You might have seen the legendary marquee of the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, TX online at some point, displaying The Sex Pistols playing that night followed by Merle Haggard playing on January 19th.
The original photo was taken by a New York-based photographer named Roberta Bayley on January 10th, 1978, right before The Sex Pistols played one of their most notorious (and few) shows in the United States. It was the Sex Pistols show where at some point, bassist Sid Vicious suffered a head injury and continued to play while bleeding profusely all over the place.
But punk music was not what the Longhorn Ballroom was specifically known for. That is what makes the photo of the marquee so iconic, and why even when the Longhorn Ballroom closed but the sign remained, they re-created that 1978 moment on the marquee, and it’s been photographed and shared countless times since.
The Longhorn Ballroom was one of the most important venues in country music for many years. When it opened in 1950, it was known as Bob Wills’ Ranch House, and was one of the major venues in Western Swing. Bob Wills also recorded a concert album there in the early 60s called The Longhorn Recordings.
When Bob Wills stopped playing at the venue, the original owner O.L. Nelms turned control of the venue over to a man you might have heard of named Jack Ruby. The mafia-connected club owner went onto kill Lee Harvey Oswald.
Tex Ritter, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Ray Charles, Asleep at the Wheel, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Conway Twitty, Hank Thompson, George Strait, and so many more all played The Longhorn Ballroom at some point. The Longhorn only sits behind the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa as one of the most famous Western Swing spots.
Just like Cain’s, many non-country performers also played the spot such as Nat King Cole, Little Richard, B.B. King, James Brown, Dallas-native Stevie Ray Vaughan, along with more contemporary artists such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Aerosmith recorded a video there in 1989 for “What It Takes,” and 2 Live Crew had a notorious moment there too when they refused to play and fans squared off with police.
All that history is now coming back in the newly-reopened incarnation of the Longhorn Ballroom being operated by the same people who revitalized Dallas’s historic Kessler Theater, which since has become one of the most desired smaller venues for artists and patrons alike. Edwin Cabaniss and Kessler Presents are at the helm of renovation efforts that are looking to bring back the Longhorn Ballroom to its previous prominence.
From October 1996 to February 2017, The Longhorn Ballroom was owned and operated by Raul Ramirez who also operated Raul’s Corral Mexican Restaurant adjacent to the ballroom. But the venue was mostly just used for private events, and was generally not open to the public. In 2017, it was sold to Jay LaFrance, and major renovations commenced to revitalize not just the ballroom, but the entire 4 1/2-acre property adjacent to the Trinity River and just south of downtown to make it not just a 2,500-capacity indoor space, but a 5,000-capacity outdoor space.
Then of course the pandemic happened, and The Longhorn remained closed indefinitely. But now with Edwin Cabaniss and Kessler Presents at the helm, restorations have resumed, and return performances have been announced as part of a “soft” re-opening.
On March 30th, Western Swing torchbearers Asleep at the Wheel will play The Longhorn Ballroom, with Brennen Leigh and Joshua Hedley opening the show. Kessler Presents’ wanted to honor the venue’s legacy by allowing Western Swing to be the first music back. Then Old Crow Medicine Show with Dallas-native Joshua Ray Walker will perform on March 31st. On Saturday, April 1st, Morgan Wade will perform with Lucero and Kaitlin Butts.
“We first played the Longhorn in 1974, and for a bunch of young Bob Wills fans, it was a thrill,” says Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. “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!”
A similar approach was used for The Kessler re-opening, where renovations happened simultaneous to music returning to the venue. This allows revenue to come in to help fund the project, while also helping to spread the word about the newly-reopened performance space.
“We are excited to share the first batch of shows as it is just a taste of what patrons can expect from Longhorn Ballroom programming in the coming years,” says Edwin Cabaniss. “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.”
Bringing music back to the Longhorn Ballroom is just part of the restoration process. Original museum-style display cases were built into the walls of the Longhorn that include historic items such as a Tex Ritter suit, a James Brown robe, guitars from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, and BB King, the dress Loretta Lynn wore when she played the Longhorn, a Bob Wills’ fiddle amplifier, and many other artifacts from the venue’s early days that have been collected and displayed.
The newly-reopened Longhorn Ballroom will continue to cater to country music of course, but just like it did throughout its history, other genres will also be booked. But according to Edwin Cabaniss, the emphasis will always be on building important careers in music through an independently-operated venue and company. “We take great pride that many artists build their fan bases at the Kessler Theater and then graduate to bigger rooms.” says Cabaniss. “With the addition of the Longhorn Ballroom, we can continue to grow with them.”