Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson remembers playing Longhorn Ballroom the night Bob Wills died

The six core members of Asleep at the Wheel face the camera, with some standing and some sitting

Asleep at the Wheel
Credit: Mike Shore

The sweet strains of Western swing — a sound personified by its perhaps best-known purveyor, Bob Wills — are as indelible a part of Texas’s identity as bluebonnets or oil.

The roots of the genre run deep, and are particularly strong in a venue many thought might never reopen its doors: The Longhorn Ballroom, which first opened its doors in 1950 as the Bob Wills Ranch House.

After several decades of indolence and gradual decline, the venue, rescued from disrepair by the Kessler Theater’s Edwin Cabaniss, will reopen its doors on March 30, with a performance from a band whose own career has endured long enough to play the Longhorn both in the 1970s and now: Asleep at the Wheel.

There’s a poetry to the booking, as much a tribute to the building’s origins, as it is a nod to the continuum of Texas music, particularly given Asleep at the Wheel’s own, significant ties to the space.

“We played there the night Bob Wills passed away,” Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson said in a recent interview. “We drove up there, and we’re just thinking it’s a regular show we’re going to do. And all of a sudden, they say, ‘Hey, Bob Wills just passed away — are you going to cancel?’ … I said, ‘Of course [we’re playing]. We’re going to honor the band by playing this music well. … It was very emotional.”

Benson and his bandmates have paid steady homage to Wills and his work, as well as nurtured and sustained Western swing over the course of a 50-year career.

It’s easy enough to take the band and its work for granted. There too, a bit of symmetry with the venue Asleep at the Wheel will headline on March 30 — rooms dedicated to music can thrive, until they don’t, and it takes people with vision and passion to ensure they last, and future generations to able to experience them anew.

“It was a touchstone for us, because this was the Bob Wills Ranch House, and also [former owner] Dewey Groom and his son Doug were close associates of Bob Wills,” Benson said. “We really enjoyed it [in the 1970s] and we’re really, really happy that they’re bringing it back again.”

Come to think of it, the vivid history and much-anticipated revival of the Longhorn Ballroom evokes the sense of a wheel, one turning ever onward, sporting a fresh coat of paint and a renewed sense of direction. “Time Changes Everything,” as one classic Bob Wills tune puts it, but some things, if we’re lucky, only sweeten.

KERA’s Jerome Weeks contributed to this report.

Asleep at the Wheel, Brennen Leigh and Joshua Hedley at Longhorn Ballroom, Dallas. 8 p.m. March 30. Tickets are $28-$816.

Preston Jones is a North Texas freelance writer and regular contributor to KXT. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter (@prestonjones). Our work is made possible by our generous, music-loving members. If you like how we lift up local music, consider becoming a KXT sustaining member right here.