Of Gruene Halls and Damn Quails Faded jeans, pearl snaps, and tall boots have given way to flip flops, cargo shorts, and too-small Rangers jerseys at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels. Texas’s oldest dancehall is a bustling tourist destination with bed and breakfasts and stucco housing developments strewn about the side of the Guadalupe. But there’s something about Gruene that manages to stay authentic. Perhaps it’s the lack of air-conditioning in early September or the fact that people can, and do, smoke inside. Or that they don’t accept credit cards and make change out of a derelict old cash register that I’m pretty sure doesn’t work, but still makes a fine cash drawer. Texas music in Gruene Hall isn’t dead either. While the sub-genre may have, ahem, struggled a bit through the 2000′s, the roots music revival that has swept the nation recently has collided beautifully with the legendary Oklahoma Red Dirt scene. Yes, there is life after Ragweed. The Damn Quails from Norman, are one such result of the musical marriage. TDQ played Gruene in a Labor Day double-header, playing consecutive four-hour sets on Saturday and Sunday. While I didn’t attend Saturday’s performance, they admitted Sunday’s would be nearly identical, but thanked the diehards all the same. I got the feeling that they were still quite tender from the previous night’s activities. Their sleepy, plodding start – playing each song in 3/4 time, was still fantastic with dual lead vocalists Byron White and Gabriel Marshall sounding better than their studio album… which was nice. I had come in wondering how a band with one album was going to play for 4 hours, sardonically remarking “I’ll be disappointed if they play covers.” They did, but I wasn’t. The set list was a mix of songs from their only album, tastefully selected covers, and unrecorded material that either hadn’t made it on the first album, or was slated for the second. They looked like the hillbilly Von Trapp Family Singers, with no less than six members on stage. Lead vocals and rhythm guitars were played by Marshall and White, with Luke Mullenix on electric bass, and Thomas Young on a simple drum kit. The star of the show was undoubtedly Biggie’s blazing piccolo-like harmonica that drew cheers from the crowd no fewer than a dozen times, reminding me of the scene from Amadeus where the king says “there are too many notes.” Adding to the experience was Biggie’s antics while not playing: grinning, dancing and singing along with the band even though he wasn’t part of the particular song. He even came equipped with a leather double harmonica bandolier that would have done Poncho Villa proud. After 45 minutes and as many Camels apiece, the band began to get their sea legs. After a spectacular cover of Don Williams’s Good ol’ boys like me, the band dove into the meat and potatoes with California open invitation, and Fool’s gold. They even paid tribute to The Dude with Dylan’s The man in me. The show was perfected by a disturbingly cold, surreal performance of Ice man with an unsettling fiddle intro to match, which momentarily silenced the crowd before an explosion of applause. By the final hour TDQ had recharged their batteries via the cheering, clapping and dancing audience. It was obvious they were feeding off of the crowd and the crowd off of them – the way it should be. I was nervous to see TDQ as I had feared they might let me down. They hadn’t, and inside the iconic Gruene Hall, with ancient (yet artfully restored) tin signs listing two digit phone numbers and people smoking cigarettes, I felt that rare feeling of comfort when thinking about the future of “country” music.
The Damn Quails are a young band that, with a handful of others, hopefully provide the fertile soil for the movement to growâ€Ś even if that soil is just red dirt.