Those of us who live in Hill Country can often get tired of making the trip to Austin to see great live music. In the meantime, New Braunfels has quietly stepped up its game and is providing central Texas with some unstoppable music experiences that will rival the live music capital of the world.
1. Gruene Hall
We should start this list off with the tried and true staple of the Hill Country: the historic Gruene Hall. Built in 1878, Gruene Hall is Texas’ oldest continually operating and most famous dance hall. Open seven days a week, the historic venue plays host to young songwriters and dance hall bands, while offering paid performances from huge live acts on the main stage. Gruene Hall is the home of many legends such as George Strait, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, along with rising Texas-flavored country acts like the Roger Creager Band and Kevin Fowler. Known for its history, national touring acts like Shakey Graves and Ryan Adams are opting to pass on the live music capital of the world to drive 45 minutes south and experience the magic of the 138-year-old, 6,000 square-foot dance hall. Patrons of Gruene Hall know that no matter the night and no matter the artists performing, they are in for good music and a good time. Tonight you might be in the front room hearing the songs of tomorrow’s next big star.
Where: 1281 Gruene Rd
With some unique and interesting history, the Phoenix Saloon is a fixture for the downtown New Braunfels music scene. Originally established in 1871, this was the first bar in Texas to serve women. Also, there was a parrot on a perch inside the front door that would say, “Have you paid your bill?” in German. These days, the Phoenix Saloon gives the stage to acts ranging from country music to indie rock. This place has great music and provides the comfort of a low-key bar loaded with taps. Oh yeah...it is also home of the invention of chili powder! It is an ideal spot for those who casually want to check out the music scene and hang out with friends. Expect to walk out of the Phoenix Saloon with a feeling of sweet satisfaction.
Where: 194 W San Antonio St
Another go-to place for consistent live music is Billy’s Ice House. Located on Loop 337, Billy’s is a traditional Texas dive with all things familiar to a down-home bar. As an added bonus, you can keep your wallet in your pocket when you roll in, because Billy’s does not take a cover to see their great acts. This bar doesn't try to be anything fancy, which makes it even more appealing to locals and tourists alike looking for an authentic Hill Country venue. It utilizes a residency-style line up, allowing passing music fans to see new and growing performers on a weekly basis. Small and personal, the shows at Billy’s feel packed and deliver contagious energy to all the patrons.
Where: 1193 Loop 337
River Road Ice House is growing, and boy is it showing! Complete with an indoor stage and dance floor and an outdoor stage for bigger acts, this venue is capable of hosting just about anybody who wants to come through. People who have reviewed this place continue to mention that it is a great spot to go after a long day of floating the river, which makes for a perfect spot if you are planning a vacation out to the Hill Country. The outdoor stage is preparing to host some music giants by the names of Tracy Byrd, Chris Stapleton, and Reverend Horton Heat. Looking for a real Texas icehouse? People are driving in from all over to experience the authentic culture of a Hill Country good time.
Where: 1791 Hueco Springs Loop Rd
Not only does this place host some amazing live music acts, the Brauntex Performing Arts Center is home to many musical theatre performances. First built in 1942, during the late Art Deco period, the Brauntex Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This place continues to raise the bar for the local arts community, making central Texas a thriving place for fantastic art. This venue is definitely for those who are looking to make an evening out of going to dinner and a show. The history of this place begs for men to don a tie and for women to go ahead and put on the sparkly dress they’ve been keeping in the back of the closet. There is something for everybody here, from rock and roll to musical theater to the symphony.
Where: 290 W San Antonio St
You won’t see it on many lists for venues in the area, but this place is a bit of a hidden gem. Even acts like the Bellamy Brothers and Shooter Jennings still opt to head down to New Braunfels to perform at the old country store. Aside from the live music, this place has comfort food like you wouldn’t believe. Cheap drinks and good times are offered at the door. Just look for the giant hamburger!
Where: 2157 FM 1101
The main event of Hill Country music venues is the Whitewater Amphitheater. The moment you walk in there is a feeling of southern charm and good times. Located on the banks of the Guadalupe River, this outdoor theater is a quintessential spot for locals and tourists alike who are looking for superior live music. I have caught acts like Amos Lee and The Avett Brothers on this stage and was blown away by the sound quality and the unique space Whitewater offered. With no discrimination of genre, upcoming acts include Ghostland Observatory, the Eli Young Band, and Slightly Stoopid. You will definitely start seeing more and more major national acts choosing this river venue over a cramped downtown Austin room in the coming years. Check this place out as soon as possible.
Where: 11860 FM 306
The author of this article is a professional musician from Central Texas who tours the world with his close friends performing at venues ranging from local dive bars to major music festivals like Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival, and Texas’ own Austin City Limits.