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With Bob Wills along, Asleep at the Wheel keeps rolling

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 1999

The meeting was fleeting to say the least. Asleep at the Wheel's long-time leader Ray Benson recalls his introduction to his most obvious music hero, Bob Wills, as "a spooky thing."

That is quite understandable.

Wills was recording an album ("For the Last Time"), which would be his last, in 1973. "We were standing in a little hallway," recalls Benson in a telephone interview from his studio in Bismeaux, Texas. "Bob was in a wheelchair. They were wheeling him out. I said, "Hey Mr. Wills, I'm Ray Benson."

"He kind of grunted, and his head kind of fell down," says Benson.Wills was in failing health.

"He said he was very tired," says Benson, leading staff to take him back to his hotel.

"That night he had a stroke and never came out of a coma," Benson says. "Two years later, he was still in a coma. We were playing in his ballroom in Tulsa. It was built in 1949. I got there, and there was an AP reporter and a UPI reporter there."

Bob Wills had died.

The one and only meeting between the King of Texas Swing and his heir apparent was "fresh in my mind," says Benson. "It was just two years earlier. There was always this weird little passing of the torch thing. I remember the reporter asking me if we were going to cancel the gig in respect for Bob Wills. 'Cancel?' I said, 'No, we're going to play Bob Wills songs as a tribute.'"

"We were getting 1,000 people (at shows), and that night we got 3,000," Benson says.

The torch may have been passed to AATW, but the master has never been forgotten. Playing Wills songs for decades, the Wheel is releasing "Ride With Bob," their second album chock-full of Wills songs with help from a lot of musical friends Aug. 10.

"Somehow this mantle has been lovingly handed to us, and it's a real honor," Benson says.

"That's why I have really had a reverence and a responsibility to those albums,' says Benson of the tribute.

Helping the Wheel this time around are some expected suspects like long-time friend Willie Nelson ("Goin' Away Party" done with the Manhattan Transfer), Lyle Lovett (singing "Faded Love" with Shawn Colvin") and Merle Haggard ("St. Louis Blues"), another hero of Benson's, but also some of the young 'uns like The Dixie Chicks (a very playful "Roly Poly"), Dwight Yoakam ("San Antonio Rose"), Lee Ann Womack ("Heart to Heart Talk") and fellow Texans Mark Chesnutt ("Stay All Night"), Clint Black (Waylon Jennngs' "Bob Wills is Still the King"), Tracy Byrd ("You're From Texas") and Clay Walker ("Take Me Back to Tulsa"). There are a few perhaps unexpected guests: Reba doing "Right Or Wrong" and Tim McGraw covering "Milk Cow Blues."

While Benson and Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts sing on a few songs,the band, including Michael Francis on sax, David Sanger on drums, Cindy Cash Dollar on steel, Chriss Booher on keyboards and David Miller on bass, provide back-up.

Benson says the idea of a second tribute was no surprise.

"AATW, of course, has done Bob Wills for the last 30 years, and we did a tribute album in 1993 ("Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys" ) that we didn't really get to finish because the record company (Capitol) said 'what do you mean do you want to keep recording?' This is really a continuation of it."

"They said, 'we can't sell a four-album set,' so we stopped recording at 18 cuts," says Benson of "Tribute..." "I always planned to do another one. I just didn't know when. I just was waiting around until the time seemed right."

The Pennsylvania native saw the coming of the Millennium as another reason.

"Let's have a good look back at the last 1,000 years. The last 100 years saw the advent of popular music in America period. Bob Wills is one of the seminal figures in popular American music. I'm talking everybody from Hank Williams to Al Jolson - people who set the culture that is America."

When it came to choosing songs, Benson, 48, says there were two criteria."I would first ask the artist what he liked. If they had an inkling of what they wanted to do, then we did it."

And the second was Benson having the honors.

Benson says he "was trying to keep a certain tone to the album - as long as it fit the way the album was going. I didn't want too much of a certain kind of Bob Wills kind of tune...It sort of fell into place. My motto is everything falls into place if you let it."

"I'm pretty happy that we presented the whole genre. The last album, we didn't get to do any big band stuff or medium band stuff which is part of what Bob did. So we got to do that a little more."

The Chicks, who toured with AATW on this year's George Strait tour, played "Roly Poly" in their live show anyway, so that was a natural fit.

For Don Walser, the yodelin' Texan.,Benson picked "I Ain't Got Nobody," an Emmett Miller song from the '30's made popular about 10 years ago by former Van Halen lead man David Lee Roth.

"He knows my voice," Walser says of Benson. "He produced my last three records, so he knows my voice and what I can sing and what I can't sing and what I sound better on. It's funny that he picked that song because that's the song that (Wills singer) Tommy Duncan used to audition for Bob Wills' band way back in the '30's."

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