Asleep at the Wheel
The number of individual artists and bands who have sustained a thriving career for a half-century is infinitesimally small. Against all odds, Asleep At the Wheel is one of these. The stars aligned in 1970 when three friends Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston moved to Paw Paw, West Virginia (it’s not a made-up place, you can look it up). It was there that their dream of forming a band began after a mutual friend gave them access to his uncle’s cabin on an apple orchard just outside of town. The three friends began to – quite literally -- woodshed and found others who would join them in their mission to play old-style Roots/Americana music. This was long before the genre/movement even had a name. After a trip to the outhouse, Lucky lived up to his name and suggested the band be called Asleep at the Wheel and so it was to be for the next 50 years.
Not long after that fateful move to Paw Paw, Asleep at the Wheel landed a gig opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in Washington DC, where they met and played with Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. Just a year later, they were coaxed into moving to California’s San Francisco Bay Area by that selfsame Commander Cody. They created a name for themselves out west playing clubs like The Longbranch, Freight and Salvage, Inn of the Beginning and Mandrakes. The band’s big break came in 1973 when they signed their first record deal after Van Morrison mentioned them in a Rolling Stone interview, commenting, “There’s some relatively unknown groups that I dig. Asleep at the Wheel plays great country music.”
Comin’ Right At Ya, their album debut was released was that same year by United Artists. Soon thereafter, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm recommended they band move to Austin, Texas and so they did. After playing their first show there at the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, the band never left and has made Austin their home for more than 45 years. The release of Texas Gold in 1975 brought the band national recognition, with the top-ten country hit single “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read.” The band was also showcased on the very first ever episode of Austin City Limits. To date, they’ve appeared on a total of eleven episodes of the show.
The musicianship of Asleep at the Wheel has come to be the stuff of legends. They were pegged by Reuters as “one of the best lives acts in the business.” Throughout its history, the band has become a national touring phenomenon. They show up at gigs around the country with anywhere between 7 and 15 of the finest musicians that Ray Benson, the band’s constant, might convince to hopping on a bus and traverse the continent. The band’s roster of alumni number over 100 and includes an impressive list of musicians who have gone on to perform with artists such as Bob Dylan, George Strait, Van Morrison, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, and many more.
Asleep at the Wheel and Ray Benson have been the chief practitioners, conspirators, and caretakers of Western swing, carrying the torch lit by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys well into the 21st century, influencing their contemporaries as well as the next generation of artists inspired by the great bandleader. Their bearing of the western swing torch has yielded three Bob Wills tribute albums: “A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills” “Ride with Bob” and “Still the King." These records have won multiple Grammy awards and have featured a wide range of musical guests including such veterans as George Strait, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, The Manhattan Transfer, Merle Haggard, Huey Lewis, and Garth Brooks as well as young roots artists like The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Amos Lee.
Since inception, Asleep at the Wheel has been received 10 GRAMMY® Awards, was cited by the Country Music Association as 1976 Touring Band of the Year and were given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americana Music Association in 2009. They have released 31 albums, charted more than 20 singles on the country charts. Billboard commented on the band’s catalog most succinctly: “Everything this act has ever released is simply spectacular.
Most recently, Asleep at the Wheel has been invigorated by a fresh new lineup and the release of New Routes, their latest album that is a bracing blend of original songs and vibrant cover material along with some unanticipated new musical tangents. Asleep At the Wheel have demonstrated convincingly, that they are more relevant, enjoyable and musically nimble than at any time in its 50-year history. The 6’7” Ray Benson has been the one constant in Asleep At the Wheel since 1970. He notes, “I've been told that I'm relentless, so I guess I am…. I’m just doing what I believe I’m meant to do — I’m singing and playing and writing better than I ever have. My role and concept of leading a band has never changed, It’s gathering the best musicians I can find or convince to play to the best of their ability, and I just try and make the best decisions possible and kick some ass every night onstage. I’ve made it this far and don’t feel like I or the band will be slowing down anytime soon.”