Willie and “The Wheel” Ready to Roll

Patrick Nichols | October 2nd, 2008

Asleep at the Wheel

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.

Ray Benson 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.

2 Pings

  1. [...] Posted by Lynn Douglas under Discussion   After enjoying Patrick Nichols' great article on the 9513 about Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson, I recalled a cute story I [...]
  2. [...] Ray Benson from Asleep At The Wheel: [...]
  1. Kelly
    October 2, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Good job Patrick. I have enjoyed your work on other sites and look forward to more here!

  2. Razor X
    October 2, 2008 at 9:24 am

    I thought the second Bob Wills tribute album was titled “Ride With Bob”?

  3. Brady Vercher
    October 2, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Sweet article, Patrick. It’s a nice, concise introduction to Asleep at the Wheel. They were playing “Miles and Miles of Texas” as we walked by the stage at the Trail of Lights the night I proposed to my wife by the big Christmas tree in Zilker Park.

    I have the Bob Wills Tribute from ’93 and dig “Big Balls In Cowtown” with George Strait. I hadn’t heard of the Willie collaboration before, so I’m looking forward to that now.

    For some crazy reason, Patrick didn’t care for a byline, so y’all be sure to go check out his site: This Is Texas Music.

  4. Razor X
    October 2, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Disregard my earlier comment. The first time I read it I thought that “The Wheel Keeps On Rolling” was given as the title of the second Bob Wills tribute album. My bad. ;-(

  5. patrick
    October 2, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Thanks guys! It was a fun interview. It’s incredible to see how seemingly everyone who passed by us in the media area had to stop and say hi to Ray.

    Razor X, you’re right about the second Wills tribute album. I just meant The Wheel Keeps on Rollin’ as the next album released sequentially, not the next Wills album.

  6. Brody Vercher
    October 2, 2008 at 9:33 am

    With Benson saying he’s feeling the effects of age and his remarks on Jason Roberts, I wonder if he’s being groomed to take over one day.

  7. PaulaW
    October 2, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Great article Patrick! I love Ray Benson (and the Wheel).

  8. Jim Malec
    October 2, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I bet a wheel’s not the only thing Willie’s ready to roll.

  9. Marc
    October 2, 2008 at 9:43 am

    hahaha nice Jim, nice.

  10. patrick
    October 2, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Brody, I’ve wondered the same thing. Ray clearly admires Jason’s talents. And their collaboration on the “A Ride with Bob” play has brought Asleep at the Wheel valuable exposure in new circles.

    It was interesting the interview took on such a walk-through-time aspect. That’s not what I’d planned, but Ray really took off on a question about if there were any “golden ages” and expounded on the topic for several minutes.

    I also got a good few minutes on the Bismeaux setup and studio technologies. Might be ripe for a follow-up down the road.

  11. Chris N.
    October 2, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Are you guys talking about pot?

  12. patrick
    October 2, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Very nice indeed, Jim.

    Willie and Ray are a good pair on that front. Willie co-chairs the NORML advisory board. Ray is on the board of MPP.

  13. Razor X
    October 2, 2008 at 10:55 am

    “Razor X, you’re right about the second Wills tribute album. I just meant The Wheel Keeps on Rollin’ as the next album released sequentially, not the next Wills album.”

    Yes, I misread it the first time around. Sorry about that.

  14. Rick
    October 2, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Thanks for the nice article, Patrick. I’m glad Ray has dedicated himself to keeping western swing a vital part of the Texas music scene for close to 40 years now. Its kind of sad but outside of Texas and Oklahoma western swing is almost a forgotten form of country music, so I’m glad Texans still support it the way they do. In Nashville it seems the Time Jumpers are the only band around town that still embrace and perform western swing and I’m just glad they perform on the Opry as often as they do.

    I have both of the Bob Wills tribute CDs’s and really enjoy them (well except for Tim McGraw’s “Milk Cow Blues” anyway) as the songs are timeless. I’ve really been hoping that Ray will bring his “Ride With Bob” stage musical to Los Angeles some day, but I’m not holding my breath. At least I get to hear The Quebe Sisters perform “Roly Poly” live when they come to town, so its a start!

  15. leeann Ward
    October 2, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I really like Western swing. It’s awesome that Benson has been able to keep it alive. I love both of the Bob Wills tribute albums. My favorite Asleep At The Wheel song is “Christmas In Jail” though.:) I’m excited about the collaboration with Willie. Great article.

  16. Amazace
    October 2, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Ther are several great Western Swing bands out there today (Hot Club of Cowtown & The Time Jumpers) come to mind, but Asleep at the Wheel has been the mainstay for decades. I’ve been a fan since 1974.

  17. Rick
    October 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Amazace, I am a big western swing fan and love The Hot Club of Cowtown which thankfully reunited full time in early 2008. My favorite music weekend event each year is the last weekend in April at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival. The music artist line-up usually contains the Hot Club (or Whit Smith’s side project “The String Devils”) and other western swing artists like The Quebe Sisters, CowBop, and Ginny Mac. Although I enjoy the cowboy music artists, its actually the western swing bands that are my primary interest at the festival. Its the only time each year that the Los Angeles area gets invaded by top western swing artists from Texas! Yee Haw! (lol)

    PS – I also like artists that combine western swing with traditional country, and that seems to be a Texas specialty. Miss Leslie (Sloan) and Her Juke Jointers do a fine job and her recent release “Between The Whiskey and the Wine” contains some killer cuts. I wish Amber Digby and her “Heart Of Texas” label mate Kimberly Murray would lean a little more in the direction of western swing, but you can’t have everything….

  18. Drew
    October 2, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Dear John, please Johnny please come home
    I need your love and the kids, they gotta be fed
    And John, if you don’t hurry back, I’ll be gone
    Yes, that’s what the letter said
    The letter that Johnny Walker read

    Classic!!!

  19. scooter
    October 3, 2008 at 12:19 am

    I have been an asleep at the wheel fan since first seeing them in the late 70’s. They were a huge part of the austin music scence back then. They had some great musicians over the years and Ray Bensons antics were always very entertaining. Ray also became a quite a good guitarist.

  20. Country Ramblings
    October 23, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Asleep at the Wheel, i have just finished watching a few videos on youtube and cant beleive i havent heard of them before, that is the sound of country,Ray Benson has the voice and sound that all country fans love. Keep up the great sounds

  21. Jer
    January 4, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Keep on Playing! You could outlast Keith Richards, I believe. Y’all sound Great!

  22. Sean
    February 16, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Great revue and new album. This is definitely one of the best albums I’ve picked up recently

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