Wide Awake And Swingin’: Asleep at the Wheel celebrates 50 years

Wide Awake And Swingin’: Asleep at the Wheel celebrates 50 years

In the middle of the phone call was an interview. At the beginning and end were Baby Boomer contemporaries chatting about life.

Ray Benson, one of the founding members of Asleep at the Wheel and the constant keeper of the flame, lives in Austin, Texas, where my granddaughter lives. He excitedly told me he’d just had his first grandchild, a boy, two weeks previous.

He loves Northwest Arkansas and remembers playing here way back in the 1970s at the Swinging Door, a bar on Dickson Street, with bands like Zorro and the Blue Footballs.

And he casually mentions that he was having a meal with Alice Cooper not long ago and they were talking about how stages used to encompass all kinds of music on the same night. Asleep at the Wheel’s first big gig was opening for Alice Cooper on Aug. 25, 1970.

All that is now “Half a Hundred Years” ago, as the title of the new album, released this year, points out. Over those 50 years, the members of Asleep at the Wheel have come and gone, but the vision Benson had for the band has remained the same. He wanted to play everything from big band swing to country western to country blues and beyond, but he wanted the band to be a country-western “music outfit.”

Ray Benson remembers playing on street corners during the lunch hour in Berkeley, Calif., hoping to make enough money to eat lunch himself. Fifty years later, livestreams during the pandemic drew thousands of viewers, “so it’s obvious that a world without music is kind of a colorless place.” (Courtesy Photo/Nathan Edge)

“By instrumentation, Asleep at the Wheel has always been western swing,” he says by phone on a Monday morning. That means guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, accordion, piano, violin and steel guitar, an instrument known for what has been described as its “distinctly emotive Western whine.”

But Benson brought a little bit of everything to the table. He was a child performer with his sister, singing folk music from Woody Guthrie to Peter, Paul and Mary. Growing up in Philadelphia, he listened to jazz on the radio, he says, played in square dance bands played in the orchestra, played tuba in the marching band — and “had a great, wide open musical youth.” In 1969, he dropped out of college and moved to a farm near Paw Paw, W.Va. — 30 miles from the middle of nowhere — to put a band together with two friends, Lucky Oceans and LeRoy Preston.

“Lucky had met these guys, and they said, ‘Hey, you can stay in this 180-year-old log cabin and help us with the farm work while you try to start a band,’” he remembers. “Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? You gotta remember, this was in 1969, and the country was divided — the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, cities were burning, there were riots — and everybody wanted to move to the country.”

Playing in West Virginia, Benson and his bandmates were labeled “hippies playing country music.” When they went in to Washington, D.C., to play, they were considered rednecks because they weren’t playing rock ‘n’ roll. “But it wasn’t about politics or the length of your hair,” Benson says. “It was and is about the music.”

Asleep at the Wheel started on its “Half a Hundred Years” album before the pandemic stopped everything. To get it finished in 2021, Ray Benson says, he used all the newest technologies and had musicians contribute from California, Australia, Vermont, Nashville, Rome and at his studio in Austin, Texas. (Courtesy Photo/Mike Shore)

The band moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1971 and, after an endorsement from Van Morrison in an interview with Rolling Stone, “the L.A record companies came running,” Benson says.

The rest is history: One of the band’s compositions, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” became a national Top 10 country hit in 1975; the Academy of Country Music named Asleep at the Wheel the top touring band for 1977; and they won the first of 10 career Grammys in 1979. Then there was a lull, during which they went without a record deal for six years.

“The one reason that I kept going,” Benson says on the band’s website, “is that every week a fan would come up and be so appreciative, saying, ‘Don’t ever stop.’ We weren’t drawing a lot of people, but they’d say, ‘You’re the only band that goes out on the road and does this old, cool music.’ That’s when I knew it was more than just a living — that I was blessed with caretaking a form of music.

“I’m the reason it’s still together, but the reason it’s popular is because we’ve had the greatest singers and players,” Benson adds of Asleep at the Wheel. “When someone joins the band, I say, ‘Learn everything that’s ever been done, then put your own stamp on it.’ I love to hear how they interpret what we do. I’m just a singer and a songwriter, and a pretty good guitar player, but my best talent is convincing people to jump on board and play this music.”



Asleep at the Wheel

WHEN — 7 p.m. Dec. 8

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $21-$39

INFO — 443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org

Categories: Music