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Asleep at the Wheel goes round and round

More than 50 years after the band set out to resuscitate a dying genre, it’s still swinging

Asleep at the Wheel is marking its 50th anniversary — a year late — with a tour that stops at TCAN in Natick. Ray Benson (in dark hat) has been the band's leader from the beginning.
Asleep at the Wheel is marking its 50th anniversary — a year late — with a tour that stops at TCAN in Natick. Ray Benson (in dark hat) has been the band's leader from the beginning.Mike Shore

Asleep at the Wheel is coming to the Boston area on a tour that marks the 50th anniversary of the band — a tour that was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. During that half-century, the band has released 25 albums (including three Bob Wills tributes and a couple of Christmas records) and is about to release its 26th, a double-platter anniversary celebration. It has seen a biblical number of members pass through its ranks, and it has won multiple Grammys and other accolades. But the most remarkable thing about Asleep at the Wheel might be a musical group identified predominantly with western swing lasting 50 years. To put it in perspective, The Wheel was launched when western swing was close to dying out as a popular music form; the band has now survived more than twice as long as the genre’s heyday.

Ray Benson, the lanky, deep-voiced singer, player, and songwriter who has been at the helm of Asleep at the Wheel from the beginning, finds it hard to believe the band has reached this milestone. “There’s hundreds of people who made it happen,” he says by phone from his Austin, Texas, home. “That’s really what it’s all about, you know. There couldn’t have been this without me, but I couldn’t have done it without all these people, because my best talent, as I figured out, was to convince a bunch of people to go do this.”

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Even though Asleep at the Wheel has been associated with western swing pretty much from the outset, the intention was not to form a genre-specific band, Benson says. Along with original members Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston, he formed the group in Paw Paw, W.Va., in 1970. (They moved to California a few years later and then decamped to Austin, where the band has been based ever since.) The idea was to start what he labels a “roots Americana” band. “Back then, to us Americana meant everything that had developed musically in America from 1900 to 1960.”

An early incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel, which has had members come and go over its 51 years, with leader Ray Benson (fourth from left) the one constant.
An early incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel, which has had members come and go over its 51 years, with leader Ray Benson (fourth from left) the one constant.Courtesy of Ray Benson

That original intention is borne out by the band’s debut 1973 album, “Comin’ Right at Ya,” and on through the entirety of a voluminous catalog. Like Bob Wills, western swing’s most famous exponent, Asleep at the Wheel has practiced a form of musical omnivorism throughout its history, incorporating western swing’s close cousins jump blues and R&B, classic honky-tonk, Cajun, singer-songwriter fare, cowboy music, and more into its repertoire. Indeed, its first significant hit, 1975′s “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” was a stone country weeper that Benson likens to a vintage Porter Wagoner-Dolly Parton duet (and at the time, those duets weren’t “vintage”).

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That sort of approach is compatible with, and perhaps even a defining feature of, being a western swing band, in Benson’s view. “It’s about the instrumentation,” he says. “You can play any song, anything you want as long as it’s fiddles, steel guitar, a few horns, piano, bass, drums, and singers. That’s what a western swing band is.”

That being said, the particular form that its eclecticism takes is one of the things that gives such an outfit its character. What differentiates Asleep at the Wheel, in Benson’s eyes, is the prominence of Black styles in the band’s music: “We play music that spans racial lines. That was part of the thing for us — we’re gonna take R&B songs and play Louis Jordan songs and this, that, and the other and do them in a western swing instrumentation.”

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That intention in turn points to another that Benson says he had in mind in founding the band. “My little idea was, I went to Leroy and Lucky and said, ‘Let’s do this band and we’re going to show hippies how cool country music is, and we’re going to show rednecks how cool hippies are.’” The idea was to work both sides of that divide, “for musical and sociological reasons.”

The sociological reasons may have faded as the years went by, but The Wheel played on. The fact that the band wasn’t simply trying to replicate an older form of music doubtless has contributed to the length of its tenure. In Benson’s words, they set out to play “retro music updated to the present,” and have continued to do so. “We never wanted to be a museum piece,” he says.

He suggests that the band’s ever-changing membership has had something to do with its longevity as well. “The gig with Asleep at the Wheel is, we assess whether you’re good enough to join the band, and when you come in, we go, OK, learn what the guy before you did, and then add some. That’s why the consistency stays the same, and yet the personalities of each player change the band that way, especially the singers, of course. So I would say the consistency and the individuality of each person is what keeps it all going.”

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“What we wanted to do when we started out was pretty lofty for 18-year-old kids,” Benson observes. “But then again, that’s why I’ve been able to keep this thing going, because there’s always an 18-year-old kid that wants to do what I wanted to do when I was 18.”

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL

At TCAN, 14 Summer St., Natick. July 17 at 8 p.m. $52. 508-647-0097, www.natickarts.org

Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net