Last Waltz Across Texas
by Michael Bracken
Art by Kimberly Cho
Stovall, Texas, 1957
The phone rang. Country-western singer Earl Coffman untangled himself from the dark-haired roadie sharing his bed at the Stovall Inn and fumbled for it. After he answered, a soft female voice said, “I have long distance for you from Nashville. Will you take the call?”
The phone clicked and a moment later he heard, “Earl? Earl is that you?”
“It’s me, Irma Jean,” he said as he swung his feet off the bed and stood, careful to step around the new Fender Stratocaster leaning against the wall. “You don’t have to shout.”
“It’s a boy,” she said. “An eight-pound-four-ounce baby boy.”
Earl switched on the bedside lamp and glanced at the clock next to it. One a.m. was minutes away. “When?”
“Just after midnight, Earl. Your boy was born just after midnight.”
“How’s he doing? How’re you doing?”
“He’s beautiful,” his wife said. “And me? I’m just tired. Really tired. But I had to call and tell you the moment they let me use the phone.”
“You take care of yourself, Irma Jean,” he said. “I’ll be home soon as I can.”
After Earl ended the call, Jerry Hubbard stirred and mumbled, “What was that all about?”
“I just had me a son.”
The roadie patted the empty mattress next to him. “Why don’t you come back to bed and tell me all about it?”
Earl shook his head. “We can’t do this no more,” he said. “I got a child to think about.”
“Damn it, Earl.” Jerry rose from the bed. “What about me? What about what I need?”
“What you need is to move on without me.”
“I can’t do that, Earl.” Jerry tried to wrap his arms around the singer.
Earl shoved the roadie away. Jerry stumbled backward, caught one foot in the strap of Earl’s Stratocaster, and fell. His head hit the nightstand, upending the phone, the clock, and the lamp. The lamp’s bulb shattered as it hit the floor, leaving them in darkness.
“Jerry?” When he received no response, Earl tried again. “Jerry?”
* * *
Stovall, Texas, 2017
Junior Coffman and the New Blanco River Band were recreating his father’s infamous last tour of Texas. During the summer of 1957, Capitol Records had sent Earl Coffman and the original Blanco River Band to every honky-tonk and backwater dance hall in the Lone Star State in support of their regional hit “Last Waltz Across Texas.” In addition to performing songs from the A and B sides of their first three singles, the band performed popular country-western dance music, mixing Western swing with country waltzes, honky-tonk, and polkas. After purchasing a Fender Stratocaster at Adair Music during a three-day engagement in Lubbock, Earl even added a few rockabilly tunes to the set list.
A year earlier Earl moved his wife and his band from Quarryville, Texas, to Nashville, Tennessee, to record for Capitol. He feared his return to Texas only confirmed to the record company that he would forever be a regional act, so the tour was in danger of being Earl’s last hurrah. At thirty-six, he was older than most new artists and the record company was threatening to cancel his recording contract if he failed to break nationally.
Many of the venues where Earl Coffman and the Blanco River Band performed during the summer of 1957 had disappeared long before Junior’s manager suggested recreating his father’s last tour of Texas. They had been paved over for strip mall parking lots, replaced with fast-food burger joints, or just plain abandoned, so Junior Coffman and the New Blanco River Band performed wherever they could—community centers, rodeo arenas, and outdoor pavilions—so long as they were located in the same towns where his father had performed.
The Stovall Inn & Dancehall, considered the most important venue on the tour because it was the last place Earl performed in Texas, was the second-oldest continuously operated dance hall in the state. Opened in 1878, only a few months after Gruene Hall, the dance hall had been renovated and expanded many times during the years since Earl canceled the second night of his two-night contract. The outhouses behind the dance hall had been demolished, the pits filled in, and indoor plumbing added when the building expanded over them. The wooden dance floor had been enlarged and replaced, seating capacity increased, a second bar added, and a powerful HVAC system installed. The attached inn still offered a limited menu of thick-cut steaks with simple sides, and the dozen rooms upstairs remained much as they were during the 1950s.
Junior stared at the brass plaque affixed to the door of Room 12. “You’re certain this is where my father stayed?”
“Yes, sir,” insisted the young man holding the room key. “Absolutely.”
The Earl Coffman Suite was sandwiched between the Willie Nelson Suite and the door leading to the back stairs, across the hall from the George Strait Suite, but the rooms hardly constituted suites. When the young man unlocked the door, it opened onto a single room, large enough for a queen-size brass bed, a small bedside table, and a large wardrobe. The table held a clock, lamp, and telephone. The windows on one wall provided a view of the tour buses parked behind the inn; the other, which had once provided a view of the outhouses lined up behind the dance hall, now faced the blank wall of the dance hall’s addition.
Junior followed the young man into the room and leaned the hard shell case containing his father’s Stratocaster against the wall. “Where’re the facilities?”
“Down the hall,” the young man answered, “between the George Jones and Jerry Jeff Walker suites.”
“All twelve rooms share the bathroom?”
“Oh, no, sir. Just six suites share. The six at the other end of the hall have their own facilities, but you specifically requested the room your father stayed in, so—” The young man held out the room key and let it and the end of his sentence hang in the air. . . .
Copyright © 2021. Last Waltz Across Texas by Michael Bracken