Unknown Country band in Austin, 1948. Mears, Dewey G. [Band Playing at Square Dance], photograph, April 14, 1948; accessed December 17, 2020, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Western Swing in Austin, Part I: 1940-1950

Austin’s first Golden Age for Country music occurred during the 1940s. After years of relative marginalization, Western Swing and “Hillbilly” bands began to appear regularly in a handful of clubs during the early 1940s. By the end of the decade, a dynamic Country scene thrived on and just beyond the city limits. The music remained intensely local during its first decade, although it drew in new bands and musical talent from the small towns in Austin's orbit. After 1950, the scene's network broadened: some of its musicians became successful recording artists while clubs established strong connections to the emerging Country and Western music industry centers in Nashville and Shreveport.

TextMichael Schmidt
PublishedDecember 28, 2020

Austin’s live music scene in 1946 sounded quite different than it had before the start of the Second World War. During the previous few years, new music spots had popped up on its primitive highways all around the city. These new venues, most of them Honky Tonks, featured bands playing a relatively recent regional style: Western Swing. This was a big change for the area's night clubs. The Windmill and the Barn hired small electrified Country and Western bands, not the big dance and swing orchestras that had been so in demand in the city during the 1930s. Attracting different audiences than the older clubs, their dancers favored music and bands that weren't previously hired by places like the Avalon or the Tower.

Western Swing—one of the most lasting and unique cultural products of Depression-era Texas—did not find an early home in Austin. At first glance, this may be surprising. The capital city has not only been considered the musical nerve center of the state for decades, but it has also been closely identified with Western Swing since the style’s high profile local revival by Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow during the 1970s. Despite this later connection, modernist hillbilly bands and rural rhythm groups did not gain much traction in Austin during their earliest period of innovation.

This began to change during World War Two and its aftermath. Over the course of the 1940s, Western Swing (and Honky Tonk Country) rose to an unprecedented prominence in Austin. As local music historian Michael Corcoran has pointed out, Austin was “dominated by Western Swing bands like Jesse James and All the Boys , Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters , Doug and the Falstaff Swing Boys, Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs, and Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys” between 1945 and the rise of Rock and Roll in the mid-1950s.1

This shift had begun at the beginning of the 1940s. Western bands began to get a new foothold on the northern and southern outskirts of the city, as dance halls sprang up on the Dallas and San Antonio highways over the course of the decade.2 The new sound represented a new population of patrons in Austin: working class whites and G.I.s from the area’s new military installations.

Austin as Outlier

In fairly concise musical terms, Western Swing was a modernization of the fiddle band that had supplied so much of the dance and entertainment music of rural Texans during the 19th and early 20th centuries.3 In its first forms, Western Swing mixed together the contemporary crooning style of Bing Crosby and Rudy Valee; the pop song structures of Tin Pan Alley; the repetoire, timbre, and instrumentation of the country string band; and the rhythms, lead playing, and swing of African American jazz bands. Playing for big, noisy halls of rowdy crowds, Western Swing bands also electrified their music, bringing a type of rawness and modernism to a genre that had long been identified as “old time music.” It was a heady mix of the regional, national, and international, as the music's pioneers looked to the music they grew up with, Texas territory bands, Swing bands from New York, and the Hot Club du Paris (Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli) for inspiration.

When the genre now identified as Western Swing reached its early height in the mid- to late-1930s, its action centers were to the North, South, and East of Austin. Music historians typically identify Dallas-Fort Worth as the music's seat of innovation. The Light Crust Doughboys (featuring Bob Wills and Milton Brown) broadcast many of the first experiments in the genre on Fort Worth’s WBAP in the early 1930s. Shortly after, Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies created the music’s lasting model band, with twin fiddles and steel guitar, in DFW's dance halls. A host of other local groups sprout under their influence and, by the end of the decade, a frenetically active and booming scene in North Texas had coalesced around groups like the Wanderers, Roy Newman and his Boys, the Cowboy Ramblers, and Doug Bine and his Dixie Ramblers . Similarly, Houston and San Antonio had their own thriving local constellations of Western Swing groups: Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers, The Bar X Cowboys, The Tune Wranglers, Jimmie Revard and the Oklahoma Playboys, and Adolph Hofner and the Texans .

As these early Western Swing scenes quickly got off the ground, Austin was and largely remained a big band and “sweet” music town. This does not mean that Western bands and “Hillbilly” music was totally absent. Dessau Hall was the music’s first center in the area and probably the city’s earliest Western Swing group, Uncle Walt and his Rural Rhythm , played on local radio in the late 1930s. Despite this early presence, Uncle Walt and other similar groups remained marginal compared to the dance, jazz, and swing orchestras that catered to the university crowd(s).

Western Swing Finds a Home, 1940-1945

Beginning in 1941, modern Hillbilly and Rural Rhythm bands began to gain a foothold in the Texas capital. It was “The Barn” and “The Sunset Tavern ” that seem to have set in motion the slow but steady growth of the Western Swing presence around Austin. “The Barn,” opened in 1940, was 16 miles north on the Georgetown/Dallas Highway (now North Lamar). It was a re-christening of the “Cocklebur Barn ,” a venue that had hosted probable Western Swing groups like Lee Fariss and his Dixieland Band (with Uncle Walt on steel guitar) in 1938 and 1939.4 The Barn, and its predecessor, built on the regular dances at Dessau Hall by Uncle Walt's Rural Rhythm and the Radio Ranglers during the second half of the 1930s. Dessau was the true progenitor of the local Western Swing scene, but the addition of the Barn ultimately brought in both new acts and multiplied the weekly performances.

The new management at the Barn seemed to have initially wanted to steer their venue away from the city’s nascent Western Swing scene. During its first year, the rustic night club attempted to cultivate a Swing and dance band clientele, seeking to tap into what were still the most popular genres in the city. It hired bands that had been active in the local dance scene for years, like “Chet and his 5 Aces ,” and other non-university orchestras, like the otherwise undocumented groups of “Geo. Moody,” Leroy Turner, and Tom Dickey. It is quite possible that the Cocklebur Barn had failed to stay afloat with Fariss and Uncle Walt and the new owners assumed that only mainstream-styled orchestras could bring in patrons. Up to that point, Austin university students' taste was dance band-centric and the Barn may well have tried to conform to these audience expectations.

In mid-1941, however, the dance hall switched to almost exclusively Western groups, bringing in the Lonesome Cowboy and his Cowhands , Allen Thomas and his Blue Jackets , Boots and his Texas Melody Boys , and Adolph Hofner (from San Antonio) over the next few years. They also hired new editions of the pioneering bandleaders of the 1930s, providing a new home for Steve Lightsey and his Rhythm Kings and Uncle Walt and his Melody Boys. Although this change in booking preceded the U.S.’s entrance into the war in December 1941, the Barn was well positioned to take advantage of the huge new G.I. populations that began to arrive the following year.

The Sunset Tavern opened the same year as the Barn, but records of performances for it are fairly sparse during its early years. “Kittie and Her Kittens,” who played regularly at Dessau Hall and were probably a female-led Hillbilly group, also did Tuesday night gigs there in June 1940. There wasn’t another ad, however, until 1942, when “Grouchy and the Texas Pioneers ” played with Bob Dunn, the most important early innovator on the steel guitar.5

Two other venues featured some Western Swing during this initial period, the Elm Grove Lodge and The Varsity Inn . The Elm Grove Lodge opened in 1942 and, like the Sunset Tavern, there are only a handful of performance ads during the first years it was open. The club either ramped up its dances or its advertising in the Austin Statesman in 1945, however. From then on, the ads show that it was a consistent place for dancing, hiring live Country bands three to four times a week. The Varsity Inn, first opened in 1938, featured dances by the local Western Swing musician Jesse James in 1942, but its foray into Hillbilly music may have been a short-lived experiment. They didn't spend much on advertising either, so it’s unclear if James or other similar bands played there at other times that year. By 1943, however, they had switched to consistent gigs by Johnny Simmons’s important local African American Swing band and, following that, seemed to have continued to favor dance orchestras.

The Big Expansion, 1945-1950

The Western Swing scene in Austin blossomed vibrantly after the end of World War Two. Between 1946 and 1947, Honky Tonks began to line the highways in all directions, especially those going North and South from the city. On the Dallas Highway, East Ave., and around Round Rock, there was the Barn, the Skyline Club, Dessau Hall, the Owl Club , and the Star Club . Northwest of town and on the Burnet Highway (now Burnet Rd.), there was the Copenhagen Inn , the Hilltop Inn , and the Sunset Tavern. The San Antonio Highway (now South Congress Avenue) down South had its own long row of venues that hired Western Swing bands: the Cinderella Club , the Village , the Windmill, the Trocadero Dinner Club /El Morocco , and Club 81 . West and Southwest, the Elm Grove Lodge was on Bee Cave Road while the Moose Head Tavern and the Blue Goose opened up on the Fredericksburg Road. Tellingly, East of Austin was the exception, with no white Honky Tonks appearing on the outskirts of the black and Mexican American side of the city.

Club 81, destroyed by a fire in 1948, was open for just 2 years.

Daily Texan (March 14, 1946).

This flowering landscape of extra-city limits halls produced a huge crop of new County and Western Swing bands. The most well known now are the musicians who recorded, like Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys and Jesse James and his Gang, but there were dozens more during these years. Little Cotton and the Westerners , the Austin Playboys , Boots and his Texas Melody Boys, Grouchy and the Texas Pioneers, Uncle Gus and His Boys , the Vagabonds, Thruman Lovejoy and His Boys, the Austin Melody Boys, and Gene Hyde and his Boys are just a handful who regularly played during this period.

Austin's Honky Tonks were fueled, to a certain extent, by regional talent. Its village of clubs drew in musicians from many of the small towns surrounding it: Buddy and his Texas Melody Boys, Doyle Brink and the Texas Swingsters , and the Lone Star Playboys (Hank Thompson’s original backing band) from Waco; Jimmie Wallace and his Royal Teens from San Marcos; Happy Dan and his Melody Boys from Granger; the Golden West Playboys and Ed Palla and his Pals from Taylor; and Glenn Dunn and his Ranch Boys , Alan Thomas’s Blue Jackets, Aubrey Weatherford, and the Southern Rhythm Boys from Temple. Bands from nearby cities would also make the journey to play for local dances, if less frequently: Smiley Whitney , Leonard Brown and his Brownies , and Adolph Hofner sometimes travelled from San Antonio, while The Rhythmairs drove up from Corpus Christi.

Thompson, Heap, Choates, and Capitol Records

Austin remained largely a working musician town during these years. Since there were only a couple of small labels sporadically active in the city, just a few local bands made a handful of recordings. There were three musicians who lived and worked in Austin’s orbit during these years that consistently entered the studio and had a presence beyond the region, however: Hank Thompson, Jimmy Heap, and Harry Choates . Thompson, who would become a massive star in the Country world in the 1950s, was only in the area for his first few years of recording before he made Oklahoma City his home base in 1952 (with spells in Nashville and Dallas in between). Originally from Waco, he had a number of regional and national hits with “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” “Green Light,” and “What are we going to do with all the Moonlight” in 1948. Lefty Nason, whose unique steel playing supplied Thompson a large part of his signature sound, was in Austin with Jesse James before Hank snatched him up for his band.6

Hank Thompson and Jesse James at Dessau Hall, date unknown.

[Photograph of Hank Thompson and Jesse James], photograph, Date Unknown; accessed December 18, 2020, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Museum of the Gulf Coast.

Thompson’s breakthrough came in 1952 with “Wild Side of Life,” a tune composed and first recorded by another Austin area band, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters. Heap’s original 1952 version on Imperial brought them attention and sales in Texas, but it was minor compared to the splash made with by Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys. The Melody Masters were perhaps the quintessential representatives around Austin of Honky Tonk Country, a native style related to Western Swing but rawer and more focused on emotional lyrics about heartache, sexuality, betrayal, and violence. Honky Tonk Country evolved, as its name implies, in the Skull orchards and roadhouses around Dallas, Houston, and the Texas Hill Country in the late 1930s, as musicians like Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, and Al Dexter adapted Hillbilly music to these new environments. The style placed less emphasis on the dance-driving four-four beat of Western Swing and centered itself more on the singer. As a band that made their living playing the Central Texas dance halls and road houses, the Melody Masters were versatile. Heap “possessed a big repertory of Bob Wills-style songs, but they also featured beer-drinking tunes, then becoming paramount in Country Music.”7

Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters, 1950s.


Although far less well known now than Thompson, Heap provided the genre with two of its most enduring anthems: the previously mentioned “Wild Side of Life” and, from 1953, “Release Me.” Despite the relative national success of this latter single, The Melody Masters stayed local. They remained in their hometown of Taylor and played the Central Texas circuit throughout their career. Interestingly, they didn’t travel to record, at least in their early years, and many of their recordings were done in Austin at KVET and at a studio on the University of Texas campus.

Thompson and Heap were both on Capitol Records, based in Los Angeles. Paralleling much of the westward migration that had occurred in 1930s and early 1940s, there seemed to have been a Central Texas-Capitol connection. The label had, in fact, started its Country roster with Tex Ritter, a UT graduate who was inspired to go into Cowboy music by his study of folklore in Austin with J. Frank Dobie. Ritter had recommended Hank Thompson to the label after hearing him in Waco on tour in 1946. If Capitol was “the great postwar catalyst for southwestern and particularly West Coast country,” as author Rich Kienzle has argued, the Austin area scene, through Thompson and Heap, played a key role in it.0

Austin also became the home and tragic end point of Harry Choates, perhaps the most original musician in its postwar Honky Tonk scene. Choates, born in South-Central Louisiana, blended the developing sounds of cajun music with Texas Western Swing in Port Arthur, where his family moved during the Depression. A representative of the musical borderlands of East Texas-Western Louisiana, he recorded “Jole Blon” at the famed Gold Star studios in Houston in 1946, the recording that would ultimately make it one of the most iconic tunes in cajun music’s repertoire.

Harry Choates at Dessau Hall, 1947-1951.

Brill, Bubs. [Photograph of Harry Choates], photograph, Date Unknown; accessed December 18, 2020, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Museum of the Gulf Coast.

Choates began playing Austin in 1947 and his “Original Jole Blon Band” was a staple at the Barn, The Windmill, and Dessau Hall for the next year. After a two year absence, he re-located to Austin in 1950, where he became the star fiddler in Jesse James’s band. Choates was a magnificent and inspiring performer, but unruly and unreliable. By the time he returned to Austin, he had been overwhelmed by substance abuse for years and, within a short time, had split with his wife. On July 7, 1951, he died in a Travis County jail cell after being arrested for outstanding child support payments. Rumors of a police beating have circulated for decades, but, according to his bandmate Jimmy Grabowske, he was in deep and dangerous alcohol withdrawal the day he died, making it quite possible that he died from complications from the DTs (Delirium Tremens). Choates’s last session in June 1951 contained the song “Austin Special,” the singer’s own depiction or tribute to his recently adopted city.8

Harry Choates Memorial Benefit, Dessau Hall, July 1951.

Austin Statesman (July 30, 1951).

Harry Choates, “Austin Special” (Allied, 1951). The title on this YouTube video is mislabeled “Saturday Night Waltz.”

The Austin-Nashville-Shreveport Nexus

If Capitol Records in LA created a Western music connection between California and Central Texas, Dessau Hall and the Skyline Club created direct lines from Austin to Shreveport and Nashville, the homes of the immensely popular Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry radio shows. This didn’t happen with any regularity before the early 1950s, however. During the 1940s, the Central Texas Honky Tonk scene was a very regional affair. Dances around Austin were played almost exclusively by area bands like Jesse James or Boots and his Texas Melody Boys, with occasional performances from groups from Dallas and San Antonio.

There were only a few major Western performers from out-of-town in Austin before 1950, most notably Ernest Tubb at UT in 1945, Hank Williams at Dessau in 1948, and a handful of appearances by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who were primarily living and working on the West Coast during this period. The first blockbuster Country event was probably the appearance of the “Ernest Tubb Show” at the City Coliseum in May 1949. Put on by the Austin Square Dance Council, they presented a “Great Western Singing Jamboree” with Tubb, Hank Williams, Butterball Paige, and Jerry Jericho. The following year, a similarly star-lined Grand Ole Opry show presented “the greatest names in folk music”—including Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl, Hank Garland, Cowboy Copas, and Jimmie Dickens—in the same enormous hanger-shaped space.

Realizing that Austin had a large and devoted enough fan base to support touring acts, local Honky Tonks began to establish connections with the expanding and centralizing Country and Western music industry of the early 1950s. In 1951 and 1952, the Skyline Club and Dessau Hall began to book musicians from the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, including Webb Pierce, Okie Jones, Red Sovine, Carl Smith, Kitty Wells, the Tennessee Mountain Boys, and Ray Price. That they were considered something special was clear in the shows' advertising: they shelled out the money to print the artists' photographs and prominently identified them as radio stars.

The appearances of major Nashville and Shreveport performers in Austin increased remarkably in 1953. That year, the Skyline’s owner, Warren Stark, established the “Skyline Jamboree,” a weekly Thursday event. Determining that “the string-music field in Austin could stand a little special notice,” Stark decided to “[devote] every Thursday night at his club to bringing in outstanding stars of Western music.” To do so, he simply intensified what he and Dessau had already been doing: drawing in major acts from the two major Country radio programs in Nashville and Shreveport.9

After that point, Austin became a frequent destination for Country stars during the 1950s. An Austin-Nashville connection was forged and now iconic singers like Ray Price, Marty Robbins, Faron Young, and Merle Travis were a key part of the city’s scene, although Austin would not become a home for big names in C&W until Willie Nelson moved here in the early 1970s.

It was in this context that the Skyline Club hosted the famous last performances of two stars, Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Horton. Symbolically and not coincidentally, both tragic deaths involved cars and travel. The dance hall saw the last public show by Hank Williams before he had a heart attack on the way to a concert in Canton, Ohio on January 1, 1953. Seven years later, Johnny Horton played the Skyline just before he perished in a harrowing car wreck, as he quickly drove from Austin to Shreveport to make a Louisiana Hayride broadcast.

The popularity of Western Swing and Nashville stars at Austin Honky Tonks also spurred the scene to briefly try to branch out into other kinds of music. During roughly the same period that the Skyline started its jamboree, Dessau Hall expanded its programming in a different direction. Trying to expand its audience beyond its “Hillbilly” fans, the old German community center began to book orchestras and Swing bands. In November 1952, its proprietor, D.R. Price, “decided to experiment by using popular music organizations in addition to the regular western groups that frequent the hall.” After their first show with the Tex Beneke big band sold out, Dessau committed to a “new name-band policy” that brought “top quality dance bands once a month [to] the Western music stronghold.” For a few years, Swing and easy listening orchestras, including the famous groups of Artie Shaw and Stan Kenton, co-existed on Dessau's yearly program with Faron Young, Carolyn Bradshaw, Goldie Hill, and Webb Pierce. By the mid-1950s, this experiment with multiple styles and audiences came to a halt and Dessau reverted to being an almost exclusvely Country venue.10


  1. Michael Corcoran, “Ramblin’ Ray Remembers: Austin Music in the 1950s,” (April 1, 2012); Michael Corcoran, “Secret History of Austin Music, part 3: Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys,” Austin American Statesman (October 21, 2016).
  2. The Dallas Highway is now North Lamar Blvd. and the San Antonio Highway is South Congress Ave.
  3. Malone, Country Music USA
  4. Although it’s not totally clear what this band played, some early Western Swing bands used the term “dixieland” for their groups, even though the term would later strongly denote a revivalist New Orleans-style jazz ensemble. Lee Fariss was the husband of Dolores Fariss, the singer for the 1940s Western Swing group “Dolores and her Bluebonnet Boys.”
  5. Austin Statesman (August 3, 1940); Austin Statesman (August 3, 1940); Austin Statesman (May 16, 1942).
  6. Rich Kienzle, Southwestern Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz (New York: Routledge, 2003), 135.
  7. Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 266.
  8. Michael Corcoran, All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 6-9.
  9. “Western Music Jamboree Slated at Skyline Club” Austin American (August 30, 1953).
  10. Austin American (November 9, 1952); Austin American (December 14, 1952); Austin Statesman (February 11, 1953); Austin Statesman (March 16, 1953).