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Thirty years in the making, "Willie and the Wheel" rolls

By Rick Bell, February 2009

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By the time Wexler stepped aside in the 1990s, about the only significant name missing from his roster of stars was Elvis Presley, who, according to legend, almost signed with Atlantic in 1956 but instead chose RCA.

Wexler's work with Willie was unfortunately brief, but extremely influential, both on the artist himself and on country music. When they began working together, Willie had already returned to Texas from Nashville to carve his own identity as well what was later to become known as the Outlaw movement. Wexler and fellow Atlantic exec Arif Mardin coaxed Willie to record much of 1973's "Shotgun Willie" at the famed Atlantic studios in New York. Wexler produced just two of the album's tracks, but not surprising in retrospect, both were Bob Wills standards: Stay All Night and Bubbles in My Beer.

But Wexler took Willie to the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama for 1974's concept album "Phases and Stages." Wexler's restrained, spartan production pushed Willie's raw vocals out front, allowing him to sing in stark, emotive detail the dissolution of a marriage. "Phases and Stages" - and the fact he worked with the legendary Wexler - defined Willie as one of country music's most influential artists.

More than three decades have passed since then, and even though Wexler was too ill to attend the sessions in Austin, he knew how to work with Willie's talents. As the album's sessions were wrapping up and Willie was completing his vocal tracks, Benson sent the songs to Wexler. He felt confident the album captured the spirit Wexler had intended in the early 1970s. Still, Benson was a little apprehensive.

"Even though he was pretty sick at the time, much to my delight and relief, he loved them," Benson said.

Not surprising that Benson was at least a little worried, considering Wexler had put a tremendous amount of thought into what songs would fit Willie's nasally tenor. This wasn't Tommy Duncan or George Strait, after all. But Benson pointed out Willie had grown up with most of these songs.

In fact, Willie has recorded dozens of western swing songs over his legendary career. He cut Won't You Ride in My Little Red Wagon, which appears on this collection, on his "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" album in 1981. "Heck, Willie's been doing 'Little Red Wagon' since he started playing," Benson said of the 1941 Rex Griffin song made famous by Hank Thompson and Hank Penny, among others. "It was so cool to get to play with him on these sessions. I've worked a lot with him, but this was special. Willie grew up on this music, but we didn't want to just do the hits. We left out 'Faded Love' and 'San Antonio Rose.' We purposely cut it 80 percent live to give it a special feel, and I think the sonics are impeccable."

As extensive and far-reaching as Willie's recorded catalog may be, there were a couple songs here that caught him off guard, Benson said. "I asked Willie, and there were a couple he didn't know," Benson said. He knew Fan It, an obscure, bawdy, bluesy cut written by the eccentric singer-songwriter (and according to legend a sometime-female impersonator) Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxson, which has double entendre as do many of these songs written all over it. Turns out that Fan It was a standard in the heyday of western swing too, and it captured the heart of one young woman. Benson said he got to know Bob Wills' wife, Betty, and when Wills had slipped into a coma before his death in 1975, she confided in him that she loved to play that song for him when they first met.

The fact that most, if not all of these songs had their origin in Depression-era America and they are being revived at a time many experts contend is the nation's bleakest economic situation since the Great Depression isn't lost on Benson either. "Jimmie Rodgers sold millions of records in the Depression; music is one of those little things people turn to in tough times," Benson said. "This is all Depression-era music. Yet it's timeless."

His performance during the inauguration at the Black Tie and Boots Ball hosted by the Texas Society drove the point home even further. It was his fifth inauguration performance - his first was 1993 and the first Clinton administration. It was an all-Texas lineup, which included Asleep at the Wheel, Kevin Fowler, Jack Ingram and Cross Canadian Ragweed.

Yet, it was an amazing experience, he said. "It was nothing like I've ever seen before," Benson said of the festivities. But there was a time last year they shared the stage with then-candidate Obama, Benson said. Following a Democratic candidate debate in Austin with Hillary Clinton at what admittedly was a low-dollar fund-raiser attended by just a couple hundred people, Obama offered a few words, shook some hands, then joined Benson in song and a quick shuffle.

"Obama actually came back out and helped us sing 'Boogie Back to Texas,'" Benson said.

Yet Benson the realist understands all too well the depth of the president's future. "So far so good," Benson said. "But he's got a mess on his hands. The events shape the president, not the other way around."

And, in a similar vein, so far so good in 2009 for Benson and his band, who were headed to the 25th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. for another performance of his Broadway-style musical tribute to Bob Wills, "A Ride With Bob."

"Is this record special?" he asked rhetorically. "You bet. Willie's the best friend I ever had. When I was down in the '80s with no record deal, Willie lended me money and let me record in his studio. He loves this music, and so do I."

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