This year was supposed to be a busy one for Asleep at the Wheel. The western swing revivalists (who also skilled in several other genres) were set to embark on their 50th anniversary tour. A victory lap of sorts for singer/guitarist Ray Benson for reaching a milestone that few bands attain.
Benson is the sole remaining original member, co-founding the group in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia but who have been based in Austin, Texas the majority of the time. And thanks to some, um, creative math, he says that they’ll still be able to share their Golden Jubilee with fans all over (they are still scheduled to play locally at the Dosey Doe on November 12).
“Well…we’re going to call 2021 our anniversary year, because then we’ll have completed 50 years in the business!” Benson laughs from his home in Austin. “I majored in Rationalization in school!”
In the meantime, PBS stations around the country will be showing a special edition of the venerable live music show Austin City Limits titled ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel on October 31, a retrospective entirely dedicated to Asleep at the Wheel. Overall, the band or Benson alone have appeared on more than a dozen episodes of the long running series.
And while Benson’s friend/golfing partner Willie Nelson was famously featured in the pilot that got the series green lit, it was Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys who shared billing on the actual first regular episode on January 3, 1976. The symbolism one of western swing’s most revered bands and their cosmic cowboy descendants appearing together was not coincidental.
The new hour-long special features clips from that 1976 show, and others going back and forth in time up to 2015. The 17 songs include both classics of the genre and originals, including “The Letter that Johnny Walker Read,” “Roly Poly,” “Let Me Go Home Whiskey,” “Boogie Back to Texas,” “Milk Cow Blues,” “Miles and Miles of Texas,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “Pancho and Lefty” (where Benson and Nelson trade verses), and “Cotton Eye Joe.” In a cool bit of editing, the band is shown sometimes playing the same song in different shows over the years.
“It’s lasted longer than any live music show, and one of the few left. There’s no show that starts with you onstage and ends with you onstage with nothing much in between except music,” he says. “There’s no magic formula. You get onstage, play what you play every night on the road, through the best equipment, and they record it.”
He also notes that, early on, the show was sponsored by Lone Star Beer, which meant every audience member was handed a cold one upon entry! Benson says he understands that one of the “Beer Girls” from 1974 or 1975 went to do bigger things. Her name? Well now, it’s Laura Bush.
Benson – who hadn’t seen much of this footage in years – was surprised going through them. “I went ‘Oh shit, I forgot about that!’ We played with people like the Manhattan Transfer, Charlie Daniels, Delbert McClinton,” he says. “I’ve had 100 folks in the band, and seeing those who had passed away…I was just blown away by the amount of musical history in those episodes.”
And just as English bluesman John Mayall’s band over the years has served as an apprenticeship for members who would go on to bigger things like Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, Benson’s band has gave an early boost to the careers of former members like Junior Brown, Cindy Cashdollar, fiddler player Larry Franklin, and Bob Dylan’s longtime bassist Tony Garnier.
“This is a band you have to be super versatile and willing to improvise 200 days a year on the road, a schedule that would kill most people!” Benson laughs.
In the full version of an interview that he did with Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona, Benson points out that while Asleep at the Wheel evokes a classic sound of decades back, they have never been simply a cover band or tribute group, putting their own spin on material regardless of its origin or previous versions.
“First and foremost, we are defined by our instrumentation. Fiddles, old-style steel guitar, electric guitar, piano, bass, drums and a few horns. And multiple singers,” Benson says. “And in that format, you can do anything. From ‘20s jazz through songs by today’s Nashville songwriters. We did the first version of ‘Boot Scootin Boogie’ before Brooks & Dunn. So Asleep at the Wheel has flown under the radar on purpose for many years.”
Geographically, Asleep at the Wheel’s roots were planted far east of Texas, but they’ve become so identified with Austin and Austin music fans. Benson says that in the special, you can see how those in the audience started and evolved, as did the show.
“It really was a reflection of what this town was all about. There was no backdrop on the set at first, the seats were all around. And the audience was us, the Baby Boomers who had moved to Austin. It was unique,” he says. “Willie was the godfather for sure. Austin was this weird place in the middle of cowboy, redneck Texas. But it wasn’t just musicians. Austin had a lot of great writers and filmmakers at the time as well.”
When asked what plans the band might have for their “new” 50th anniversary year, Benson says nothing’s been nailed down, and a lot of it depends how things go in a number of areas.
“We’re broke. The rug got pulled out from under us. I’ll let you know after the election!” he says. “I hope things ease up by March, and we’ll do touring in the fall. We’ve planned a reunion of the original band to play with the current band. And new album in the spring. We’ll figure out a way to get to the folks. We always have.”
Finally – since his name has come up a few times in the conversation – when was the last time Benson heard from his old pal Willie Nelson?
“He’s holed up at the ranch in Spicewood in the [pandemic]. But he texted me the other day and said ‘I finally got this figured it out! I’ll think of this as one long intermission.' And that is Willie in a nutshell,” Bensons says, before making his apologies for ending the interview. “I’ve got to go. The guys from ‘American Pickers’ are coming over in a bit. I’ve accumulated a lot of junk over the years.”
ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel runs October 31 on PBS stations nationwide. As of press time, they were also scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. November 12, at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. For information, visit DoseyDoe.com or call 281-367-3774. $88-$148, includes dinner.
For more on Asleep at the Wheel, visit AsleepattheWheel.com
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