NB Magazine – December

Shortly before noon on October 30, on-stage at historic Gruene Hall, a special proclamation was made by Senator Donna Campbell to New Braunfels Mayor Rusty Brockman. The award came from the Texas Music Office and it recognized New Braunfels as a Music Friendly Community. The local music fans felt like they have known this for years. Austin has the moniker of the live music capital of the world but folks in New Braunfels don’t always agree with that statement. Over the past several decades, our city has been growing in stature as a thriving live music community. If you have been following this series of stories about our city’s music scene, this is the final chapter about that history. Next month, we will look to the future and see what lies ahead.

The current music scene can be traced back to 1878 when German settler H.D. Gruene developed a track of land and built a dancehall. He called it Gruene’s Hall in the beginning, and it served as the entertainment center for the community. It remained open for the next 96 years but by 1974, Gruene was basically a ghost town. During this time, a young Pat Molak was in the market for a dancehall. He loved the music coming out of Austin and wanted to be a part of it. He had made an offer on Cibolo Creek Country Club but the deal fell through so he bought Gruene Hall in 1975. Along with his business partner Mary Jane Nalley, they made Gruene Hall one of the most popular live music venues in America.

Many amazing shows and spontaneous experiences have made Gruene Hall the place to be. Long time New Braunfels resident Bill Steagall just happened to be in the hall one day when Jerry Jeff Walker arrived with friend Willie Nelson. “Willie invited us to sit at the table with them,” Bill recalled. “Before long, a guitar appeared, and Jerry Jeff grabbed it and sang a few songs. Then Willie took the guitar and said he’d just recorded a new album and wanted to play some new songs. He played about six songs and they were great. We later learned they were songs from his upcoming Red Headed Stranger album.” Pat Molak agreed, adding that “It was pure luck or fate or whatever you want to call it, but I realize just how lucky we are that all of these pieces fell into place to make Gruene Hall what it is today.”

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place when KNBT-FM Radio owner and program director Mattson Rainer decided to change his stations format from modern country to Americana. He had attended a sold-out Robert Earl Keen show at Gruene Hall and quickly realized there was a market in our city for Americana music. He was right! On Saturday night, March 15, 1996 he debuted a new show on the air, Crossroads Americana, and he never looked back. Within five years it would be named the Number One Americana station in America. Now, the artists that performed at Gruene Hall had a local radio station that played their music.

As Americana music was gaining a stronghold in Central Texas, a group of musicians from Oklahoma were venturing south, looking for more places to play. Before long, acts like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, Stoney LaRue, and Mike McClure were playing at Gruene Hall, Cheatham Street Warehouse, River Road Icehouse and Floores Country Store. Over the next decade more venues like Riley’s Tavern, the Phoenix Saloon, Billy’s Ice and Freiheit Country Store started featuring live music. The Brauntex Theatre, a 1942 movie theatre, was renovated and turned into the only reserved seat, air-conditioned live music venue in town. In Canyon Lake, just ten miles away, the 9,000 seat Whitewater Amphitheater opened and started booking major touring acts like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young.

Naturally, these venues made music festivals the next step and New Braunfels became home to the Americana Jam, the Gruene Music & Wine Fest, Wein & Saengerfest and Wassailfest. Before long, a wave of musicians began moving to New Braunfels simply because of its music friendly population and the proximity to major Texas cities. Almost any of the factors mentioned above would be enough to give any city a healthy live music scene. Add them all together and you get New Braunfels, now recognized as one of the best live music cities in America. On any given night you can enjoy live music covering a wide variety of genres, from country to Americana to jazz, blues, and Motown. There truly is something here for everyone and its just another reason so many of us are proud to call New Braunfels our home.

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