It had been officially closed for more than a decade when a July 3 fire destroyed the ancient skeleton of Fred's Dance Barn on the outskirts of Carterville.
The huge oak dance floor was a place local country music fans had been congregating with Southern Illinois University Carbondale students for years. Like the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, it's where cowboys and hippies set differences aside and danced the night away.
Fred's was actually a spin-off of the Southern Illinois Dance Barn, located at the southern end of the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, the current site of the Grassy General Store.
Legendary local singer Hank Wright of Herrin and his popular band were the driving force at the SI Dance Barn. He was famous as the morning voice on WJPF radio, where he would give the weather report for local farmers and read national news, before performing live on the radio every day.
Wright was a big local star and had an open invitation to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and would frequently appear as a guest disc jockey on world famous WSM. He was a close friend of Ray Price and incorporated Price's music into his concert appearances.
At the tender age of 46, Wright died unexpectedly in 1970. Although it held on a little bit longer, traditional country music seems to be nearly dead now, too.
However, an era that seemed to be lost forever has been preserved with the recent opening of the Rt. 37 Dance Barn. Located a couple miles north of Marion in Spillertown, the former church building has a newly installed dance floor, seemingly as spacious as White City a century ago.
“It's a great venue that is fun to play,” says veteran fiddler Dennis Stoughmatt of Albion. His band, Swing 'n' Country, has appeared at the dance hall twice and will return at 6 p.m. on Jan. 6.
Stroughmatt is in Louisiana this week. He is in high demand as a Cajun fiddler and appears regularly on cable television's RFD TV.
“It's kinda funny, after a show runs on RFD TV, my social media activity will spike. I will get friend requests on Facebook from people 1,000 miles away and I've never left home,” he says.
Stroughmatt says the appeal of the Dance Barn is that the musical preference of the clientele and band are in perfect harmony.
“I love finding that niche of people that likes the exact same music as me,” he says. “We are gonna show up and play a bunch of Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Tony Booth music. Real good honky-tonk music. And the folks there love it.”
Stroughmatt is a member of the National Oldtime Fiddlers Hall of Fame.
The Rt. 37 Dance Barn in the brainchild of Ray Saponka. He was hunting for a location where old-fashioned values could be implemented at a venue that caters specially to senior citizens.
“Somebody has to look out for the old folks. This give us something to do a couple days a week. Everyone loves music and dancing,” Saponka says. “We offer a very clean establishment. There is no smoking and no alcohol.”
Saponka says on some nights, the youngest customer in the building may be 60 years old and the oldest will be over 100.
“Something else that sets us apart from the rest is that we open each program with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance,” Saponka says. “We lost some customers because of it, but that's OK.”
The house band at the dance barn is Linda Kay & The Rusty Gate Band. They will be performing at the club for a special New Year's Eve Dance. Advance tickets are $20 for individuals or $35 per couple. Food will be served beginning at 7 p.m.
For more information or to make reservations, call 618-384-7322.
“Linda Kay is my wife and she is a great singer,” Saponka says. “When we first met, she had been singing gospel music in the Marion area for a long time. After we got married, she converted to singing country music.”
The band Hoot and Holler will play the Rt. 37 Dance Barn at 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $5.
“We have a crowd of regulars that bring a covered dish. So for five bucks, you get your belly full and three hours of live entertainment. It's a great deal,” Saponka says. “We are not trying to get rich. We invested over $10,000 in the dance floor and a few other things. We will probably never make our money back. Each week we just want to pay our overhead and have a great time. Everything else is gravy.”