Asleep at the Wheel

Swing Away:
Asleep at the Wheel Keep On Rollin’ and Ridin’ With the King

Veteran Western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel’s most recent album, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, was issued in March 2015. It’s the band’s third official tribute to Wills’ storied career, following the aptly titled albums Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (1993) and Ride with Bob (1999).

For the uninitiated, Wills was a fiddle player and movie star who popularized Western swing music in the ‘30s and ‘40s. His band the Texas Playboys’ style incorporated not just the western sounds and cowboy ballads of the time, but also regional jazz and the blues. Wills and the Texas Playboys’ sustained influence landed them spots in the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame.

Asleep at the Wheel’s latest Wills tribute coincided with the 40th anniversary of the king of Western swing’s passing. It pairs Asleep at the Wheel with established names like George Straight and Willie Nelson and new blood in the Old Crow Medicine Show and The Devil Makes Three. There are also two members of Wills’ Texas Playboys performing on the record: 92-year-old saxophonist Billy Briggs and 88-year-old vocalist Leon Rausch. It’s a heartfelt attempt to expose new audiences to music that’s long been out of the public consciousness.

Considering co-founder, singer, and guitarist Ray Benson’s longtime love of Western swing and other forms of roots music, the album was par for the course. In fact, It’d be easy to argue that every Asleep at the Wheel album, dating back to their 1973 debut Comin’ Right at Ya, has been a tribute to Wills and his peers.

Benson has performed roots music since he was 10-years-old. Back then, he and his sister sang covers of the Kingston Trio, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and other folk revivalists. A few years later, he learned fiddle music by playing in a squaredance band. In 1969, he formed Asleep at the Wheel in Paw Paw, West Virginia with drummer Leroy Preston and steel guitarist Lucky Oceans. Benson describes the early lineup as “amateur musicologists,” dedicated to crate digging at record and junk stores to discover early country and Western sounds.

It was a contemporary record by a future collaborator and not a rare rummage sale find that shaped Asleep at the Wheel’s nascent sound. “Merle Haggard made a great record in 1970 [A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills)] that was a tribute to Bob Wills,” Benson says. “That set us on the path. We said that we wanted to do our own version of Bob’s model.” Haggard rounded up surviving members of the Texas Playboys to perform and stayed true to each song’s original arrangement, setting the mold for Asleep at the Wheels’ own Wills tributes. Three years later, Haggard briefly reunited the Texas Playboys with their leader. Those sessions led to Wills’ final recordings, For the Last Time.

For Benson, following Wills’ boot-steps made more sense as a long-term career choice than chasing the rock ‘n’ roll dream. “I saw it was something that needed to be done and something I did well,” he says. “And I didn’t want to be a 50-year-old man in spandex pants, trying to rock out. What we do seems to fit who I am.” At age 65, Benson definitely looks more like a cowboy ready to perform at a swing dance than a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll lifer – even if the average cowpoke doesn’t stand 6’7”.

By 1972, the band relocated to Oakland at the behest of country-rock pioneer Commander Cody. California was the next best thing to Texas in the early ’70s, considering Wills’ impact on the Bakersfield sound and the ongoing country-rock movement began by the Byrds’ Chris Hillman. “At the time, (Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) were all considered part of what they called the nostalgia craze,” Benson says. The Oakland era found the band inking with United Artists after Van Morrison namedropped them in the June 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.

A logical move to Texas, suggested by Willie Nelson, followed in 1974. The group’s lone Top 10 song, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” highlighted the following year’s Texas Gold album. From there, Asleep at the Wheel has survived and thrived amid numerous county music fads and revivals that oftentimes have made decades old dance music en vogue.

For example, the outlaw country craze that made Nelson and Waylon Jennings household names was the first of many movements that brought more ears to Asleep at the Wheel’s throwback approach. “I used to say ‘we’re not outlaws, we’re more in-laws,’” Benson says. “It was just an image, but we fit that pretty good. We’d always sneak in the left door for those fads.” The two main outlaws were Wills devotees as well, with Jennings penning the song “Bob Wills is Still the King.”

Along the way, Benson and a handful of loyal players have kept Wills’ legacy alive with a revolving door of collaborators. “I started with two friends of mine, and we just kept adding people,” Benson says. “Over the years, we’ve had about 90 folks pass through the band. My drummer Dave (Sanger) has been with me 33 years and David (Miller) the bass player (has been a member) for 25 years. There are few bands where you can play this kind of music and actually get paid.”

Over the past 20 years, Asleep at the Wheel has collaborated with everyone from fellow genre purists like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen to pop stars Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn. “We’ve done 50 or 60 so it’s hard to pick one favorite, but we did a whole album with Willie called Willie and the Wheel (2009). That was incredible,” Benson says. Successful collaborations with proven chart-toppers, such as a 2000 cover of Wills standard “Roly Poly” featuring the Dixie Chicks, introduce Asleep at the Wheel and Western swing in general to new generations of mainstream country fans.

Lately, Asleep at the Wheel has been performing live with the new crop of country purists. The group appeared on Austin City Limits last year with Sturgill Simpson and the Avett Brothers. The Avetts also guested on last year’s Bob Wills tribute album, performing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Scheduling conflicts kept Kacey Musgraves from singing “Miles of Texas” on the album. She performed the song on stage with Asleep at the Wheel as a 10-year-old. Benson sees these younger artists as kindred spirits. “We’re all coming from the same place,” he explains. “They are all rediscovering old music and presenting it in a new way.”

Expect more collaborations with fresh faces, as the recent influx of roots-inspired music into the country and pop charts should benefit Asleep at the Wheel, just as outlaw country, urban cowboys, and line dancing furthered the band’s audience in past decades. Besides, young listeners are surely internet savvy enough to dive headfirst into county music’s roots. “If you think about it, we now have at our fingertips about 100 years of recorded music,” Benson says. “No one else had that before. Whatever happened (before the recording industry) happened live.”

Asleep at the Wheel has been playing Atlanta for decades, dating back to the days of the Great Southeast Music Hall, a 565-capacity venue booked in the ‘70s by the late Alex Cooley. Despite the band’s reputation, local audiences have only warmed up to old-time Western swing music in recent years. “It’s taken us years because what we do wasn’t the biggest deal in the South,” Benson says. “Nowadays we do well in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. It just took a long time to get them to understand what we’re doing.” Beforehand, the band’s audience was primarily out West.

Benson says he’s got a duet record with veteran country outsider Dale Watson on tap once the current tour commences. He’ll return to the studio in January with Asleep at the Wheel to work on yet another studio album. He didn’t share details on the new album – not that how it’ll sound will surprise listeners. Asleep at the Wheel remains true to the sound that’s kept the band relevant in country and Americana circles for nearly half a century. It’s the same sound Benson and friends learned from Merle when he first paid tribute to the king.

Photo by Mike Shore.