Ahead of the release of his latest box set Strait Out of The Box Part 2 on Friday, November 18th, word came down that George Strait would be returning to his home state of Texas for an album release party with his Ace in the Hole Band, and take the show “back to the dusty floors and intimate setting of a historic Texas dancehall for a memorable night of music.” Where exactly the album release party would be remained a mystery and no tickets were sold, though the whole event would be streamed online thanks to the Wrangler Network.
A few places could have qualified for the “dusty floors and intimate setting” throughout Texas, including Floore’s Country Store north and west of San Antonio, or The Broken Spoke in Austin, or perhaps the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos—all of which were early haunts for Strait as he was starting his career. But if there is one place that is synonymous with George Strait and historic dance halls in Texas, it’s Gruene Hall just outside of New Braunfels.
If you’ve ever been to Gruene Hall, you can’t help but marvel at all of the history lining the walls in pictures of country music greats from the present and past who’ve played what is now Texas’s oldest continually operating dance hall (opened in 1878). It’s the cradle of country music in central Texas, and George Strait knows that more than anyone. His own picture all svelte and hungry from well before he was a country music legend is one of the centerpieces of Gruene Hall lore hanging on the wall, and it’s not unusual to see folks lined up to have their own picture taken beside it. Gruene Hall was also the background for the back cover of George Strait’s first record, Strait Country.
Strait played his first show at Gruene Hall on Saturday, February 21st, 1976—five years before releasing his first record, and only a few months removed from being honorably discharged from the Army. For his first gig, they charged $0.25 at the door, and according to Strait from the Gruene Hall stage Wednesday night, he made $7.00 total. Strait enrolled in Texas State University in San Marcos (then Southwest Texas State) to study agriculture after the Army, and answered a flyer from a country band called Stoney Ridge looking for a vocalist. Soon, Strait would rename the band Ace in the Hole, and Gruene Hall was their haunt.
On August 7th, 1981, George Strait began a residency at Gruene where he played once a month or so, ending the run with two consecutive shows on July 9th and 10th, 1982. At that time George Strait and Gruene Hall were one in the same for many of the country fans from the surrounding area. According to a roadie outside of Gruene Wednesday night, this was the smallest venue George Strait has officially played in over 30 years.
Gruene Hall is the type of venue that country artists get depressed they can’t play after their music careers get so big they just can’t acquiesce to the capacity. But now that George Strait is retired, he can do whatever he wants. And what he wanted to do Wednesday night was to bring his career full circle.
“I walked in here today after not being here for so so long, and it was exactly the same,” Strait said from the stage, and that’s the reason so many keep coming back to Gruene Hall.
The set was full of George Strait classics like “Amarillo By Morning,” “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” He also played newer songs such as “Cold Beer Conversation,” and his newest featured on the upcoming box set co-written with Jamey Johnson, “Kicked Outta Country” (more on that later).
Strait also paid tribute to Merle Haggard, who he spoke admirably about on stage before launching into “Mama Tried” and “Working Man Blues.” During the encore he also played “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Folsom Prison Blues” before ending with “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
There were multiple country music artists in attendance at the event, which limited capacity to only a few hundred people. Bruce Robison, Jon Pardi, Kyle Park, and others were there to see “King” George Strait, while crowds outside Gruene swelled into the hundreds as word spread Strait was back in town, listening to the nearly 2-hour set from outside, or streaming it on their phones. When Strait exited the building and walked outside, the crowd outside let out a roar, and flanked by security and state troopers, the entourage was lit by the glow of smartphones snapping pictures.
George Strait playing Gruene Hall wasn’t just a promotional event. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, and sensing this, the live stream made it an event hundreds of thousands could participate in, and apparently did. Preliminary streaming numbers put viewers around 500,000.
Whether you watched it online, stood outside, or one of the few precious souls who finagled your way inside, Wednesday, November 16th will go down as a historic moment in Gruene Hall history, for a venue already chock full of historical significance, not the least being the starting point for arguably the most successful artist in country music history.