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Asleep at the Wheel dishes out the hits

By Jon Weisberger, July 2001

It's natural for an artist to reflect on his or her career with the release of an album like "The Very Best Of Asleep At The Wheel," but for the band's leader, Ray Benson, the project offered something more a chance to not only look back, but to fix some things, too.

"That was my whole point with this album," Benson says of the disc released in June by Relentless. "I knew that we could do these songs the way I had first envisioned doing them. Not all of them would be better than the others, but they'd be as good in a different way, and some would be better, like 'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens.' I just hated the vocal on the original version, so I feel like I'm setting the record straight on that. And the other thing was, I didn't sing on all those songs before. I've had so many vocalists, and that's been wonderful, but this reflects what we sound like now."

That sound solidly based on Bob Wills' western swing, with boogie woogie and hillbilly elements adding a distinctive twist has served AATW well for the past 30 years, most of them based in Austin, Texas.

Yet the band's roots weren't planted in Texas, and when they started out, western swing was barely on Asleep At The Wheel's radar.

A native of Philadelphia, Benson and his high school friend, steel player Lucky Oceans (who guests on several cuts on the new album) formed the band in West Virginia after Benson's first year of college. Though country rock performers in California were earning critical attention playing their versions of country songs for rock audiences, Asleep At The Wheel took a different tack.

"We weren't really playing for hippies," Benson laughs as he recalls that first year. "It was 1969, and there was quite a rift between the generations, and my idea was, I love this music and yet it's on the opposite end of the political social spectrum for my generation. Why don't we just start playing it? Why don't we just see what happens?

"Obviously, from the musical standpoint it was what I loved and felt capable of doing, but from a social standpoint it was our little effort at trying to bridge the generation and geographic gap that had grown so wide in the '60's. And my whole thing was, because I'm not from Texas and I'm not from the South, perhaps my perspective will be a little less prejudiced than a kid my age who grew up with it and then had to rebel against it.

"When we played for young hippie crowds, they didn't have a clue ' what we were doing. Some of them really liked it, but we always considered ourselves to be a dance band, and these folks didn't know how to dance to Hank Williams, Ray Price and Willie Nelson. So, we figured that we needed to play the real places, the way that the people who we were imitating had done. And that started out as a pretty dangerous proposition in 1970."

"We played these nightclubs and roadhouses in West Virginia and Maryland, and we fought our way out of the first few, before they figured out that although we had long hair, we weren't going to let ourselves get beat up. It was an interesting first year."

By the end of that year, Asleep At The Wheel had established itself on that circuit, but its members were feeling hemmed in by the style and anxious to stretch their wings.

"We were playing hillbilly and country music and writing our own stuff," Benson says. "But after about a year of playing just hillbilly music, stuff which we just loved and which I still love I felt a bit constrained as an instrumentalist. With that kind of music, you couldn't improvise; you would just play a short break and then sing. And I'm a singer, so I loved the singing part of it, but then, as we got better as instrumentalists, we started thinking there must be more we could do.

"That's when we discovered western swing and Ernest Tubb not that we discovered Ernest Tubb, but that Ernest Tubb pointed the way. His band was very much a modern western swing band that would do Ernest Tubb's tunes and then play jazz on pedal steel, fiddle and guitar, and that's what we wound up being."

"So, we tried it out on our audiences down there, and it was really funny because they didn't like it; they liked the hillbilly stuff. I still remember this one old boy who said, 'You gotta quit playing all that modern stuff you're doing.' I guess to him, swing music was modern."

Nevertheless, in western swing, AATW had found a lasting groove, and once that happened, it was probably inevitable that the band would wind up in Texas, where they moved (by way of Berkely, Cal.) in 1974.

The following year they scored their first and biggest country radio hit with "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" ironically, a song that was more reflective of their earlier sound than any of their later, more typical swing hits like "Miles And Miles Of Texas" or the vintage "House Of Blue Lights."

Since then, the group has racked up an impressive six Grammy awards in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category for its smooth, yet energetic style. Unlike many of the current crop of western swing revival bands, who favor the "hot" string band jazz style of earlier and smaller outfits of the 1930's, Asleep At The Wheel's sound is more akin to that of the larger groups that Bob Wills directed from time to time.

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