It’s a Friday afternoon on the outskirts of Austin, and Asleep at the Wheel’s bus is gradually filling up for a trip to Corpus Christi. Band leader Ray Benson welcomes members as they come aboard: tipping his cowboy hat to keyboardist Connor Forsyth, joking about fiddler Dennis Ludiker’s new haircut, asking drummer Dave Sanger how many shows the band plays annually. (The answer, for those keeping score, is 120 to 135.)
Soon they’ll be on the road. But first, Benson and Katie Shore, a singer-fiddler-songwriter from Fort Worth who joined the group about five years ago, have given me an hour of their time to talk about the band’s new album, “New Routes.”
Released Sept. 14, it’s the first “normal” Asleep at the Wheel album in a decade, following a string of tributes, collaborations and live recordings. Building on a handful of Benson and Shore originals with carefully selected covers from the likes of Guy Clark, Johnny Cash and even Scottish indie-rocker Paolo Nutini, “New Routes” is a joyous listen from start to finish.
It’s also clearly a coming-out party for Shore, who sings lead on six of the album’s 11 tracks and has become increasingly integral to the band's identity. This isn’t entirely surprising: If you’ve seen the Wheel play in recent years, you probably noticed that Shore, who admits she was like “a deer in the headlights” when she began with the band in 2013, is now a confident performer with a flair that fits perfectly into the Wheel’s country-swing revue.
She’s also an increasingly prolific songwriter. Two years ago she released “Fall Away,” an album she’d recorded just before joining the Wheel. On “New Routes,” she wrote two tracks on her own and co-wrote another with Benson.
“I didn’t set out to write songs for a Wheel record, but I’m pretty excited that that’s been the case,” Shore says. The gypsy-jazz-tinged “I Am Blue” attracted Benson because “it sounds like a French movie,” he says, explaining that he’s glad to have the band’s horizons expanded. Shore’s “Weary Rambler” might be the best track on the album, a loping country-folk tune with an exquisite, timeless melody.
And then there’s the co-writing. Benson and Shore came up with “Call It a Day Tonight” together, starting with his title and her melody one afternoon and continuing by text that evening.
“In the past, in order to co-write, you really had to be in a room together,” Benson says. “Instead, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got the bridge,’ and I just sent her a text with it, with me on the guitar. And then she had some words, and boom boom boom, we got it.”
“There was something cosmic about that, too,” Shore adds. “We were thinking about it at the same time and working on it. Had he been sleeping that night or vice versa, it wouldn’t have had the same outcome.”
Lest we focus too much on the Benson/Shore part of the new Wheel equation, both of them credit the success of “New Routes” largely to the versatility of the entire eight-piece lineup. Benson’s the only constant in the band’s nearly five-decade run; the list of former members is in the dozens. But after the departures of singer Elizabeth McQueen and fiddler Jason Roberts, plus a brief stint with keyboardist Emily Gimble that didn’t pan out, Benson rebuilt with a new crew he seems particularly jazzed about.
Shore was a key acquisition, but Ludiker was vital too, giving the band that twin-fiddles engine of western swing and contributing vocals as well. Forsyth’s piano skills have become essential to the band’s sound, filling out melodies alongside pedal steel/sax player Eddie Rivers and part-time saxophonist Jay Reynolds. Bassist Josh Hoag, who replaced David Miller about a year ago, is the most recent newcomer; he anchors the rhythm with Sanger, whose 30-plus years on drums put him behind only Benson in Wheel tenure.
“Every so often you reinvent your band — using the past as a pedestal and then going forward with the talents of each person,” Benson says. “The reason we were able to do (‘New Routes’) was because we had the personnel to do it.”
“Everybody had input,” Shore concurs. "Whether it’s parts or songs … and so many different styles. It was kind of a breath of fresh air. We were doing things we loved that we just thought, ‘Hey, you know what, this is an opportunity to try it.’
“We all understand the western swing part of the Wheel. But we all love swing and blues and funky stuff outside of the roots thing as well. So it was cool that we could actually do all of those things on this record. We could bring all of our influences to the table.”
An example of the spread-it-around credit: Sanger was the one who suggested they tackle Nutini’s minor European hit “Pencil Full of Lead.” Sung with gusto by Benson, it’s a natural for the Wheel, with rapid-fire, upbeat lyrics and a fast-paced tempo that both swings and rocks.
The Johnny Cash tune “Big River” came from a surprise source. Shore’s brother, Ross Holmes, plays in Bruce Hornsby’s band, and at a 2016 Stubb’s show, they asked her to sing “Big River” with them.
“I was so nervous. I was forgetting the words like a minute before I got there,” she says. Apparently it went well enough that Benson thought the Wheel should take it on: “I said, ‘Hey, come and sing it (with us).’ So, thank you, Bruce!”
A key moment in the middle of the album is Benson’s graceful delivery of Guy Clark’s masterpiece “Dublin Blues.” In 2001, Benson recorded a beautiful version of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” for a tribute album. This new one by Van Zandt’s close companion feels like a perfect sequel.
“We were friends,” Benson says of Clark, who died in 2016 at age 74. “And the thing about that song, is, I lived that song, too. The same thing: Being in Europe and losing my girl. And it’s a perfect song. It’s like, ‘Wow, how do you write a perfect song?’”
A sort of postscript at the end of the record came from Seth and Scott Avett, leaders of prominent North Carolina band the Avett Brothers. Benson has bonded with them in recent years, and when Seth sent him a song about Willie Nelson he’d written recently called “Willie Got There First,” Benson jumped at the chance to include it on “New Routes.” For good measure, he brought in Willie’s longtime harmonica ace Mickey Raphael and piano-playing sister Bobbie Nelson to play on the track.
It was one of the last things recorded at Bismeaux, Benson’s South Austin studio that shut down last year, another consequence of rising property taxes pricing longtime local fixtures out of business. “It broke my heart,” Benson says of his decision to sell the studio after a 27-year run.
“The guy I sold it to is going to do something with it; he’s not going to tear it down,” Benson says. “But I told him, ‘You know who walked through these doors? Sir George Martin. Garth Brooks. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard. Then go off into left field, like the Rebirth Jazz Band, Los Lonely Boys, etc. I said, ‘I hope you realize that this is a pretty important place. There should be a plaque on the damn wall.’ We’ll see what happens. But it’s sad.”
Benson still has the studio gear and plans to continue recording and producing at his home in Southeast Travis County. His son, Sam Seifert, who produced “New Routes,” has his own spread east of town in Manor; that’s where band members were gathering for the bus trip to Corpus on this late-summer afternoon.
The last thing Benson recorded at Bismeaux was a song he and Shore did with Hawaiian ukulele wunderkind Jake Shimabukuro, for whom Benson is producing an album with guest vocalists including Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler and Michael McDonald. He’s also been bugging Shore about doing another solo record. “I hear you talkin’,” she replies slyly, quoting the chorus of a song she sang on the band’s 2015 Bob Wills tribute “Still the King.”
At 67, Benson shows no signs of stopping the Wheel any time soon. “No way,” he says flatly. “Only if I can’t physically do it and if people stop showing up. So far, so good.” He hints at plans for a big 50th-anniversary celebration in Austin in 2020.
In the meantime, he and the band will be back at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Friday. They’re the only band that’s played every single year of ACL Fest.
Benson was on the board of KLRU-TV, the Austin PBS affiliate that produces the “Austin City Limits” television show, when the festival launched in 2002. His early support, along with the Wheel’s role in the TV program’s inception — they played the first show in 1976, after Willie Nelson’s 1974 pilot episode — spurred C3 Presents to offer the band a unique deal.
“They said, ‘Well, you did the first "Austin City Limits" TV show, so you’ll open the fest every year.' I’ve held them to that, so far. The festival has changed quite a bit, and we’re very fortunate that they include us, because that’s the one continuity to the ACL name.”
Expect to hear some of “New Routes,” some Bob Wills essentials and maybe a fitting cover choice worked into the mix when the Wheel begins its traditional noontime set at the Honda Stage on Friday. Asked about bookending the day with headliner Paul McCartney, Benson talks about how Beatles classics such as “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are easily adaptable to bluegrass and western swing.
“I think we definitely ought to do a Paul McCartney tune” at the fest, he says. Shore agrees, voicing a sentiment that could apply as much to five decades of the Wheel as six decades of McCartney: “It’s just the soundtrack of our lives, you know?”