Asleep at the Wheel
Over the course of the last 36 years, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have boldly defied the fickle lures of the mainstream -- and thrived -- by sticking to their noble cause of keeping that distinctly American of art forms, western swing, alive and kicking. Along the way, they've been awarded nine Grammys, entertained millions and won praise and admiration from the likes of Willie Nelson to Bob Dylan, George Strait to Van Morrison. Asleep at the Wheel has been called the “post-modern kings of western swing,” and given their storied history, it is a title that few would question.
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Asleep at the Wheel is an American musical institution: a kinship of like-minded musicians (over 80 members to date) united under Benson's crusade to carry the torch of big band western swing music into the 21st century. Case and point is the latest lineup, which is not only spectacularly talented but also noticeably youthful. As Ray reflects, “It is amazing to me at this point in 2006 compared to 1970 when I started the band. My whole intent was to bring the music back to my generation. We’ve done what we set out to do and it’s just grown. Now, we have a whole new generation doing it, and we have a whole new band.”
The result is the brand new CD Reinventing the Wheel, the first feature release from the band in seven years and a fitting title for the band’s return to its roots, albeit with some fresh faces. As newest member and vocalist Elizabeth McQueen suggests, “…it’s come full circle and it’s back to that original review concept of Asleep at the Wheel, with lots of different styles of music and different singers trading off, which makes it really great.”
The album kicks off with an playful collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama on a rare Bob Wills treasure entitled “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.” Other highlights include Jason Roberts’ original “Am I Right (or Amarillo),” the Marshall Tucker cover “This Ol’ Cowboy” a blazing original instrumental “Pop a Wheelie,” and Elizabeth McQueen’s sublime take on “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine.”
When not in the studio or keeping up a regular schedule of national touring, the band’s most recent success has been A Ride with Bob, a Broadway-scale play about the life and legend of Bob Wills. It debuted in the spring of 2005 with six sold out shows at the State Theater in Austin, Texas and hasn’t looked back. 2006 touring included San Francisco and Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center where the run sold out and was a big hit with the President and First Lady. Liz Smith wrote that A Ride With Bob is the “most entertaining night in Texas” and the Tulsa World termed it “as raucous, spirited and joyous as the music that inspired it.” 2007 and 2008 will see extensive touring for the play and a national television broadcast.
Theater isn’t the only new adventure the band has taken recently. After three plus decades on the concert stage, Asleep at the Wheel have created a pops symphony program, and so far in performances with the Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Amarillo Symphonies, the response has been tumultuous.
For Ray Benson, the will to play the guitar began in Philadelphia, PA -- far, far away from the city of Austin, Texas, which the Wheel has proudly called home for the last thirty-three years. "I was born in 1951, and big band music was still very much around, and in my community it was still very much the thing," Benson explains. "I played bass in my school stage band in tenth grade, and my musical director introduced us to Count Basie. My friend Lucky Ocean’s parents were sort of like beatniks, and his dad gave us some Lester Young records when we were still in high school. But I just happened to be a weird kind of guy: I was also into folk music, Chicago blues and country. My goal was to be more different than anybody, and that's what Asleep at the Wheel was all about: doing roots music that was different and eclectic."
"I've been told that I'm relentless, so I guess I am," he says. "Every time that I figured I was going to quit, we'd have a wonderful, incredible show where the people were so appreciative that we were doing this music that it's like, 'Well, hell -- this beats working, so why not keep doing it?' Honestly, I would like to see this go on forever. If I'm not here, I think there are some capable hands being developed right now. Western swing ain't going away."
The bands biggest success was in 1999 when their critically acclaimed album Ride with Bob struck gold on the charts and at the Grammys. But Ray felt that there was something missing with his music, “After the Ride With Bob album was done and it was doing real well, I was sitting in my office reading the sales reports on Asleep at the Wheel that the record company had sent me," says Benson. "And I looked at all the 'Best Of' Asleep at the Wheel albums, of which there are many, and none of them contained all of the songs that are our top requested songs night after night on the road. Every night the fans ask for certain songs, and there's not a package out there representing what our fans want. So that's what we set out to do."
The result was 2001’s The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel, the very first album to round up every single one of the legendary Western swing band's most requested songs after thirty-six years of rolling on the road. "It's not ballad heavy," states the 6'7" bandleader and guitar slinger with a deep laugh. "We're a dance band. That's what we're about. And that's plenty."
"This is improvisational music, which I think is the whole ball of wax, because that's where the rubber really meets the road” says Benson. "I think it's interesting to listen to updated versions of what people do, hearing how they have evolved. People change, and I love to have the luxury of having a career this long to do it.”
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