The Georges frontman Jason George spent nights taking in music at Gruene Hall long before he started playing there.
"It was my first love, rockabilly, old rock and roll, and this place was kind of the standard, Gruene Hall," George said. "They gave us a shot back in 2010 and we’ve been here ever since."
Gruene Hall has an international reputation- and on any given night, patrons will include neighbors who live a block from the dance hall and tourists from Australia, England, Ireland or Spain.
"On any given night, I’ll say- people out of town? There’ll be people cheering. And I’ll say out of country? And you’ll have 25% to more people," George said. "Playing at Gruene Hall is like going on tour- and you don’t have to go anywhere."
The Georges had their first performance at Gruene Hall in October 2010, and have since become a staple several Wednesday nights each month.
"We were nervous because we’d been playing for years and years and years and they finally gave us a shot," George said. "It was awesome because the minute we started we had a good crowd."
Gruene Hall, which bills itself as Texas' "oldest continually operating and most famous dance hall," has a reputation for hosting high-quality live music from both new artists and global headliners. But while it's grown in popularity and recognition, George says it's still the same gem he remembers dancing at years ago.
"This place hasn’t changed much," George said with a laugh. "The only change we’ve seen is the variety of people we attract. It’s stepping back in time. Gruene is its own little vortex. Kids that used to come see us almost 9 years ago and some have come to college and some will say, we got married and we were at your show, that was our first dance. So that’s always a treat."
That consistency and simplicity have kept the focus on the music and made it the kind of place where musicians can engage with the audience and see where each note takes them.
"We’ll come in with an idea of how it’s gonna go and it develops as it goes along," George said. "A lot of songs, started playing them from the beginning now, end up into a completely different animal because we have this here at the hall."
Gruene Hall manager Shane Roch has worked at the venue for decades.
"I think the thing that makes Gruene Hall, Gruene Hall is it’s a down-home place," Roch said. "There’s no airs being put on here, everything is true to form, you come in here, you know you’re getting a great place to see a show."
He's seen artists go from giving free shows to gaining national and international recognition. He's seen a community form among regulars who love the venue. And he's seen a lot of shows along the way-- but he says working inside the hall is still special.
"I love that every day I come in here and I will experience something I’ve never seen before- even if it’s a band that plays the same songs every time I come here- I’ll see the audience react and maybe they’ll notice something I never saw before," Roch said.
Gruene Hall is one of the most well-known dance halls in the Hill Country. But others hold as much history and offer a similar sense of community- with their own personality. One of those is Twin Sisters Dance Hall south of Blanco.
Twin Sisters Dance Hall began as a dance hall and community center, with a bowling alley nearby.
"The hall was built for community," said Twin Sisters Dance Hall President Jo Nell Haas. "It wasn't really a dance hall, it was a community center, and you used it for anything. It was the heart of the Twin Sisters area."
It became a place where people- including Haas- met their future spouses and began families. Years later, children in those families spent time at the hall, sleeping under benches on pallets and making memories of their own. But with time, more distractions reduced the crowds, and Twin Sisters' future became uncertain.
"There's more soccer, there's more football, there's more baseball, people get around to bigger towns now, and so the dance halls became a dying breed for a while," Haas said. "It was a struggle- it has been a struggle to keep the doors open."
But people who loved Twin Sisters refused to see it close. They formed a non-profit, held fund-raisers and applied for grants to keep it open.
"To think about all the people who have dedicated their lives, over the years, to keep these doors open, and never close," Haas said ."It's amazing."
And now, Haas said, they're seeing the crowds return- as more people crave the connection they can find inside a place like Twin Sisters.
"That's what we're seeing more of," Haas said. "People want those roots. They want that place that's familiar, that they can step back in time, get away from those cell phones, and computers, and breathe."
Jon Pardi recently filmed a music video inside Twin Sisters, and with the help of social media, volunteers are pulling more people through the doors. But Haas says what keeps people coming back is more visceral than that.
"In the 1800s, the dance hall was the heart of the community. This was where everyone came. Nowadays, we have so many ways and places to connect- so why is this different? I think it's because you walk in here and it's magical. You walk back into time. And I think you felt that when you walked in."