The storied Dallas music venue is ready for the spotlight again.
The Longhorn Ballroom isn’t stinting on star power for its reopening weekend. On Thursday, the showcase dubbed by Texas Monthly Magazine as “the most historic music venue” in the Lone Star State will present Texas Swing torchbearers Asleep at the Wheel, followed on Friday by the Americana ensemble Old Crow Medicine Show and Saturday by country singer-songwriter Morgan Wade.
But wait, there’s more to come: Emmylou Harris will grace the Longhorn stage for two nights, April 22 and 23. (Tickets to these and other Longhorn Ballroom shows can be ordered on this website.)
And keep in mind: This is what they refer to in the business as a “soft launch.”
“We are excited to share the first batch of shows,” says Edwin Cabaniss, the Dallas-based performance venue entrepreneur who purchased the Longhorn out of bankruptcy in 2022, “as it is just a taste of what patrons can expect from Longhorn Ballroom programming in the coming years. From the legendary to the emerging-and-rocketing-toward-stardom, every bill during our soft launch is made up of artists we love and are personally excited to see perform. Taking our cues from the venue's 72-year-old history — we’re taking our time building out our calendar because we want to get it just right. We want to ensure artists and patrons have a remarkable experience every time they walk through our doors.”
Bold talk, maybe, but the Longhorn isn’t Cabaniss’ first rodeo. In 2009, he purchased and restored the Kessler Theater, a well-attended and architecturally distinctive Dallas venue once owned by Gene Autry; seven years later, he enjoyed similar success with the Heights Theater in Houston.
On the other hand, even Cabaniss admits that his new project is a daunting undertaking. For one thing, the actual ballroom is 25,000 square feet and can accommodate crowds as large as 2,000 — twice the capacity of The Kessler. Perhaps even more intimidating, however, is the certainty that, by assuming control of the Longhorn, he is bound to respect and sustain its status as a fabled music mecca.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Originally known as Bob Willis’ Ranch House during its management by the iconic Western Swing performer, the venue was briefly leased during the 1950s by Dallas night club promoter Jack Ruby — yes, that Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald – before recording artist and record label owner Dewey Groom bought the place in 1958 and rechristened it The Longhorn Ballroom.
For more than a quarter century under Groom, the Longhorn showcased an incredibly eclectic array of country, pop and rock artists, including such notables as Tex Ritter, Nat King Cole, Patsy Cline, T-Bone Walker, Ernest Tubb, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Asleep at the Wheel, Little Richard, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, The Ramones, James Brown, Patti Smith, Johnnie Taylor, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Al Green, George Strait, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Selena — and, during a memorable January in 1978, punk rockers The Sex Pistols and, a few nights later, country legend Merle Haggard.
Those were the days, my friend.
“Maybe intimated isn’t exactly the right word,” Cabaniss told C&I. “It’s more of a matter of, we understand that we are only stewards of this venue. That’s it. It’s been around 72 years. And if we do a good job here and make it self-sustaining, meaning that it pays for itself, then it could be around for another 75 years.
“What I do know is this thing was on its last leg, and was definitely reaching the point of no return when we stepped in. We’d reached a critical point where the value of the dirt, just the dirt, probably exceeded the value of the building. And when you see things like that happen, it’s like Joni Mitchell sang about 50 years ago. You pave over paradise and put in a parking lot. That’s exactly where we found ourselves at this point in time with the Longhorn. But we kind of said, ‘Let’s not pave over paradise. Let’s go try to do something here.’ That’s where we’re at.”
“We first played the Longhorn in 1974,” says Asleep at the Wheel frontman and founder Ray Benson. “And for a bunch of young Bob Wills fans, it was a thrill. I have seen the ups and downs of the Longhorn over the last 50 years, and am very excited and relieved that Edwin and his team are going to continue to honor the tradition of this special place and make sure it is never forgotten or lost like so many other of Texas’ historic venues and dance halls.
“To be the first band back on the Longhorn stage for the reopening is an honor and an opportunity I take great pride in having. You can bet the dance floor will be packed and Bob Wills music will be played!”
The Old Crow Medicine Show will be making its first appearance at the Longhorn Ballroom. Judging from his responses during a recent email interview, the gig is one founding member Ketch Secor is anticipating really, really eagerly.
C&I: This will be your first time performing at the Longhorn Ballroom. Are you familiar with the legacy of the venue?
Ketch Secor: For 70 years now the Longhorn Ballroom has been a gathering place for just about every kind of popular music in the ever-evolving Texas music scene, from swing and country roots, to blues and rock sounds, to punk, jazz, tejano, you name it. Finally, in our 25th year of existence, Old Crow Medicine Show will be proud to take our place among the who’s who of world-class artists from Bob Wills to Nat King Cole to the Sex Pistols who have rocked the joint.
C&I: Based on your experience, what sort of market is Dallas for live music?
Secor: From the Gypsy Tea Room to Poor David’s, the House of Blues and the Granada, Old Crow keeps coming back to Dallas year after year to the unique and eclectic venues that make this city such a vibrant one for live music. In my mind the big “D” stands for dancing, cause if you can get ‘em doing that they’ll have ya back to Dallas again and again.
C&I: What do you think you’ll emphasize on your playlist for the opening weekend concert?
Secor: Opening up the season in a historic venue is probably something like what a chef feels like when they put together a new season’s menu in an established restaurant. If the place is known for chicken fried steak you’re probably not gonna switch to filet mignon. We'll be curating a wild night of good times and high energy tunes that reflect not only our canon through the years but also a few tunes from those artists who have famously hung their hats at the Longhorn.