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Hillbilly Wheelies

An established presence on the Austin music scene, western swing band Asleep at the Wheel is the closest thing you'll find to a post-hippie embodiment of the sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Amazingly, the Wheel has been rolling nonstop for 29 years now, somehow holding the road through nearly 80 personnel changes and the fickle ways of the music business. Give credit for the steady hand on the Wheel to front man and co-founder Ray Benson, the guy with the big, smooth voice who looks the part of a genuine long tall Texan, right down to the ten-gallon hat — even if he originally comes from Pennsylvania.

Since the band's debut, 1973's Coming Right at Ya, Benson and his various partners have served up an eclectic menu of jazzy swing and boot-tapping boogie, spiced with just enough hillbilly twang to appeal to cosmic cowboys and hard-core C&W bubbas alike. Back in the mid-1970s, when the cultural lines between long-hairs and real-deal rednecks were clearly demarcated, attending one of the Wheel's shows might have situated you smack-dab in the middle of "enemies." But once the music started, with its irresistible invitation to dance, opposing factions usually quickly dissolved into a unified body of classic Lone Star groovers.

Nowadays, over the course of 21 albums and six Grammy awards, the Wheel's fan base includes just about anyone who's a sucker for precise fusions of old-style fiddlin' with big and bouncy electric guitar, slippery pedal steel and honky-tonk saxophone. All those spokes and more converge at the hub of Benson's distinctive baritone voice. (Admit it: Some of us still can't help imitating his signature delivery of "I Saw Miles and Miles of Texas" every time we cross the state line heading home via interstate highway.)

One of Benson's songs advises, "Dance with Who Brung You," and for nearly three decades his outfit has done just that. Despite occasional collaborations with the likes of jazz banjo freak Bela Fleck or the genre-blurring Lyle Lovett, this band has stayed true to its original commitment: proving "western swing ain't dead, it's just Asleep at the Wheel." Roger Wood

Asleep at the Wheel performs Friday, July 9, at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway West. Showtime is immediately after live quarter-horse racing (approximately 10:30 p.m.). Admission to racing and concert is $3 for adults; $1 for senior citizens; those 12 and under, free. Call (281)807-8760. Ann Chamberlain and Eddie MorganThe husband-and-wife duo of Ann Chamberlain and Eddie Morgan is one of jazz's best-kept secrets. The Cincinnati-based couple have quietly built a loyal following across the country with their refined jazz interpretations of popular standards, but they still lack the visibility of a major-label jazz act. That's unfortunate, as they boast impressive skills and credentials.

An expressive vocalist, Chamberlain has performed with top-name jazz acts, including Phil Woods, Grady Tate, Slide Hampton and Mel Lewis, and has fronted orchestral pops concerts. Trombonist Morgan is something of a journeyman who cut his teeth in the early 1960s with the likes of Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He later worked the Las Vegas club circuit for more than 25years, where his services were sought by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and other top-name musicians.

Though Morgan has a quarter-century of Vegas under his belt, his collaborations with Chamberlain tactfully lack Vegas's tacky schmaltz. The duo's presentation is filled with class and has just enough lounge influence to be intimate and charming. But don't let the ease and smoothness of their presentation fool you. Chamberlain and Morgan are solid jazz performers who make the audience comfortable with their elegance and friendliness. Ann Chamberlain and Eddie Morgan perform with Wayne Yeager on piano and Rick Porter on drums, Thursday through Saturday, July8 through 10, at Cezanne, 4100Montrose, at 8 p.m. on Thursday and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Call (713)522-9621. (Paul J. MacArthur)

 
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