In their 45-year career, Asleep at the Wheel have recorded two holiday albums, providing more than enough fodder for the group’s “Merry Texas Christmas, Y’all” program that Western swings its way through Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House this evening. Seasonal favorites on the set list will surely include the Wheel’s ‘90s hit “Xmas In Jail” as well as “The Cowboy’s Night Before Christmas,” a Texas-themed retelling of Clement C. Moore’s famous 1823 poem in the hearty baritone of Ray Benson, the Wheel’s Post Oak-tall lead singer and patron to younger generations of Texas musicians from Laredo to Sherman.
Benson actually served as the official Texas State Musician in 2004, but for him it seems more like a lifetime appointment. He’s got a sheaf of honors from Texas officials to prove it, perhaps chief among them a 2011 resolution declaring Benson “Texan of the Year.” It passed the Texas House of Representatives unanimously.
The Wheel really started rolling after moving to Austin in the mid-1970s (on the advice of Willie Nelson) and have to date won nine Grammys, six of them for Best Country Instrumental Performance. They appeared on the first proper episode of Austin City Limits after the pilot, and returned yet again with Sturgill Simpson this past October. In all those years, Benson and his ever-changing cast of side men and women have become emblematic not only of Western swing but of Texas and all it represents. Often when the band travels (which is often), that involves clearing up a fair amount of misconceptions and tall tales; Benson says it’s not uncommon to meet folks overseas who assume Texans still ride horses to school. To illustrate his point, he recalls a Reagan-era encounter behind the Iron Curtain, when a Czech journalist asked him about Adolph Hofner, the San Antonio-born cowboy and Western Swing singer arguably best known for helping popularize “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
“On his albums he sang in Czech, because he was a Czech-American,” Benson says. “But in Texas, the oompah and the polka bands combined with the cowboy bands to become — that’s what Western swing is. This guy in Czechoslovakia was like, ‘Why is this cowboy singing in Czech?’ Of course it was behind the Iron Curtain and they couldn't get all the information they wanted; it had just sort of trickled in. And I said, 'Well, you know, Texas was settled by Czechs and Germans.'
Like so many others, Benson himself came to Texas from somewhere else. He was born and raised near Philadelphia and co-founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 with a couple of friends from Ohio’s Antioch College who had relocated to a farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia almost on a whim. Actually, they figured Washington, D.C. would be a good target for their mission to play country music for city folks, with plenty of rural countryside nearby to pick up any slack. The band’s name came from Benson’s childhood friend and then-bandmate Reuben Gosfield, who adopted the stage name Lucky Oceans and had a flash of inspiration while attending to some intimate personal business one day.
“He may have even still had his pants down,” Benson recounts in his recent autobiography Comin’ Right at Ya (University of Texas Press, 2015), accurately subtitled “How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.”
“The name used to puzzle people and make them wonder if we were a cult, but either you got it or you didn’t,” Benson writes. “If you got it, no explanation was necessary or if you didn’t, none would suffice.”
Holiday revelry aside, the Wheel’s latest project is its third Bob Wills tribute album, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Like its predecessors, released in 1993 and ’99, Still the King is a deluxe affair, 22 tracks in all, loaded with guests who reflect what a wide net Wills’ music continues to cast: sympathetic Nashville cats (Brad Paisley, Buddy Miller, Vince Gill’s Time Jumpers); latter-day mavericks (Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings); a legend or two (Merle Haggard, Del McCoury Band); and, last but not least, Texas royalty in Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and George Strait. Benson says that, as usual, he sought Willie’s blessing for the album before making another phone call.
“I always ask him first,” he laughs.
The interesting thing about Still the King is the way it shows how much the territorial lines have been redrawn on the proverbial map of country music. Many guests from the Wheel's first two Wills tributes came firmly from within the Nashville mainstream at the time — Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Dwight Yoakam — whereas Still the King welcomes into the fold artists like the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Elizabeth Cook and The Devil Makes Three, younger Americana musicians who continue to find Western swing appealing long after its commercial heyday.
Wills passed away in 1975, by which point Western Swing was at least 20 years removed from the height of its popularity, although stars like Nelson, Haggard and Strait have certainly never stopped singing Wills’ praises or recording his songs. Asleep at the Wheel itself has evolved into the model of a well-oiled modern touring machine that plays to healthy audiences no matter where they travel, but somehow it’s still a little surprising to hear Benson talk about how easily successful younger players agreed to participate in the project.
“Especially the Avetts, the Old Crow guys, Pokey LaFarge — they know the stuff,” he says. “They’ve done their research.”
Still, perhaps no one alive has done more research into Bob Wills’ career and, more broadly, the cross-cultural currents that met in Western Swing than Benson, who even co-wrote and starred in A Ride With Bob, the 2005 musical that featured more than a dozen of Wills' songs. Likening Wills’ impact on music to that of “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (“one of those seminal figures”), Benson can easily connect the musical dots between Rodgers and some of his contemporaries like Emmitt Miller, the Georgia-born singer who performed in minstrel shows into his fifties and Wills cited as a key influence, but also the great blues singer Bessie Smith and traditional Texas fiddle music. From there, Benson has no trouble explaining what he thinks Wills’ music has to offer contemporary audiences.
“I reckon there's a couple of things,” he says. “Some of the audience loves the virtuosity of the players, the steel guitar, the fiddle/guitar — you know, much the way people like bluegrass and whatnot. Then there's this...it evokes this feeling of Texas, Western Oklahoma, whatever: cowboy hats and Western wear, and some of the themes are very Western. So there's that element, too.
“To me, it had everything,” continues Benson. “There’s blues, jazz, country-western...”
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In fact, talking about this seems to bring up one of his pet peeves.
“I have a beef about [how] they just call this ‘country music.’ Well, it's country-western music,” Benson chuckles. “They keep forgetting about the Western part.”
But not if Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have anything to say about it.
Asleep at the Wheel says “Merry Texas Christmas, Y’all” at 8 p.m. tonight at Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House 2020 Postoffice St. See thegrand.com for more information.