book People to sign copies of his books in a corner near the bar.

A book-signing in Greune Hall. Wonder when that last occurred? And who was president?

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 3, 2011.


  1. Oh, I love Gruene Hall. I hope you stopped by The Grist Mill while you were there.

  2. Absolutely, Mere. Wouldn't miss it.
    Love, Dad

  3. Hello, Gary. Welcome home. I still remember your presentation to our Nacogdoches Colloquium on the First Amendment. I liked your comment then and now: "The First Amendment is messy."

    Max Morley, Denton, TX

  4. Thanks, Max. It is certainly great to be back in Texas, even if the weather feels like I'm still in Kansas. I know it won't last long.