The Kings of Western Swing
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If you want a robust career in the entertainment business, it helps to be in the right place at the right time.
Of course, there is no way to accurately predict where the right place will be and what time one should plan on arriving there.
Ray Benson, founder and lead singer of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel was in the right place at the right time about 45 years ago, and he has Willie Nelson to thank for it.
Asleep at the Wheel perform at the Clyde Theatre on June 14.
These days Benson and his band are the leading practitioners and protectors of the Western swing tradition.
Benson didn’t start out to be the leading practitioner and protector of the Western swing music tradition. It just worked out that way.
When Benson was a boy growing up in Pennsylvania, the leading practitioner and protector of the Western swing music tradition was a guy named Bob Wills.
Benson loves Wills and has spent his career paying tribute to the man and his music in various ways. But Wills was not the artist who sparked his love of all the country-tinged genres that are now lumped under the rubric of “traditional country music.”
Benson owes his love of country music and country music culture to a woman named Sally Starr.
Starr was a children’s TV host whose flamboyant Western outfits were later echoed in garb worn by the character of Jessie in the Toy Story films.
Starr was just one of the performers who made a big impression on Benson as a kid and as a teenager. Others included Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Count Basie, BB King, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
He said he first encountered one of Wills’ songs when he was 16 years old.
“I just collected a lot of different kinds of music,” Benson said in a phone interview. “It was ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’ and I thought, ‘Wow! What’s this?'”
When Asleep at the Wheel first formed in 1970, it wasn’t a Western swing band, per se.
“We did some Bob Wills songs,” he said, “We were mostly about American roots music from the ’20s, ’30s and 40s.”
The inception of Asleep at the Wheel happened in Paw Paw, West Virginia at the family farm of one of the band’s members.
In 1973, Asleep at the Wheel released its debut record called “Comin’ Right At Ya.” It caught the ear of a Wills fan named Willie Nelson.
Nelson was not yet the beloved cultural institution and life guru that we know and love today, so perhaps his advice wasn’t as ironclad as it came to be.
But Benson took it anyway.
The band, which had been encouraged by George Frayne of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen to come out to California, was subsequently encouraged by Nelson to move to Austin.
“He said he’d put us on shows and stuff,” Benson said. “We made $100 for the whole band, but that was great.”
The band arrived in Austin at an opportune moment. Hippies and cowboys were commingling in surprisingly friendly and fruitful ways and something that came to be called the “cosmic cowboy” movement was in the offing.
“We could play the redneck dance halls and the hippie hop joints,” Benson said. “Nobody else but Willie Nelson could do that. And Waylon, you know.”
It wasn’t perfect. Benson said that people didn’t always understand or appreciate what the band was trying to do. And Benson admits he didn’t much like some of the music that came out of the cosmic cowboy movement.
Benson’s said his musical tastes were too eclectic even to be encompassed by the movement.
The band’s evolution from a “regressive country” outfit to a Western swing revival act was gradual, he said.
To wit: The band’s first hit single, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” was a languid duet that Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn could have covered.
In the ensuing decades, Asleep at the Wheel have collaborated with so many country and Americana artists that a list of who the band did not collaborate with would take up less space in the paper.
The band is well and overtly loved by such Millennial-skewing acts as Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three and Old Crow Medicine Show.
As a way of ensuring freshness, Asleep at the Wheel have cycled through more than 100 different members over the years.
Benson said he likes continuously to invigorate the band with young talent, and he doesn’t really have to hold auditions.
“They find us,” he said. “There’s a grapevine of musicians that just know. These are folks that I would see. I am always listening to new music. I am always seeking new music.”
Benson admits that he has felt, from time to time, a little constrained by the band’s identity as the standard bearers of Western swing.
But Benson said the band’s younger fans seem more open to stylistic explorations and expeditions.
In September, Asleep at the Wheel will release one of its boldest albums yet called New Routes.
“It’s different,” Benson said. “We went pretty far afield. There’s no Bob Wills on it. We’ve already done three Bob Wills tribute albums.”
The new record will feature an Avett Brothers collaboration, he said.
In these younger artists, Benson said he sees what he was 40 years ago.
Benson is still an avid musical collector and a passionate amateur musicologist. He said it is stunning to contemplate how much the music business and music listening habits have changed in the last century.
“You have to understand that we are living in a time right now when 100 years of recorded music is available on demand by punching a button,” he said. “All of a sudden, there’s 100 years of recorded music. One hundred years ago there was none. One hundred years ago people learned face-to-face.
“It’s just a whole ‘nother ball of wax,” Benson said. “Anybody who is interested in creating music can access every genre, every type of music, that has ever been done and decide how their creativity fits into it.”