Barn Dance
Back in the Swing of Things

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

A mile or so from the nearest paved road, the graveled two-lane leading to the Spanbauer Ranch dead-ends in front of a red hip-roof barn. Surrounded by 1,400 acres of wheat and potatoes, the barn doors open to the sweet smell of fresh-cut grain.
   
Every Saturday night folks come from all directions, park outside this barn and climb a flight of stairs to the loft. There they find a 900-square-foot hardwood dance floor surrounded by chairs and tables and fronted by a four-man country swing band. Several couples will be two-stepping to a familiar Hank Williams tune.

John Spanbauer, Sr., the 76-year-old namesake of the farm, collects $5 per person and plenty of conversation at the loft door. When a newcomer holds out his hand and asks, "Don't you stamp us?"

Spanbauer replies, "No, we're kind of relaxed here."




In their homespun fashion, John and Marie Spanbauer have been holding Saturday night barn dances every week for the past five years. Only once has the barn been quiet on a Saturday, and that was on account of exceptionally heavy snow.

Barn dances of one sort or another have been held in rural America ever since New England settlers built their first barns over 200 years ago. 

But the modern-day version of these social events, led by a toe-tappin' fiddler or a Western swing band, dates back to the 1920s.

Radio stations in Texas and Georgia were among the first to broadcast shows they called "barn dances," but two big stations -- WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville -- made the country music sound famous. The "Barn Dance" on WSM eventually became the Grand Ole Opry.
   
Beginning during the depths of the Depression and continuing until the late 1950s, barn dances spread all across the nation. In the West, barn dancers favored up-tempo swing music played by groups like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys while those in the East preferred the traditional country songs of the Carter Family. Both kinds of dances were major social events until rock-and-roll stole away their crowds.
   
Only a few barn dances remain, but those that have been the most successful -- like the Spanbauer Ranch dances -- are throwbacks to that early era when swing was king.
   
"We enjoy these dances a lot," says Dusty Sheets, lead guitarist for The Nomads, the band that has been playing at the Spanbauer Barn for the last four years. 
   
Renfro Valley Barn Dance "This is the old-style Saturday night barn dance. No drunks. No cussin'. No fights. Just a lot of fun."

Sheets made music with some of the biggest names in country music 30 years ago -- Hank Snow, Tex Ritter, Little Jimmy Dickens. Now he lives in Mountain Home, Idaho, and chooses his gigs carefully. The Spanbauer Barn is his favorite.

Ron Stockham, the lead singer for The Nomads, goads the crowd between numbers. There's a lot of familiar faces on the dance floor and he addresses them by name, comments on their dancing, and makes mildly off-color jokes.   
   
"Anybody have a birthday they want to announce?" he asks. "Or an anniversary? Tell us. We'll celebrate anything."
   
From 8 p.m. until close to midnight The Nomads produce a steady stream of toe-tapping tunes. The dancers, ranging from the mid-20s to late 80s in age, fill the floor with every number. Some barely shuffle to the beat while others twirl their partners.
   
When the band takes a break, Marie Spanbauer takes a seat on the bench in front of an old upright piano perched next to the bandstand. She pounds out old-time waltzes while everyone dances and sings along.
   
"She learned to play by ear when she was a little girl. She never learned to read a note," says her husband with obvious pride as he scatters a little cornmeal across the dance floor.
   
"We love it here," says Carl Kerner, who has been coming to the dances with his wife Dorothy for the past four years. "We've only missed about four weeks since we started coming. The floor is good and the band is good."
   
The Kerners remember when this kind of music was performed all across southern Idaho. They followed groups like Russ Pike and the Prairie Knights to dance halls in towns like Hagerman, Burley, Twin Falls, and Glenns Ferry.
   
"We miss those days," says Dorothy Kerner. "There aren't many places like this any more."

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