Asleep At The Wheel And The Great Western Swing Expansion

Oct 22, 2015

Interest in western swing music may be at a new high. KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin recently spoke with a musician who has been keeping that music alive since the 1970s, despite some tough times.

Asleep At The Wheel was formed at the dawn of the 1970s in West Virginia but quickly moved to Oakland, California and then, by 1974, to Austin, Texas, where the band remains headquartered. The group went there at the invitation of then new friend Willie Nelson. The band’s founding member Ray Benson says the reason behind that move was simple:

“When Willie says, ‘Move to Texas,’ you move to Texas,” the band’s founder, vocalist and only remaining original member Ray Benson says.

Of course, there were more practical reasons for the move as well.

“It was cheap to live here which, for struggling musicians, is very important. There were a dozen clubs to play in where people came to see ya. That was amazing. And then there kindred spirits of all kinds. There was all kinds of music. There was songwriters, swing bands, there were bluegrass-y bands, there were country bands, there were country rock bands, there were blues bands,” he says. “The difference was, we were the only band that played both the redneck dance halls and the hippie rock joints. We had this ability to straddle the line.”

The early 1970s the band was earning critical and commercial acclaim, landing in the Top 10 on Billboard's singles chart. But by the 1980s interest in Asleep At The Wheel had waned, and many of the founding members began leaving. Benson says that that was a difficult storm to weather.

“One of the things you do is stick to your guns,” he says. “In other words, instead of going, ‘OK. Now I’m going to record ‘Achy Break Heart’ or something, you go, ‘No, let’s just do what we do and not worry about the money or the fame. It’s for the music. I think that that’s the hardest thing for a lot of folks to understand. You just have to be so dedicated to the music that the other things, you figure out a way to get around ‘em.”

Benson admits that he thought about putting the band to rest during that difficult era in the 1980s but was often reminded that music lovers needed Asleep At The Wheel.

“I think one of the reasons that I didn’t was because every week or every other week somebody would come up after a show and say, ‘Don’t stop doing this. This is great!’” he says. “It was very heartfelt, and it was sort of like, ‘Well, if I quit this who’s going to do it?”

And during those toughest times Benson says that he was lucky to have his friendship with Willie Nelson, who helped him through.

“Willie was really such a good friend and helped so much in those years,” he says. “’83-4-5. He loaned me—he didn’t loan me, he gave me—money to help out. He let us use his studio to make records that nobody put out. Then it just sort of turned around. We got a deal with CBS Records and had a couple of minor hits and things started happening again about ’87.”

Recent years have been much kinder to Asleep At The Wheel; the band’s latest recording, Still The King, a celebration of the music of Bob Wills and featuring contributions from Amos Lee, The Avett Brothers, and Lyle Lovett among others, just missed the Top Ten on the album charts. Benson has also just published a book, Comin’ At Ya: How A Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or The Often Outrageous History of Asleep At The Wheel, co-written by acclaimed journalist David Menconi.

He admits that his origins in suburban Pennsylvania are sometimes at odds with the image that many have of him as a master of western swing. But, he says, that doesn’t really matter.

“I don’t believe that there’s a 100 percent geographic imperative as to the kind of music that you play,” he says. “Cause I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia I can’t play western swing music? Well, that’s like saying then, ‘Well, Van Cliburn grew up in Forth Worth, why isn’t he playing Texas music?’ He’s a classical musician. So it’s in your heart. The other thing is that America is based on the fact that you can be anything. That was something that was just drilled into us from the time I was born. So I said, ‘Oh, hey! I really like this stuff!’ ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ ‘I wanna play it.’ ‘OK. Go get a cowboy hat and move to Texas.’”

Benson is about to be honored with a spot on Philadelphia’s music Walk of Fame, but it is and remains Texas that most people associate him with, and he says that really wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The reason that I think the folks took me in as a Texan was because I love the culture of Texas,” he says. “I love the people of Texas and decided to settle here and also I wanted to be part of this. I wanted to learn about Texas and be a part of the great history.”

Asleep At The Wheel performs at the Orpheum Theatre Friday evening.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.