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This must be the place: ‘The road goes on forever and the party never ends’

The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Texas. The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Texas. Garret K. Woodward

Hello from Room 519 at the Canvas Hotel in downtown Dallas, Texas. It’s almost 80 degrees. Monday morning. Bluebird skies with a welcomed breeze rolling through the vast landscape of the Lone Star State. 

I’ve been down here since last Wednesday evening, landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport by way of Charlotte and Asheville earlier in the day. A whirlwind of people, places and things, all in an effort to get to Dallas to cover the grand reopening of the famous Longhorn Ballroom — an iconic music venue in the southern part of the city, within earshot of Interstate 35.

Opened in 1950 by country legend Bob Wills (and The Texas Playboys), the “House That Bob Built” has had new life breathed into it after years, more so decades, of neglect and decay. Although the interior has finally been renovated and brought up-to-date, the overall aesthetic (especially the exterior) is a wondrous time capsule.

Hopping out of the car in the parking lot of the Longhorn on Thursday, its grand reopening, I felt like I had stepped back in time. Old, vintage neon signs on the roof with large murals depicting numerous scenes of cowboys, horses, cattle and Bob Wills himself.

Entering the wooden double doors of the Longhorn, there were dozens of photographs of past acts who had taken the stage there: Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, Merle Haggard and so on. Nearby was a case filled with Wills memorabilia and instruments.

Throughout the weekend attending the celebration, a slew of popular modern groups performed: Asleep at the Wheel, Old Crow Medicine Show, Joshua Ray Walker, Morgan Wade and Lucero.

On Friday evening, in the midst of Old Crow’s rollickin’ set, there was a special one-off appearance by Robert Earl Keen, the sacred Texas troubadour, who joined the band for a rendition of “Walkin’ Cane.” The electric crowd erupted when Keen strolled onstage in his first public performance since retiring from touring last September.

And I found myself standing there, side-stage during the Old Crow set, watching the audience gyrate and roar with fervor. Keen bulldozed the listener over with the essence of what it means to be a singer-songwriter in Texas, more so America and its constant evolution of self.

Sipping a cold Lone Star beer, my heart and soul absorbed the overwhelming scene unfolding before my eyes. Cowboy hats and boots with a mirror shine. Wrangler jeans and pearl snap shirts tucked in neatly. Cowgirl boots of fine leather or rattlesnake. Ponytails tucked beneath crisp flat brim hats, some adorned with a bright feather or two.

Sunday morning quickly appeared. I opened my eyes in the pitch-black hotel room and didn’t know where I was for a moment. I’ve been on the road so much the last year or so that, for a few seconds, I thought I was back in Florida or at my parents’ farmhouse in the North Country, maybe even actually in the bed of my humble abode in Waynesville.

Nope. Dallas. Confirmation of location came upon sliding out of bed and pulling up the blinds, only to look out onto the sleepy late weekend skyline of the city. Massive skyscrapers and bright neon lights in the distance. Dark clouds on the horizon soon to overtake the town with tornado warnings ticking across the TV screen that afternoon.

It was decided to spend the last day in Dallas wandering around downtown, the main objective to visit Dealey Plaza, the infamous location of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. And although I had passed through Dealey, several years ago it was in haste and not to genuinely be present and soak in this tragic chapter of American history.

With a personal and sincere fascination for JFK, the Vietnam War and the counterculture of the 1960s, meandering through Dealey is a surreal, eerie and sorrowful experience. That sick feeling in your stomach to know “this” is the exact spot where the trajectory of the world forever shifted — a deep sense of loss, all of that hope, potential and possibility for a brighter tomorrow gone in an instant.

The sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald sat and awaited the presidential motorcade. Two “X” markings on the road where Kennedy was hit by the assassin’s bullets. The grassy knoll and enduring controversy of conspiracy and truth, which will be questioned and examined until the end of time.

Eventually, like clockwork, the afternoon storm reared its ugly head. Thick raindrops and thunder echoed throughout the city, ricocheting between the skyscrapers and down upon Dealey. Other tourists and visitors quickly left for dry ground. But, I wanted to read what the large memorial sign said on the grass knoll overlooking the two “X” marks.

It was the final paragraph of Kennedy’s speech he was supposed to give at the Dallas Trade Mart had he actually made it there on that fateful day in November 1963: “We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

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