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Kicking Around Texas

by Graham Lees

My first trip to Texas was June 2001 when my wife Marlene and I spent three weeks on honeymoon travelling around the Lone Star State. We started at The Legends of Western Swing Festival, Wichita Falls where Mrs Gloria Miers who organises the three day event made us very welcome. In 2005 I was invited to the Academy of Western Artists convention and the Will Rogers Award show where I met Jim Anderson from Amarillo. Jim heads the western trio Palo Duro named after the second biggest canyon in America (biggest being Grand Canyon) and subsequently we become very good friends.

The historic U.S. Route 66 (also known as the Will Rogers Highway after the humorist, and colloquially known as theLooking down 6th Avenue - Route 66 "Main Street of America" or the "Mother Road") was a vision of business man Cyrus Avery. Route 66 was established on 11th November, 1926 with road signs erected the following year. The highway, which became one of the most famous roads in America, originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, covering a total of 2,448 miles. In Amarillo the heart of Route 66 runs through 6th Avenue where Jimís son Cody has the restaurant and ice-cream parlour Cowboy Gelato. Over the weekend of 9th-12th June the Route 66 International Festival took place on 6th Avenue (locally known as 6th Street) celebrating 85 years of the Mother Road.

6th Street was closed to traffic on Saturday giving fans the freedom to wander around and admire the many exhibits of classic cars, pickups and motor cycles that lined both sides of the street. An open-air stage offered music all day with five bands playing, including Texas Crossroads out of Shamrock, Wheeler County and Road Crew from Nashville playing 50ís & 60ís style of music. Authors and Artists set-up camp in one of the many buildings to meet fans and offer all sorts of goods for sale associated with Route 66. Bars and restaurants on the street did a roaring trade with Cowboy Gelato offering the best Italian ice-cream in Texas as well as plenty of fine food. Portable toilets and plenty of garbage bins were set in place for the anticipated crowds that were to come including many families with young children.

Sunday (12th June) Kenny Rogers came to town for a concert at the Amarillo Civic Center Auditorium. With tickets for the show, Jim Anderson along with his wife Ann, Marlene and I went along to see his great show. Opening was Billy Dean who will be remembered from the 1990ís. Dean made his chart debut in the late 90ís with the single "Only Here for a Little While" and followed-up with "Somewhere in My Broken Heart", both #3 hits on the Billboard country Ampetheatre Palo Duro Canyoncharts. Even though he never reached the top of the Billboard country charts on his own, he reached #1 in 2000 when he joined Alison Krauss as guest vocalists on Kenny Rogers' "Buy Me a Rose". At the age of 73 Kenny still puts on an excellent show, throwing $10 bills at a guy on the front row for every hit song he remembered.

The following Tuesday we went for dinner and a musical show in the beautiful Pioneer Amphitheatre, carved out of and nestled into a natural basin in the majestic Palo Duro Canyon. This year is the 45th Anniversary Season of the official play Texas. This Family-Friendly Show is set against an authentic tapestry of history with the showís fictional characters bringing to life the stories, struggles and triumphs of the settlers of the Texas Panhandle inGloria Miers the 1800s with song and dance plus a generous helping of good olí Texas humour and spellbinding lighting effects.

Wednesday morning was a short Texas drive (225 miles) down to Wichita Falls for the Legends of Western Swing Festival and meet-up with more friends and a pre-festival dinner with Eddie McAlvain and his band Mavericks providing the music. Eddie who lives in Wichita Falls began his professional career in the 1950's as lead singer for legendary Bobby Koefer who was a former steel guitarist with The Texas Playboys. Eddie has also been inducted into Western Swing Hall of fame in Sacramento, Seattle and the Cowtown Society of Western Music in Fort Worth.

With a very warm welcome from Miss Gloria we had three days of wonderful western swing at the Multi-Purpose Events Center. On the Thursday it was both my birthday and 10th wedding anniversary and some of the best western swing bands in the country. Three bands performing each day for both afternoon and evening shows saw John England & The Western Swingers from Nashville opening the festival, followed by Grammy Award winning Bobby Flores & Yellow Rose Band. The final band for Thursday was Austinís Red Voelkaert Band that included steel player Cindy Cashdoller and piano pounder Floyd Domino who both played with Asleep At The Wheel some years ago. Friends Betty & Doug Carter from Albuquerque made the arrangements to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a large cake to share with the many fans during the evening, giving us a wonderful day to remember. Also celebrating his 50th birthday was Bobby Flores who was surprised on stage by a group of friends with a birthday cake. Fans came The Swing Commanders on stage from as far away as Britain and Japan, included young children and mature fans heading towards their 90ís. A young 8 year old called Jackson who was there with his grandparents from Louisiana attached himself to our group showing of his new cowboy boots, hat twirling and buck-dancing skills.

Friday and the music continued with Jimmy Burson & Texas in the Swing, the great Dennis Ivey Band who I hadnít seen before, plus Ted Scanlon & Desperados from New Mexico. With two large dance floors the swing fans were well accommodated to two-step around the floor from 12-30pm until 11-00pm. Saturday opened with Tony Harrison & Hot Texas out of Austin. Tony hails from London and told me that he and his wife (both hairdressers) moved to the USA in the 1960ís when Tony worked for British hairstylist Vidal Sassoon and relocated to the New York salon. Eddie McAlvain & The Mavericks next on stage giving a thrilling performance and offering tribute to American service veterans with Elton Britt's song "There's A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere". Britainís own Swing Commanders had the privilege to close both the afternoon and evening shows. This was the second time the Swing Commanders had played The Legends Festival and once again they took the place by storm, thrilling the crowd with some great western swing and Trainees from Sheppard Air Baseshowmanship along with their D.J. friend, GI-Jive (Ian Hartley) and his wife Sheilagh demonstrating their terrific 40ís dance routines. Saturday evening also saw a group of young men and women trainees from the nearby Sheppard Air Force Base being  invited to join the festivities.  It is the largest training base and most diversified in Air Education and Training Command.

This was my fourth time at the Legends of Swing Festival and I look forward to the next time I can make it to Wichita Falls!!!

Driving on to Grapevine close to Dallas/Fort Worth airport, Marlene and I came across the Southwest Bluegrass Club that was started back in 1974 and meets the third Sunday of each month at the Founders Building, 701 S. Main St. in Grapevine (just across from the railway station). On this Sunday the Shady Grove Ramblers gave a stunning performance headed by Tom Uhr who has written several of their numbers, making the perfect conclusion to our celebratory Texas trip.
June 2011