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Asleep at the Wheel

Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys – 2015 (Bismeaux)

Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen

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Asleep at the Wheel have never shied away from acknowledging where their musical influence comes from. "Still the King" is the group's third tribute to the music of Bob Wills. While past attempts have been worthy acknowledgements of the influence of the Texas swing legend's music, this time around, Ray Benson and crew work alongside an unbelievable line-up of guest artists. The guest list is not only a testament to the legacy of Wills and his Texas Playboys, but also Asleep at the Wheel themselves, who have by this point become widely recognized as the definitive Western Swing group.

While Wills music and AATW's tight musicianship are at the core, the guests make this a must listen. Although Western Swing had its brief heyday many decades ago, "Still the King" makes one wonder why it faded away as the polished countrypolitan sound took over. The jazz influence adds a fun element.

Wills' music is renowned in Texas, but his influence is not constricted by borders or even genre. The smooth vocals of Amos Lee add depth to a straight forward swing track "I Hear Talkin'," which is unlike anything we've heard from Lee. Tennessee string band Old Crow Medicine Show provide a fantastic, blazing interpretation of "Tiger Rag." Bluegrass bands add their instrumental prowess - from The Del McCoury Band to The Time Jumpers to The Devil Makes Three's humorous take on "Bubbles in My Beer."

Texas is represented. Lyle Lovett sings on a slow jazz version of "Trouble in Mind," with a superb trumpet solo reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. Willie Nelson appears on slow "Navajo Trail" with the Quebe Sisters. The song is heavy on the steel guitar twang, and the sisters provide beautiful harmonies straight out of a Roy Rogers film. Lone Star favorites Reckless Kelly and Randy Rogers team up with Shooter Jennings on the classic tribute, "Bob Wills is Still the King." George Strait was one of the few mainstream artists who incorporated Western Swing into their music regularly, and his presence here should be appreciated. His flawless rendition of "South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)" reminds us why he is widely considered the King of Country.

Some guests dominate their tracks. The Avett Brothers take on "The Girl I Left Behind Me" is an upbeat romp, which would fit neatly on one of their own releases. Merle Haggard has shown his love for tradition on releases like his tribute to Left Frizzell and does the source material proud here. Emily Gimble adds female vocals, but Haggard dominates "Keeper of My Heart," overshadowing even AATW. Pokey Lafarge puts his retro spin on "What's the Matter (With the Mill)," which complements the song perfectly, complete with spot on harmonies. As if often the case with Brad Paisley songs, the guitar work on "My Window Faces the South" is the highlight of the fast-paced song, although a wild piano solo gives his strings a run for their money. Jamey Johnson and Ray Benson add a blues vibe to "Brain Cloudy Blues," an interesting change for both.

Asleep at the Wheel have revitalized Western Swing with "Still the King" in the same way that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought the roots of country music back into the limelight with their "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" releases. The songs are at once nostalgic and current, providing a bridge between the roots of country music and modern Americana, bluegrass and mainstream country. Bob Wills may have provided the source material for the 22 tracks, but AATW has arranged an album that arguably exceeds its influence, a rare feat for a tribute album.