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This wheel keeps rollin'

By Dan Kuchar, January 1996

This wheel - Asleep At the Wheel - does indeed keep on rollin'.

In this day and age, it is quite remarkable for any musical act to last 25 years. Adding the fact that the band has had practically no help from radio makes its survival astounding.

Then consider that this act has won a string of Grammys, CMA awards and widespread critical acclaim, and its feats seem nearly miraculous.

But after 19 albums, 25 singles and three tour buses, Asleep At The Wheel not only survives, but thrives and celebrates its 25th anniversary.

"Even though radio won't play us, the Wheel keeps on rollin',"said Ray Benson, who, in effect, is Asleep At the Wheel, in a recent interview from its home base in Texas. Benson, who stands a towering six-and-a-half feet, is the primary vocalist and lead guitarist.

Asleep At the Wheel recently released "The Wheel Keeps Rollin'."

AATW was formed by Benson, pedal steel player Lucky Oceans and drummer /vocalist Leroy Preston in 1969 having been brought together by their mutual love of American roots music. Benson and Preston met because Preston attended the same college as Benson's sister, Northeastern in Boston.

Along with Oceans, they eventually formed a country band playing in West Virginia.

Their sound was what Benson called "hippie-country-western-rock." They played the Washington D. C. area opening for the likes of Poco and Joy of Cooking. Later guitarist /vocalist Chris McConnell joined the group while they played the D. C. club circuit.

The band moved to San Francisco, developed a following and released their first disc, "Comin' Right at Ya" in 1973. The next year they moved to Austin, Texas. The band released albums on Capitol, MCA, Epic and Arista before moving back to Capitol. About 15 years ago, the band encountered problems due to being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. They released "Drivin'" on K-Tel, better known for its TV record ads, and "Framed" on MCA.

But it would be another five years until another disc was released.

They stayed afloat through television commercials and soundtrack work.

Over the years, Benson provided music for films "Wanda Nevada" (directed by Peter Fonda) and "Willie and Phil"(directed by Paul Mazursky). He has appeared in and written music for Alan Rudolph's "Roadie" and Louis Malle's "Alamo Bay." In 1991, he provided the music for the film "Wild Texas Wind" in which he co-starred with Dolly Parton and Gary Busey.

In 1993, Benson and AATW received some long-overdue recognition from the music establishment because of their album "Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys."

The tribute was a natural step in AATW's history. The success of the Eagle's tribute album "Common Thread" and others confirmed the fact that the music industry and the public were receptive to the tribute album concept.

The selection of Bob Wills' music was the only logical choice for the tribute. AATW's albums have been consistently peppered with covers of Wills' music. Furthermore, Benson's knowledge of his music was so intimate and thorough from having lovingly studied not only Wills' music, but his influences as well.

Over the years, several Wills' alumna played in AATW as well.

Benson recruited country music's biggest and brightest stars for the tribute. The album featured the likes of Chet Atkins, Garth Brooks, Marty Stuart, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, and Brooks & Dunn.

That was not the Wheel's first connection with Brooks & Dunn. The Wheel recorded the original version of Ronnie Dunn's "Boot Scootin' Boogie" for the 1990 disc, "Keepin' Me Up Nights." Of course, the song later became B&D's signature.

The tribute tracks glistened from Benson's good-natured production, AATW's stylistically faithful treatment of Will's music and superb performances from its long list of collaborators. The album has a good-time feel throughout, and the listener can't help but feel that a wonderful time was had by everyone involved in it.

The recording industry agreed, and after the dust had settled, AATW had won three Grammys.

Despite the band's success over the years, the band has been anything but consistent when it comes to musicians. Since the beginning, literally dozens of musicians have joined and exited the ranks of AATW.

Did the critical success of the tribute raise the level of expectations for "The Wheel Kept On Rollin'"?

"Not really. Only to not do the same thing as that record," Benson said. He elaborated that AATW loves Wills' music - they play it every night, in fact- but this album was a deliberate departure for the sake of making it different.

Like Reba McEntire's latest album, it marks a milestone and celebrates a remarkable career. But unlike Reba's album which moved her further into mainstream pop, Benson stuck to the group's stock in trade - an eclectic mix of country, boogie-woogie, honky-tonk and Western swing.

The opening track, "Meanwhile Back At The Ranch," is a rockin' country tune that could easily be a radio single.

But that depends who does the talking. "We hope so," said Benson, 44. "That's what we were shooting for." According to Benson, though, his label, Capitol Nashville, told him two weeks earlier that it was not commercial enough. That's not to say radio wouldn't play it - it's just that as usual, he doesn't expect the label to release it as a single.

Benson readily acknowledged label pressure to be more commercial. "Yes with a capital C," he said.

The Wheel rolls back to its classic Western swing sound with "That's How The West Was Swung." Special guest guitarist Albert Lee is dazzling on "Rockin' Rodeo." AATW's jazzy background vocals and playing chops are superb as usual. Cindy Cashdollar's snazzy pedal steel playing is especially fine.

But the album suffers from Benson's lackluster vocals, never getting beyond merely competent.

The band covers Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" twice; once at standard length and again in an extended mix. According to Benson, AATW's albums are very popular in certain dance clubs. The second version was to accommodate those clubs where a running time of over four minutes is essential. He also said that the second mix has a heavier presence of bass and drums.

It is impossible to understand AATW without knowing the man behind the Wheel, Benson. AATW's records always have a sense of humor and good-natured feel about them that mirror Benson's on and off-stage personality.

Benson is truly a country music renaissance man. On any given day, he wears more hats than Dwight Yoakam probably owns.

Benson is first and foremost a musician and performer. Benson also has done work outside of AATW. In addition to producing most of the Wheel's discs, Benson did albums and tracks by Bruce Hornsby, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville and Don Walser.

But Benson's main preoccupation, Asleep At the Wheel, still keeps right on chugging after all these years.