At the very, very end of April I put up a piece in "Idyllopus Across the RR Tracks" about what Willie's road caterer served Willie Nelson's band April 28th, the night they played at The Tabernacle here in Atlanta ("Willie nelson says there's no substitute for bacon"). Beth got in touch with me and said she used to go see the Willie Nelson band when she was in school. That the band wore blue iridescent suits and between sets she'd go up to the stage with her boyfriend to talk to them.
Blue iridescent suits!! I knew what I was envisioning was off mark, that I was probably thinking late 50's, early 60's instead of late 60's. That's partly because Country-Western belongs to a completely different world from the one I've inhabited. And Texas itself is a whole 'nother universe. But I also knew that at least a part of my vision would be on target, and that's what caught me. A dance hall. The band hauls itself in and sets up and this dance hall is intimate enough where you simply go up and talk to the band between sets. Not a concert hall. Not a "sit and listen to me" show. A DANCE hall! A different brand of performing. One thing to play to listeners, another thing for a band to measure the music out in sets geared for dancing people, a couple of fast songs and then a slow one. If you've got them up on their feet, how to keep them there. How to pace them so they don't get exhausted. Yes, Willie Nelson, the dance band, dolled up in blue iridescent suits, playing to a crowd of people who know themselves to be just as much a part of the show as the band because they're performing for each other in their seats, out on dates, performing for each other up on the dance floor, and the band is the glue that makes it work or not, makes a good stage for the acting audience. What a picture.
URLYBIRD: You used to see the Willie Nelson band when you were in college? Where were you in college and when?
BETH: Actually, I was in high school. My boyfriend was in college. It was at a dance hall called Panther Hall in Ft. Worth, 1967-69.
URLYBIRD: Panther Hall, what a name for a dance hall!
BETH: Weird, huh?
URLYBIRD: Do you have any idea why it was called that?
BETH: No. It was there a long time, well known, you may be able to find something on the net about it. A very big place.
URLYBIRD: What types of bands would play on the weekends?
BETH: It was pretty much all Country.
URLYBIRD: Do you remember some of the others? Any other famous ones?
BETH: Here's a side note. Even though pop top beers came out during this time, the waitresses or bartenders could open them quicker with a can opener, so the beers were served to you upside down, opened on the bottom.
URLYBIRD: Oh, that's great.
I've never heard of Panther Hall, but I'm thinking so this must be a huge place, packed with people, if the waitresses are resorting to punching holes in the bottoms of the cans. They're packing their trays full and punch, punch, punch, prepping the cans, racing out onto the floor with them, skirting in and out of customers, throwing the beers out on the tables, people calling to them from here and there that they need more, more, and back to the bar the waitresses go to fill up their trays again.
URLYBIRD: How large was this place? You were saying it was large? It must have been packed with people.
BETH: Yes, it was large and packed. How can I describe large?
URLYBIRD: Around how many people would it hold?
Immediately, I know before Beth answers that numbers are the wrong way to estimate how large this place is. What we need is something to compare it to.
BETH: I'm not good at this. I'd say 200.
URLYBIRD: OK, compare it to let's say the size of a school gym.
BETH: It was larger. Maybe 2 gyms.
URLYBIRD: Were there tables and a dance floor?
Of course there's a dance floor and tables all around! I know that. I was trying to get the scene in my mind and didn't quite get it out into chat type. Were the tables long and rectangular like school cafeteria tables which you have at some such places, so it's a rather forced communal seating situation? Were they small circular or square tables large enough for one, two, maybe four people to scrunch around? I could be wrong but I'm betting they were long, rectangular, packed full with beer cans. Or maybe they were big and circular and packed with beer cans?
BETH: The dance floor was one gym.
URLYBIRD: That is huge!
BETH: The stage was at the west end of the building and the dance floor in front of the stage. Then the tables all around that.
Hmmm, so were the waitresses dressed up in fancy Western uniforms?
URLYBIRD: Did the waitresses wear uniforms?
BETH: I don't remember whether they wore uniforms or not.
Never heard of Panther Hall? Over on Eric's site they have a letter from someone who used to go to Panther Hall, who was himself from Denton County, Texas, 30 miles north of Ft. Worth. Seems that in the 50's and 60's the Country music shows at Panther Hall used to be broadcast on Saturday nights on KTVT-TV, channel 11, Ft. Worth, on a show called "Cowtown Jamboree." A number of famous Country bands played there. So did Gentleman Jim Reeves, the Country singer, before his untimely death in a small plane crash in 1964.
Richard Kienzle, in his liner notes for Rhino's "Willie Nelson: The Classic, Unreleased Collection", mentions that for a few years in the mid 60's Willie Nelson went on the road without a band, taking along only the bass player, Wade Ray, and picking up other musicians in the towns in which they played. Adding drummer, Johnny Bush, they recorded a live LP for RCA at Fort Worth's Panther Hall. Then after Bush left to pursue his own singing career, drummer Paul English joined on in 1967 (he still plays with Willie), as did Jimmy Day. Kienzle writes that Texas was the one part of the country where Nelson's popularity was "beyond question", English recollecting that Willie Nelson would sell out Panther Hall when he couldn't sell 5,000 records in the entire nation.
URLYBIRD: What would you wear going out with your beau?
BETH: I wore Wrangler brand western jeans. At that time they would be printed like houndstooth checks. And I wore Western boots and Western shirts. A belt with my name on the back.
Wrangler jeans in a houndstooth check! Western shirts! In 1962, Newsweek coined the word "teenager", showing on its cover a girl dressed in Wrangler jeans.
URLYBIRD: Wow. Tooled leather belt, huh? Silver buckle?
BETH: Tooled. I still have that same belt but don't wear it. Yes, a silver and gold buckle with a bull rider on it.
URLYBIRD: That sounds great! How would your hair be done? I'm trying to get a picture here.
BETH: My hair was very short, cut over the ears, poofy on top.
I hadn't expected this. But the short pouffed look was a big style back then. I remember it well. It was in 1967 that my mother had her hair cut off in this style, and then took me to the beauty parlor and told me I was getting my hair cut but didn't tell me how short. It was waist length and I came out with the short poofy hairdo. I was ten years old and hated it.
URLYBIRD: Your boyfriend was dressed up in Western gear as well?
BETH: Yes, denim jeans, Justin brand boots, Western shirt, cowboy hat, cocked to the side.
URLYBIRD: Cocked to the side! What are Justin boots?
BETH: Justin is a brand. 100s of years old. The company is in Ft. Worth. High quality, high price.
Justin brand boots have been around since the mid 1879. Joe Justin is given credit for the first fancy stitching on the boot tops, done in the 30's when Dude Ranches were popular. While I was over at their website taking a look at how they make their boots (a long, involved process) I also signed up to win a pair of boots in some kind of drawing. Over at www.culturedcowboy.com I saw some Justin "non-exotic" lace-up boots that look great. Not what I picture when I think of cowboy boots, so I wonder exactly how the style came about. I wouldn't mind having a pair of those.
URLYBIRD: What kind of car would you ride over to Panther Hall in?
BETH: 1963 Chevrolet Super Sport. He called it the "Space Coupe."
URLYBIRD: Wonderful! Do you remember the color?
BETH: Oh, yeah. It was gold with a white vinyl top.
URLYBIRD: A gold car!
URLYBIRD: Would you listen to Country on the radio on the way?
BETH: We listened to the 8 track on the way. Good selection of Country tapes. But we also threw Johnny Rivers in with the country.
Country-Western mixed with "Secret Agent Man." What else would go along with the date? Maybe they would stop and get something to eat, fill up their stomachs before heading over to Panther Hall. Yeah, dining out is a dating ritual. Not only that, but you've got to pack up on the energy for a full night's dancing.
URLYBIRD: Would you stop and get something to eat first?
BETH: We often went to Red Lobster. Loved the butterfly shrimp. But sometimes we went to Smoky Bryan's BarBQ.
URLYBIRD: You were a junior or senior in high school?
BETH: Yes, both those years were when we were going.
URLYBIRD: So, you've eaten your barbq or butterly shrimp and you arrive at the dance hall around what time?
BETH: 9 or 10.
URLYBIRD: How late would you stay?
BETH: Until they closed. Probably 2 am.
URLYBIRD: How often did the Willie Nelson band play?
BETH: I would say at least once a month.
URLYBIRD: One of the more popular acts?
URLYBIRD: What would they play? What were some of the favorites?
BETH: Turn out the lights the party's over. Hello walls. Oh, gosh. Let me think a minute. This is awful. I can't remember any more songs. There were so many and I can't even remember them now.
URLYBIRD: That's all right. What did the band wear?
BETH: Blue iridescent suits, white shirts, skinny black ties.
URLYBIRD: Regular shoes? Boots?
URLYBIRD: Was this different or was it how other bands also dressed?
BETH: It wasn't strange or anything, but most of the country bands wore jeans so they were a little more, uh, classy?
URLYBIRD: Yeah, snazzy.
No, Urlybird, totally wrong. Classy is the word. What did I mean, saying something like "snazzy." Snazzy was the Western gear, the tooled belts, the cowboy boots, those one or two pairs of high-polish Wrangler jeans saved just for those nights out. That was dressed to the max!
URLYBIRD: What did Wille Nelson look like at the time?
BETH: Much the same in the face with less lines, bright eyes, always smiling, but very short hair, no beard or mustache.
URLYBIRD: And you'd approach the band between sets and talk to them?
BETH: This is the memory of a teenager who was always drinking, OK?
URLYBIRD: I understand.
BETH: Yes, we talked to them. Got his autograph on a napkin once early on.
URLYBIRD: Do you still have the autograph?
BETH: My boyfriend's name was Rabbit, so he asked Willie to sign it "To Rabbit."
URLYBIRD: I like that. That's good.
BETH: Several months later when we approached the stage, Willie said, "Hello, Rabbit."
URLYBIRD: Good memory.
BETH: Rabbit still has it.
URLYBIRD: You still know Rabbit?
BETH: He was my husband for 25 years and the father of my children.
URLYBIRD: Ah!! Ok. Do you recall any of the things you talked with the band about?
BETH: Probably mostly music, the songs we liked. Oh, here's something! Charlie Pride was real popular then, and one night when Willie was playing, Charlie just showed up and came on stage, sang a few songs with Willie and then when he left the stage everyone booed Willie and was yelling for Charlie to come back.
Booing Willie Nelson! Didn't the band feel good after that?
URLYBIRD: Did he come back on stage?
URLYBIRD: They booed Willie?
BETH: Hard to imagine now. Yeah, they were yelling, "Get Charlie back!"
URLYBIRD: Was the entire band approachable between sets? Or some more so than others? Do you remember?
BETH: It seems like it was the entire band. In terms of different bands, I remember Willie being more approachable than other bands. Waylon wasn't very approachable. He was always f*ed up. Probably drugs. One time there was a woman who kept hanging out at the stage and yelling how she loved him. Finally, he stopped singing and looked at her and said, "Shut up, Bitch!"
I would imagine that on many stages there was a woman hanging onto the side, yelling how much she loved Waylon. Often goes with the territory and a smidgen too much imbibed.
BETH: None of my friends liked Country music. It was odd for people our age to go there. We usually went alone and then met people there, older people, and sat with them.
URLYBIRD: How come you and Rabbit ended up going there? Was he a Country music fan?
BETH: We both were.
URLYBIRD: Then Panther hall was something more oriented towards people in their twenties, thirties?
BETH: I'd say thirty to fifty.
URLYBIRD: And they never carded you? Did they never card anyone???
BETH: Not that I remember. It seems like if you behaved yourself they just let you drink. Oh!
URLYBIRD: Oh, what?
BETH: That was unusual about Panther Hall. No fights.
URLYBIRD: No fights? So fights were popular elsewhere??
BETH: In that type of club. Country. Lots of working class, lots of drinking. Yeah, the other places we went had lots of fights.
URLYBIRD: You had a circuit of places you'd go to?
BETH: Not really, but if someone was playing somewhere or if we couldn't afford to go to Ft. Worth, we'd go other places.
URLYBIRD: Where did you live? How far from Ft. Worth?
BETH: I lived in Dallas, thirty miles from Ft. Worth. Rabbit lived in Denton, about twenty-five miles from Dallas.
URLYBIRD: Around a sixty minute drive for him, from Denton, to Dallas, to Fort Worth.
URLYBIRD: Can you tell me something about your most memorable evening? Your most memorable night at Panther Hall?
BETH: Sure. Charlie Pride was playing. It was a big night, the place was packed. We had a large group of people we were sitting with. Everyone was dancing a lot. All the guys dancing with all the girls. I loved that because Rabbit wasn't a really good dancer, so I got to do all the dances I like with different guys.
URLYBIRD: I don't know anything about Country dancing.
BETH: I got to waltz, Cotton-eyed Joe, line dances. It was great fun. But Rabbit drank more than usual. He was asking the waitress something and she was real busy and kept ignoring him. He was usually very well-behaved but he got upset because she wouldn't answer him, and he stood up on top of our table and was screaming at her. It scared me real bad. I thought we were going to get arrested.
URLYBIRD: How did it end up?
BETH: The waitress came over there laughing and kind of kidded with him until he calmed down. But, after we left, on our way home, the car died and he got real mad and kicked a huge dent in the door of the Space Coupe.
URLYBIRD: Oh no! The gold Space Couple...I mean Coupe!
BETH: Yes. The spacy couple in the Space Coupe!
Interview conducted May 2, 2000