Fiddling Around

Debbie and I hadn’t been to a dance hall this year, for a variety of reasons, but we decided to change that last Saturday. We made plans to head down Highway 281 to Blanco, where the historic (I know; it sounds trite, but when the building has been there since 1879, that’s a pretty accurate description) Twin Sisters Dance Hall resides a few miles south of town.

A band called Cactus Country was playing at the monthly dance. Debbie claimed that we had heard them play before, but I had no recollection of the experience. But, then, I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, so that didn’t carry much credibility. Anyway, she said we thought they were great, so off we went.

The plan was first to stop for supper in Blanco at the Redbud Cafe, a very popular dining stop in Central Texas. We pulled up to the lone stop light in Blanco around 6:30 and I immediately started second-guessing our plan. It appeared that every parking space in town was occupied, which didn’t bode well for a quick meal before heading on to the 8:00 dance. We did find a parking spot on the opposite side of the courthouse from the cafe, and when we walked into the diner, we found ourselves behind twenty people waiting to place their orders and get a table assignment (yes…it’s a unique system, but pretty workable).

We were in line for a few minutes when a Redbud employee moved down the queue to inform the patrons that there would be a “40-to-45 minute wait for food,” in case we wanted to eat somewhere else.

I’m not a particularly patient person when it comes to waiting in a restaurant, so my agreement to soldier on was grudging. To be honest, the only reason I agreed to wait was that the trio in the corner of the restaurant was putting on a virtuoso performance for the crowd.

The trio was comprised of a perpetually grinning older fellow with an electric guitar hanging around his back while he played the fiddle, and two younger guys, one on the standup bass and another playing an acoustic guitar. There was a chalkboard propped up in a window behind them with the cafe’s weekly musical lineup, and from where we stood across the room I could just make out “Erik Hokkanen” next to “April 2nd.”

We finally got to the front of the line, placed our order, and were assigned a table next to the band, where we sat mesmerized for the next hour-and-a-quarter (yeah, never believe what the help tells you about kitchen delays) by one of the most entertaining acts we’ve seen around here.

It turns out that Erik Hokkanen is a ghost on social media, but he does have his own Wikipedia page and it’s quite interesting. (I suppose if you merit a Wikipedia page, having an active Facebook page is a bit anticlimactic.) I won’t try to summarize his achievements here, but I suspect you’ll want to know more about him before you finish with this post.

His current trio is called the Hip Replacements. The other two fellows are Will Webster on guitar and Tyler Lambourne playing the upright bass. Their musical repertoire is eclectic and deep, and if you find yourself in a place and time where you can sit in on one of their sessions, I think you’ll be glad you did.

I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether Hokkanen is more skilled on the guitar or on the fiddle. But I can tell you that I’ve never heard a more energetic, precise performance of The Orange Blossom Special than he put forth. It elicited a standing ovation from some of the crowd, myself included…and that’s saying something, coming from diners instead of concert goers.

Even though it’s hard to track these guys down on social media, I did find a YouTube performance that showcases both their musical prowess and their personalities (well, mostly Hokkanen’s personality, which is outsized but endearing). The following is a one-hour-and-change pandemic “concert” in Lambourne’s home. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, at least fast-forward to the 66 minute mark and listen to the end.

By the way, I find it amusing that the video shows them as all being left-handed players, while in reality they’re not. I think they must have recorded this on an older iPad or other similar device using the front-facing camera, and it flipped the picture horizontally 180º.

We finally got our food around 7:45 (except my side order didn’t show up, nor did the chocolate chip cookie Debbie ordered…although the server eventually recognized that oversight and brought us two cookies as an apology). We finished eating about the time the group took a break, and on the way out I told Hokkanen that their music made us glad that we were delayed. (OK, “glad” might have been a bit hyperbolic, but the trend was in the right direction.) I dropped a twenty in the tip jar and we headed out.

Twin Sisters is a short drive from downtown Blanco, and we arrived only a few minutes after 8:00. Our experience at the cafe should have prepared us for the crowd in the dance hall. We’ve been to Twin Sisters many times and this was the biggest crowd we’d ever seen. But it accommodates a lot of people and the dance floor is spacious, so we had no trouble finding a good place to sit.

I raved a bit above about Erik Hokkanen’s fiddle playing. What we didn’t realize was that his performance was a warm-up for the next incredible fiddler, Cactus Country’s Regina Matthews. She started playing at age 5 and has apparently never stopped. As her bio page states, she’s played for and with some heavy hitters, and has been crowned a Texas state champion fiddler. And while she and Hokkanen might fight to a draw in a strictly musical sense, her stage presence ups the ante considerably.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here’s Cactus Country’s version of The Orange Blossom Special, featuring Matthews on the fiddle. Watch, and be amazed.

As it turned out, our night was probably better than we had planned. The icing on the cake was running into good friends from our Sunday School class who were there with some out of town guests. They invited us to join them and we had a great time visiting (and dancing) for the rest of the evening.

By the way, if you ever go to a Texas dance hall and you don’t leave having had enjoyable conversations with at least one stranger, then you just haven’t done a Texas dance hall correctly. It’s even better when one of those strangers tells you repeatedly, “I never really ever talk to people I don’t know, but…” before launching into a ten minute monologue about life.

6 comments

  1. It’s one of my favorite things about going to San Antonio for work. In 2010, I went to Anhalt Germania Farmers Verein to see Jody Nix and His West Texas Cowboys one Saturday and Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition (whom I also heard at Sisterdale) on another Saturday. Last August, I saw Justin Trevino for the first time at Twin Sisters. (“It’s just a honky-tonk, a Texas honky-tonk.”) Earlier the same day, I stopped at the Albert Hall and Ice House (not to be confused with its London counterpart) where a duo was playing under spreading live oaks. The following day was a fundraiser at Martinez Social Hall east of San Antonio, with Justin Trevino once again, and Bobby Flores and His Yellow Rose Band. It’s wonderful to see the crowds they draw to these old dance halls, and I wish more of them had survived in Oklahoma.

  2. Michael, the diversity of venues and musical performances is one of the factors that drew us to this part of the state for our retirement. And the fact that we never have to drive into Austin for any of that is a big plus. 🤣

    Funny you should mention Jody Nix. His band was (and is) a West Texas staple, but he gets around a lot. He’ll be playing at Twin Sisters’ monthly dance on May 7th, in fact.

  3. I envy you folks that dance. I signed up for a dance class at the large community center building in Fort Stockton before high school. It was conducted by a couple from out of town AND a german shepherd. My first time there I saw there dog sitting on the steps as the couple greeted everyone. I reached out to pet the puppy and he growled and snapped at me. The next class I kept my eye on the dog and he kept an eye on me. I finally didn’t return as the dog was inhibiting my dance moves. Life went on and any attempt at dancing always ended with me calling a basketball play in my mind then the ensuing confusion. “Sigh”

  4. Norman, I did everything in my power to avoid dancing when I was younger. I used the “I’m a Baptist” excuse for as long as I could. Debbie and I didn’t start dancing until we were in our fifties. It’s never too late…although your mental basketball plays might still be a slight impediment. That’s when you could rely on LouAnn to get you properly refocused; she would be a LOT better than a German shepherd! 🤣

  5. Eric
    Funny you should write about west Texas dance halls I’ve been researching the topic. Gloria and I are moving to Boerne next year (summer 2023). Already purchased a home. Looking forward to seeing some of these places

    1. Doug, how exciting! Surely we’ll be able to help you explore some of these venues…let’s keep in touch!

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