Willie and “The Wheel” Ready to Roll
Asleep at the Wheel may not have been the first artist to play during this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, but it wasn’t until “Miles and Miles of Texas” began to ring across Zilker Park that regulars knew ACL Fest was truly underway. That’s because Asleep at the Wheel has helped start the festival in each of its seven years.
Founder and front-man Ray Benson wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s something we really look forward to,” he said backstage, just after completing the band’s set. “How often do you get to create a tradition, especially in such a short period of time? It’s amazing, and it means a lot because there’s such continuity in it.”
There’s also continuity in Benson’s influence on the Texas music scene. The Pennsylvania native formed Asleep at the Wheel in 1970, moved to the Bay Area shortly thereafter, and then decided to make Austin home thanks to some persuasive new friends.
“We played a gig at the Armadillo in February ’72, and we met Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm,” he said. “Basically both of them, plus [Armadillo World Headquarters owner] Eddie Wilson, encouraged us to move down here. Willie said he’d put us on shows and help us out. So we did.”
Asleep at the Wheel’s early lineup swelled from five to as many as 12 members, exhibiting a flexibility that would become one of the band’s hallmarks.
The original core stayed together through the 1970s, a period in which Asleep at the Wheel won “Best Country & Western Band” honors from Rolling Stone magazine, taped the first ever Austin City Limits television program, and generally succeeded despite Nashville’s disinterest.
But things slowed down as the music industry began to change. “It was the age of disco,” Benson said. “We still played 175 to 250 days a year. We toured all over the place. We just didn’t have a record out between 1981 and 1986.”
The lineup changed along with the times. Co-founder Lucky Oceans and vocalist Chris O’Connell left the band within months of each other. Asleep at the Wheel struggled to maintain its already tenuous place in the hierarchy of country music. Benson even dabbled with acting.
High times would return as Benson pieced together a new lineup for the Grammy-winning album 10. “In ’87 we had a comeback record and a comeback band,” Benson said. Three singles — “Boogie Back to Texas,” “House of Blue Lights,” and “Way Down Texas Way” — cracked the Billboard charts and served as a reminder that Asleep at the Wheel is the rare Western swing band still able to connect with broad audiences.
More shuffling ensued as the band released its guest-heavy (and heavily acclaimed) A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1993. The first of two Bob Wills tributes earned a pair of Grammy awards. Another Grammy would follow with 1995’s The Wheel Keeps on Rollin’.
The addition of then-teenager Jason Roberts in 1996 marked the beginnings of today’s Asleep at the Wheel. “This band we have now started when Jason came on board, but it’s still changing. This is an evolving thing. It always will evolve.”
All told, Benson estimates around 90 musicians have been part of the group at some point in its 38-year history. And he’ll happily add a few more into the mix with next year’s release of Willie and the Wheel, featuring Willie Nelson plus guests Vince Gill and Paul Schaffer.
“Willie’s our lead singer, and we do all the Western swing stuff,” said Benson. “And I mean the old stuff. Milton Brown, Cliff Bruner, Spade Cooley, Bob Wills. It’s got Willie, the Wheel, and some horns. It’s gonna be pretty cool.”
Recording is complete, and Benson will begin mixing the final tracks this month. Willie and the Wheel will be out February 3 on Bismeaux Records.
Looking further into the future, Benson expects we’ll see more of the same from Asleep at the Wheel. The band will return to ACL Fest each fall. Musicians will come and go. Nashville will keep looking the other way. But he has no plans to do anything different. “I’ll keep at it as long as my health holds up,” he said. “I’m not tired of playing and singing. I’m 57 and feel the effects, but I’m no Keith Richards.”
The Wheel will just keep rolling on.
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