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Country Scene | Remembering Fred's Dance Barn and its owner, Barrett Rochman
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Country Scene

Country Scene | Remembering Fred's Dance Barn and its owner, Barrett Rochman

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Fred's Dance Barn

Fred's Dance Barn is pictured in 2006.

Like a bunch of ants attacking a fumbled scoop of ice cream on a summertime sidewalk, anglers will flock to any body of water rumored to be plentiful with fish, especially big ones.

This theory was proven by none other than John A. Logan, the famous Murphysboro native that was thought to be a shoo-in to become president of the United States, but died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1886.

A legendary prankster, friends of the teenage Logan stared in disbelief as he hauled in a massive catfish from Cash Pond in Williamson County. Fishermen from all over Southern Illinois converged on the small body of water, hoping to bring in a monster of their own.

Logan smirked at the stampede of prospectors. He only pretended to catch his giant catfish in Cash Pond, but had actually purchased it from a merchant that had landed it in the Ohio River.

Country music frequently follows the same path.

For a long time, Nashville was the hot bed. Big crowds went to the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, attracted by the newest stars. Right across the alley was Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Patsy Cline worked there as a waitress. It was a hangout for unknown songwriters like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings, soon the downtown area got popular.

When Buck Owens and Merle Haggard emerged from the West Coast, the Bakersfield Sound was born and the boundaries of the genre expanded. People went in a new direction.

Frustrated with the constraints of the Nashville country music establishment, Nelson migrated to Texas and fused together several musical elements to start the “outlaw movement,” eventually turning Austin into the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

The phenomenon of integrating college kids and bikers at a spacious music venue like the Armadillo World Headquarters while pied-piper Nelson crooned “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and strummed his beat up Martin N-20 was repeated at music halls all over Texas, celebrated places like Gruene Hall, the Stagecoach Ballroom, Billy Bob’s and the Broken Spoke.

A couple hundred miles east of Austin, ground zero for the Urban Cowboy craze was Gilley’s, officially recognized as “The Largest Honky Tonk in the World” by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The brainchild of entrepreneur Sherwood Cryer, who had acquired a massive piece of property in Pasadena, he met unheralded piano player Mickey Gilley in a local bar and invited him to become co-owner of the establishment.

“I never dreamed it would put me on the world stage. It launched me into the stratosphere. It was an unbelievable period,” Gilley said.

At the time, Gilley had never had a hit record. His biggest claim to fame was being a cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. He recorded a record to help promote the club and the flip side contained “Room Full of Roses,” which soared to No. 1 in 1974.

Opened in 1971, the club was bigger than a football field. It was attached to a rodeo arena, the place was always packed with authentic cowboys and people stood in line to ride “mechanical bulls.” With a seating capacity of 6,000, it was easy for the club to host concerts by Willie Nelson, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr. and the Charlie Daniels Band.

Gilley cranked out six more No. 1 singles before the Gilley’s sensation captivated the nation, spawning the 1980 movie "Urban Cowboy," starring Debra Winger and John Travolta. The theme song, “Lookin’ for Love,” jump-started the career of Johnny Lee.

More than four decades later, memories of of Gilley’s came flooding back last week as I read the obituary of 77-year-old Barrett Rochman of Carbondale, who passed away Jan. 6. He was the owner of Blue Sky Vineyard on Rocky Comfort Road in Makanda.

Rochman always booked a wide range of musical talent for the listening pleasure of winery visitors, but this refined culture is not the most enduring memory I will have of this unique character. For me, he will always be the ringleader at Fred’s Dance Barn.

Tucked away in a secluded wooded area west of Carterville, Fred’s had an enormous raised oak dance floor and could hold over 1,000 rowdy patrons. It was a hangout for SIU students and a place where families throughout the area would go to listen to music. Long-haired kids fraternized with blue-collar workers. Liberals co-existed with conservatives — imagine that.

Snacks and refreshments were sold on site, but it was BYOB and visitors were never shy about bringing copious amounts of alcohol. Underage drinking was prohibited, but policing the activity was difficult with all the nooks and crannies of the structure.

“It was always a party at Fred’s, a wild time, that’s for sure,” recalls veteran steel guitarist Johnny Norris. “It was the closest thing to Gilley’s that I’ve ever seen.”

Rochman made sure Fred’s had major attractions, like Gilley’s did. There was a mechanical bull and always the best bands in the area, like Gary Jones, Cimarron, Kendell Marvel, Quarter Moon and Jackson Junction, who played the last show ever at the venue.

Opened in 1967, Rochman bought Fred’s in 1981 and the place thrived for years, until negative publicity from a shooting near the club and much-needed new state laws that cracked down on drunk driving caused attendance to dwindle.

The true end of an unforgettable era, Fred’s closed its doors forever on Dec. 9, 2006. Any hopes for a comeback went up in smoke in 2017, when the building burned to the ground.

Vince Hoffard can be reached at or 618-658-9095.


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