Kicking off a boogie-woogie version of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” six keyboard players take turns pounding the ivories on two grand pianos before Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson steers a stage full of musicians into a Big Band-style
arrangement of the group’s signature song.
Before the final note rings through the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas, 37 current and former band members—including six fiddlers, five pedal steel players, a drummer, two bassists, three guitarists, four saxophonists, two trumpeters and a chorus of vocalists—have played improvised solos, provided the musical backbone and bellowed the lyrics to the 1946 rhythm & blues standard about the fabled American highway.
“Their music gives me goose bumps,” says Carolyn Derington, 59, of Kingsland, Texas, who attended the band’s 40th anniversary reunion concert last November with her son, Tim Ellers, 37, and 2,000 other fans.
The concert chronicled the evolution of the pre-eminent Western swing band and featured appearances by former Texas Playboys singer Leon Rausch, 83, and Willie Nelson, 77, who was instrumental in bringing the group to Texas four decades ago.
Asleep at the Wheel has been in the driver’s seat of Western swing since the band formed in 1970 and revitalized the musical genre popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s.
During the last 40 years, the band has traveled millions of miles, played thousands of concerts, recorded more than two dozen albums, performed in a critically acclaimed musical and attracted a new generation of fans to what Benson calls “jazz in a cowboy hat.” The band also has won nine Grammy awards, including six for Best Country Instrumental.
“I repeat: six Grammys for instrumentals,” says Benson, 59, joking with the Austin audience. “I’m proud to say I’m the band’s lead singer.”
Nevertheless, it’s Benson’s devotion to the band and Western swing that has kept Asleep at the Wheel rolling to more than a hundred shows across the nation each year. And, it’s his dominating 6-foot-7-inch presence in a cowboy hat and size 16 boots, and his syrupy baritone on tunes such as “House of Blue Lights” and “Miles and Miles of Texas,” that keeps the fans in awe.
“I can’t get enough of Ray Benson and that deep voice,” says Audrey Gorr, 79, of Austin.
While Western swing was born in the dance halls and honky-tonks of Texas and Oklahoma, Asleep at the Wheel got its start in the nightclubs of Paw Paw, W.Va.
The band formed when Philadelphia-born guitar pickers Benson and Lucky Oceans met Vermont country boy and drummer Leroy Preston, and they discovered a shared interest in American roots music rather than their generation’s protest music. Free rent lured the talented but broke college dropouts to a farm in Paw Paw, where they pursued music in earnest and tried to live off the land.
On weekends the trio played at the nearby Sportsmen’s and VFW clubs. “The locals loved seeing long-haired kids playing country music,” recalls Preston, 61.
Hearing one Merle Haggard record hooked the band on Western swing, a musical style on the decline at the time. But it suited Preston’s country roots and Benson and Oceans’ blues and jazz backgrounds. Oceans took up steel guitar, and the band expanded to include fiddlers, an upright bassist and a piano player, among other musicians.
“At one point we had so many people we were going bankrupt,” says Oceans, 59, who named the band but can’t explain its precise origin. “It just came to me, and we liked it.”
On to Austin
In 1970, Asleep at the Wheel opened for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna at a rock concert in Washington, D.C., and a year later the band relocated to California where Nelson first heard them. “I told them they belonged in Texas,” recalls Nelson, who released Willie & the Wheel in 2009 with his longtime musical friends.
The band listened to the rising country music star. After opening for Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1973, they decided to make Austin their home and recorded their debut album.
“The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” written by Preston, became a Top 10 country single in 1975 and two years later Rolling Stone magazine named Asleep at the Wheel as the Best Country & Western Band.
By 1980, Preston and Oceans had left the band and were replaced by an ever-revolving and evolving lineup of the more than 80 musicians who have played and toured with Benson through the years.
In the 1990s, Asleep at the Wheel returned to its roots, recording two tribute albums to Bob Wills and featuring special guests such as Haggard, Nelson, Rausch, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton and George Strait.
Always eager to tell Wills’ story to new audiences, Benson co-wrote with Anne Rapp the musical “A Ride With Bob.” The show toured the nation following its Austin premiere in 2005, the 100th anniversary of Wills’ birth. Benson plays himself meeting the man he calls “the Elvis of Western swing,” and the band performs 15 Wills classics, including “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love” and “Roly Poly.”
Oceans sums up the significance of the band’s 40 years. “Western swing was only 35 years old when we started. It was regional music, not heard east of the Mississippi,” he says. “Ray made it national and has kept it going for 40 years. Now they call the band an institution.”
The Wheel keeps rolling
Asleep at the Wheel endures because it stays true to the roots of Western swing, yet revitalizes the old songs each night with spirited musical improvisation.
“Western swing is like a potluck that everyone brings their own recipe to,” says former band member and steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar, 55.
While Asleep at the Wheel isn’t the only band that plays Western swing, it’s in the forefront, and Benson is the wagon master responsible for keeping the tour bus on the road.
“Ray is the first person up and last one to bed, and he’s still enthusiastic,” says bassist David Sanger, 49, who joined the band when he was 25.
Sanger’s wife, vocalist Elizabeth McQueen, 33, fiddler Jason Roberts, 35, and the newest band member, piano player Dan Walton, 25, are evidence of younger musicians carrying on the band’s legacy.
Walton sees the future for Western swing in his generation’s adoption of fashions and music from the past. “Ray says age doesn’t matter, referring to me and Leon [Rausch],” he says. “It’s about the music.”
And with 40 years in the rear-view mirror, Benson plans to keep the Wheel rolling to more than 120 shows from coast to coast this year. “I love to perform,” he says. “I’ll keep going as long as it’s fun.”