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Asleep at the Wheel
It was in the aftermath of 1999's critically acclaimed -- and quadruple Grammy winning -- Ride With Bob that Asleep at the Wheel's towering big boss man, Ray Benson, noticed an equally giant hole in the band's storied catalog. Over the course of the last three decades, Benson and the Wheel have boldly defied the fickle lures of the mainstream -- and thrived -- by sticking to their noble cause of keeping that distinctly American of art forms, Western Swing, alive and kicking. Along the way, they've entertained thousands and won praise and admiration from everyone from Willie Nelson to Bob Dylan, George Strait to Van Morrison. But something was missing.
"After the Ride With Bob album was done and it was doing real well, I was sitting in my office reading the sales reports on Asleep at the Wheel that they had sent me," says Benson. "And I looked at all the 'Best Of' Asleep at the Wheel albums, of which there are many, and none of them contained all of the songs that are our top requested songs night after night on the road. Every night they ask for certain songs, and there's not a package with that in it. So that's what we set out to do."
The result is The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel, the very first album to round up every single one of the legendary Western swing band's most requested songs after thirty-one years of rolling on the road. "It's not ballad heavy," understates the 6'7" bandleader and guitarslinger with a deep laugh. "We're a dance band. That's what we're about. And that's plenty."
But The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel is more than just a collection of fourteen great dance tunes (though it's certainly an excellent place to start), just as Asleep at the Wheel is way more than just a dance band. They're an institution: an ever-shifting lineup (80 members to date) of like-minded musicians united under Benson's crusade to carry the torch of big band Western Swing music into the 21st Century. It is a mission that has won the band and Ray nine Grammys to date -- including one this year for best Vocal Performance By A Duo or Group for "Cherokee Maiden" from their acclaimed Ride With Bob album. Comprised of freshly minted takes on the Wheel's best loved songs, The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel is both a celebration of the miles and miles they've covered and a living, breathing, swinging snapshot of where the Wheel is today, merging seamlessly onto the highway of their fourth decade.
As is to be expected from any record bearing the Asleep at the Wheel name, the playing on these fourteen cuts is impeccable, but, for perhaps the first time in the band's history, Benson's vocals alone are every bit as worthy of a hearty, Bob Wills style, "Aw Haw!" whoop of approval. Who is that man singing "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" with a rich, commanding presence that evokes George Jones? Who's that lively rooster bringing all that swinging fun to "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"? Whodathunk? As proven with the star-studded Ride With Bob and 1993's A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Benson's never been afraid to hand over the vocal reins and stick to rhythm guitar and band leading duties, but The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel is testament to his quiet evolution into one of the best and understated vocalists on the country and western scene.
"This is improvisational music, which I think is the whole ball of wax, because that's where the rubber really meets the road -- and it's why we play it," says Benson. "I think it's interesting to listen to updated versions of what people do, hearing how they have evolved. People change, and I love to have the luxury of having a career this long to do it. Part of the impetus was touring with Bob Dylan last year. Every night, Dylan would do those damn songs a little differently and it made it very exciting to see where they were going to go each night"
And so each of these cuts swings in a way like they've literally never swung before. Along the way, friends of the Wheel, old and new, pitch in to give the performances a unique spin. Original band co-founder, Lucky Oceans, finds his way back up from the Land Down Under to contribute killer steel guitar, as does Texas steel legend Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely, Dixie Chicks). Johnny Gimble plays electric mandolin -- "the biggest little instrument in the world" on "Big Balls in Cowtown," Huey Lewis blows harp on the hilarious, "The Last Meal," and the Grammy-nominated country traditionalist Brad Paisley struts his formidable guitar chops on the instrumental, "Sugarfoot Rag."
Benson has always been about reaching out to others. As a founding member of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, he's been quietly giving back to the pioneers of black music. And on his records, he's quick to embrace promising young talent. To that end, he enlisted the always timeless Mandy Barnett to sing the part on the Wheel's tawdry family meltdown plea, "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read."
" When Mandy came in, it was just obvious that she was the choice," Benson says. "We'd talked to some wonderful girl singers - who weren't allowed to come out and play - but from the moment Mandy opened her mouth, she was the person who was meant to sing this song. How often does that happen?"
For Benson, that will to pick began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- far, far away from the city of Austin, Texas, which the Wheel has proudly called home for the last twenty-eight years. "I was born in 1951, and big band music was still very much around and in my community, it was still very much the thing," Benson explains. "I played bass in my school stage band in tenth grade, and my musical director introduced us to Count Bassie. And I knew jazz, because Philadelphia is a great jazz community. And Lucky's parents were sort of like beatniks; and his dad gave us some Lester Young records when we were still in high school. But I just happened to be a weird kind of guy: I was also into folk music, Chicago blues and country. My goal was to be more different than anybody, and that's what Asleep at the Wheel was all about: doing roots music that was different and eclectic."
The songs on The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel are proof positive that the Wheel has built an enduring career living up to that high standard, while the album itself also represents to Benson an all together different sort of different. After test driving virtually every major label ("Some more than once," muses Benson) down the often bumpy and perilous road of the music industry, Asleep at the Wheel has found a home with the aptly named indie, Relentless Records.
" I've been told that I'm relentless, so I guess I am," he says. "Every time that I figured I was going to quit, we'd have a wonderful, incredible show where the people were so appreciative that we were doing this music that it's like, 'Well, hell -- this beats working, so why not keep doing it?' Honestly, I would like to see this go on forever. If I'm not here, I think there's some capable hands being developed right now. My son is 17; he plays guitar and sings, so you never know. Our fiddle player, Jason Roberts, is twenty-five years old, and he's an encyclopedia of both country music and western swing. Our piano player, John Michael, is 22. They weren't born when we started, and they grew up on Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait, and Bob Wills records. Western Swing ain't going away."
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