Asleep at the Wheel Take Another Swing at Bob Wills

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Still the King is the Asleep at the Wheel’s third tribute to Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, but frontman Ray Benson knows there is a lot more to explore. Not only did the Western swing legends leave behind a massive catalog of sturdy hits, but those songs remain relevant and popular 40 years after Wills’ death.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how this music has stayed alive with no help from country radio,” Benson says. “But the fact is, people still appreciate different kinds of country music, including Western swing.”

This loose trilogy of tributes, the first of which appeared in 1993, traces Wills’ legacy across subsequent generations of country and roots artists. In addition to Willie Nelson and George Strait, Still the King features contributions from whippersnappers like Old Crow Medicine Show, Kat Edmonson, Pokey LaFarge and Elizabeth Cook — many of whom grew up listening to Asleep at the Wheel in much the same way that Benson grew up listening to Wills.

CMT Edge: Tell me about your first exposure to Bob Wills. What about his music first grabbed you?

Benson: I would have been a teenager, about 17 years old. I was playing in the school orchestra, the marching band, singing in the choir, and I was playing country music and folk and rock ‘n’ roll. I played in square dance bands. I love country music and fiddle music, so when I first heard Bob Wills, that stuff hit the spot. The thing about him is, there were dozens of wonderful Western swing bands throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. But Bob Wills had this funkiness and vitality and humor, plus a cast of standout players. So he stood out and lasted a long time.

I always tell people, the main thing about playing music onstage is that most of the audience is not musically trained to know the nuance of what you’re doing. But they do know whether or not you’re enjoying yourself and having fun and being sincere. And that’s what Bob Wills got across. He was this character who was hollering and pointing out the guys in the band. He always introduced his musicians, whereas nobody in the big swing bands ever said who was playing.

His music synthesized a lot of different American traditions, all under the umbrella of country music, which could also be said of Asleep at the Wheel.

That’s what I feel is the essence of country and western music. It drew on everything American. You’ve got honky-tonk. You’ve got Cajun music. You’ve got bluegrass and Western swing. You’ve got pop country, like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. And the Texas Playboys drew from New Orleans jazz, West Texas fiddle music, cowboy songs, and a whole lot more. That’s the beauty of it.

And the music is so improvisational. Every time I play these songs, I can change them. It keeps them fresh. I’ve been doing “Take Me Back to Tulsa” for 40 years now — longer, in fact. It only has two chords, but what you do with those two chords can be different every night. And the older I get, the more important each note becomes. When I was younger, it was like, how many notes can I fit in here? And now it’s like, how can I make one note memorable?

How do you hear his influence in younger generations of musicians?

Think about this. We opened the last George Strait concert for 104,000 people. It was the largest indoor concert held anywhere. He’s without question the most popular male country singer in America, no doubt about it. And he’s still playing Bob Wills’ music. And we’re still playing Bob Wills’ music. And there are dozens and dozens of bands of young folks, middle-aged folk, even old folks like me playing Western swing music.

Why did you decide to record another tribute to Wills?

I co-produced this record with my son, Sam. He runs our recording studio here in Austin and works in the management office. When he suggested the idea for this record, I said, “No. We’re not doing another Bob Wills album. We’ve already done two.” But he told me, “Dad, your last was 15 years ago. That’s a long time.”

So I called up Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett, who have been on all our tribute albums. And Sam said, “Why don’t we get some folks my age?” So we reached out to Amos Lee. The Avett Brothers and Old Crow are doing now what I was doing 30 years ago. I didn’t know anything about the Devil Makes Three, but Sam said they’re a cool band.

You also have two of the Texas Playboys on here.

Billy Briggs is 92 and still playing the hell out of the saxophone. He played on a record of ours in 1975. And Leon Rausch is 86 or 87. He sang with the Playboys and has been a friend and collaborator of ours. We did a whole album with him a couple of years ago. These are the guys I learned from when I started out in 1970, so there’s been this kind of continuity. They passed on this music to us, and now we hope we’re passing it along to a new generation.

I hope when I’m 92 I’m still …

Above ground! Billy’s energy is incredible. He’ll come out to shows in Dallas and play with us, this old man up there playing his heart out for two hours. He told me once, “I might have to sit down for part of the show.” Well, OK. Musicians don’t ask how old you are. They ask how good you are.

Do you feel like you’re taking a mentor role for people like Old Crow or Kat Edmonson?

That would be an honor and I would love that role, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. I hope I’ve learned enough from those guys to impart a little bit of what they showed me.

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