The Story of Gruene Hall – Pt. 2

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the pictures on the wall at Gruene Hall, they represent many thousand concerts. Have you ever wondered who started putting pictures on those walls? That person is Nanette Sullivan, the General Manager of the hall. She was one of the first employees hired by Pat Molak after he purchased the hall, and like Pat, she was there at the start and has witnessed four decades of history. Last month I told the story of how Gruene Hall was saved from the wrecking ball and now it’s time to tell the story of how it became one of the most important music venues in America. I sat down with Nanette at one of the old tables in the front room and let her tell her story.

When I asked about all the signed photos, Nanette pointed to the wall close to the office entrance. “I started putting pictures up on that wall,” she explained. “We would get promo 8 X 10 photos in press kits when artists played here. I started getting them autographed and hung them on this wall. Before long they were covering more walls and it just took off from there.” One of her favorites is a picture she took when Townes Van Zandt first played there. “He was leaving in his truck so I grabbed my camera and went outside. He rolled down his window and smiled at me.” She has one in her office of Keb Mo sitting on the stage, another of her favorites that she took. In the early days the hall closed from mid-December to mid-February. By the mid-90’s they started staying open year round and were booking more big name acts.

This is the decade that Gruene Hall started earning its reputation as an important venue in the music business. Obviously, Texas artists like Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen, Gary P. Nunn and Asleep at the Wheel played there. But the thing that set the hall apart from other venues were the acts like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, George Thorogood, Greg Allman and Buddy Guy. They always booked a wide variety of music, from the blues to country, pop, rock and everything in between. I once witnessed Hank Williams III play a set of traditional country music then cut loose on a loud set of punk rock. They’ve never been afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to music and America took notice.

Naturally Nanette had thousands of stories to tell, like the day local boy Hal Ketchum came back to Gruene to show off his new tour bus. When Leon Russell first walked in the side door, all decked out in black with his white hair and beard flowing in the breeze. Nanette snapped his photo as he gazed across the dance floor at the stage. During soundcheck at his first show at the hall, John Hiatt yelled Yee-Haw into the mic, acknowledging the country vibe he was feeling. When Jerry Lee Lewis landed his private jet at the New Braunfels Airport, they arranged for Two Tons of Steel singer Kevin Geil to pick him up in a vintage Cadillac. Of course the flood benefit Willie Nelson played in 1998 was a major event. She was there when young acts like Clint Black, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks took the stage. When Levon Helm brought his band to the hall, she realized history was being made that night. Other shows that really stood out were Keb Mo, Chris Isaac, John Prine, Raul Malo, Aaron Neville, Taj Mahal, and the Texas Tornados. She has fond personal memories of George Strait being very professional, Lyle Lovett being a very kind and gentle man, of Robert Earl Keen’s funny stories, of Loretta Lynn being one of the sweetest people she’s ever met.

I asked her if any young acts have made an impression on her. Charlie Crockett and Jamestown Revival were the first two she mentioned. “After 45 years so much of this is one big blur. When I start looking at my music collection, I think…oh wow…lucky me…I got to see, hear and meet most of these musicians I have always admired.  It’s been a good ride.” Indeed it has and Gruene Hall continues to push the boundaries by bringing world class acts to our city. Just one more reason New Braunfels is recognized as a major music city in America.

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