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With Bob Wills along, Asleep at the Wheel keeps rolling

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 1999

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"I thought that was the greatest thing he could have picked," Walser says. "I knew the song. I've been doing it since then, and the crowds have really loved it."

The slowest song is Womack's ballad "Heart to Heart Talk."

"That's her dad's favorite song," Benson says. Womack's father had a career as a DJ in Texas.

"I just thought she'd sing the hell out of it. People had a very definite idea what they wanted to do."

Womack and the Wheel hooked up on the first incarnation of the Strait in 1998, but there was more to the relationship than that. "She's from up around Tyler, Texas," says Benson.

Womack used to see AATW at a club there. Benson says she told him, "I wanted to be your girl singer. I would come to the shows saying 'I could do this. I said, 'God, I wish you would have come up.' That was neat."

Benson barely knew Clay Walker, but he seemed to have little choice in letting him do "Take Me Back to Tulsa." I ran into him on a plane," says Benson. "I'd known Clay a little bit running into him at industry functions. He cornered me. He said, 'I got to be on that album.' That was part of my deal. I wanted the young Texas singers to be on there."

The record will be released on Dreamworks, the first for AATW after doing time at Lucky Dog, Capitol, Arista, Epic, even K-Tel and others over their three decades.

'I just knew the guys and ran the idea by them, and they thought it would be interesting," Benson says of Dreamworks.

He says the label did not interfere in the recording process with picking artists to appear on the disc. "I consulted with them just out of respect. They said do what you think is right."

Benson formed the band 30 years ago, after quitting Antioch College, with friend Reuben "Lucky Oceans" Gosfield. They moved to a farm in Paw Paw, West Virginia.

"We were hippies playing country music - all these honky tonks and stuff," Benson says.

Benson did not form AATW with the idea of making it a swing band. He says it started "to do what we called roots music everything from roots music to honky tonk to Tubb, Bob Wills. Country music got very pop, very slick. So we started doing that. Wills was part of our deal. We eventually moved to California and finally to Texas. Everywhere along the line, especially when we got out of West Virginia, everybody said, 'Oh, you do Bob Wills. That's cool. About half our stuff was western swing, the other half roots country."

"We got better and bigger...We played anywhere and any time we could."

Merle Haggard was the man who turned Benson onto Wills with his "Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills)" in 1970. Wills and some of the Playboys played on the album.

"It was the ability to play the elements of blues and jazz swing in a swing format with western instruments and the ability to improvise" that Benson liked.

"Country music was great for its lyrics, melodicism and the way it fit into our culture. Western swing gave us the ability to express ourselves musically in the blues and jazz tradition within. It is string-based music instead of horn based instruments."

While the band's first recording was "Take Me Back To Tulsa," a Wills song, that wasn't the sum and total of AATW. "We didn't play one above the other," says Benson, recalling songs of Floyd Tillman and Moon Mullican showing up on the debut. "Well, pretty soon, it was obvious Wills was the star."

"Sometimes the hand that guides you is invisible. I had many other interests besides Bob Wills, and it just kept pushing me in that direction."

At the urging of the manager of Commander Cody, the band moved to the Bay Area releasing an unsuccessful album for United Artists.

In 1974, they headed to Austin, where they still are based. An Epic album failed, but they soon hit their mark in 1975 with the hit single "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" on their "Texas Gold"d album of country, swing and R&B.

The albums continued with the band capturing four Grammys in the process.

Despite the artistic success, the band suffered through serious financial problems about 1980, but stayed afloat by doing soundtrack and TV commercial work.

By 1987, they were finally back on the charts, releasing albums and changing record labels in the process.

Through it all The King of Texas Swing has almost always has been a key part.

"The reason we were drawn to Western swing is you can do a huge variety of music," Benson says. "You can play from big band to ballads. That's the lure of Western swing. We don't want to just play swing. We want to play western music and country music and swing. That's the synthesis that makes it for AATW. I love music...but I don't love just country music. (Country) is a shortened version of what we're talking about. This is country-western, Cajun, honky tonk. All of these subgenres are part of country music. I appreciate and love a simple country western ballad as much as I love an uptempo thing like 'Roly Poly' or 'Maiden's Prayer.'"

"It's been an amazing journey," says Benson. "It ain't over yet."

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