Listen to Austin 360 Radio

40 years swinging with Asleep at the Wheel

Secrets to Wheel's longevity? Timelessness, talent and fun

Brian T. Atkinson
Huey Lewis

“So, Ray, how do you feel about Asleep at the Wheel turning 40?”

Ray Benson pauses thoughtfully. Slowly surveys responses. The query momentarily sticks to the breeze backstage at last month’s Austin City Limits Music Festival. Benson tilts his chin skyward with comic earnestness.

Suddenly, he jolts with an exacting exclamation: “Holy (cow)!” Benson quickly chases the words with cavernous, exuberant laughter. “Man, it’s hard to put into words. Ten years is what we thought it’d be. In 1969, we had this idea to have this roots Americana band, longhairs making country music. When you’re 19 and everybody like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin dies (young), you think it’ll last 10 years.”

Multiply that by two and two again.

Forty years can easily hang a hat. Yet Austin’s most enduring Western swing progenitors shift and shuffle as vibrantly today as when they blew into town from Berkeley, Calif., in 1973.

Exhibit A: “It’s a Good Day!” Asleep at the Wheel’s new album overflows with youthful glee and gumption as it caroms (“Osage Stomp”) and cruises (“Mean Woman with the Green Eyes”) with trademark good cheer. Its seamless patchwork unifies equal measures Dixieland (“Basin Street Blues”), jumpy jazz (“Alright, Okay, You Win”) and sultry swing (“Snap Your Fingers”). Few machines come better oiled.

Perhaps that’s no surprise. After all, Asleep at the Wheel hasn’t notched nine Grammy Awards by fluke.

At heart, legendary singer Leon Rausch, the former vocalist for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and the Wheel’s creative beacon since day one, fortifies this energetic collection. The 83-year-old by turns provides Western swing’s definitive swagger (“Truck Driver’s Blues,” a duet with Willie Nelson) and swoon (“Rosetta”). At times, Benson and Rausch simply sound like an inseparable yin and yang (“It’s a Good Day”).

“I’ve known Leon for a long time,” Benson says. “He was a great inspiration. We learned how to do this from him, and then we put our own stamp on it. (In the studio), he sort of let us tell him what to do. He picked a couple songs, but I picked most all and we arranged them like we do together.”

Most notably, the mentor paints a reworked “Get Your Kicks (On Route 66)” with unmistakable authenticity. “For this album, Ray said, ‘Let’s do another version,’ ” Rausch says. “I said, ‘You’ve already done it, Ray.’ He said, ‘Well, not with you singing on it. Let’s see how you do it.’ In other words, ‘You’re such a big shot and you know what ‘Route 66’ is all about, you sing it!’ ” Rausch laughs heartily.

“It fits them real well,” continues the Fort Worth-area resident, who sagely advised Benson to cover the band’s signature song more than 35 years ago. “I don’t take the pat on the back for that, but I did mention to Ray that they should do it. He makes a big deal of it on his show, and that’s OK.”

Benson snatches the baton. “Nat ‘King’ Cole did ‘Route 66’ as a real jazzy, finger-snapping tune,” he says. “Real cool, you know. It was about 1973 when Leon said, ‘You ought to take that old “Route 66” and do it like a boogie woogie.’ (Asleep at the Wheel’s has) been one of the most successful versions of ‘Route 66’ of all time because it’s got that moving bass that gives the image of moving down the highway.”

Folks clearly relate. Diversity at the band’s ninth annual ACL festival-opening set spoke volumes: University hipsters and aging hippies alike gathered to celebrate a timelessness largely absent from popular music. Benson credits the Internet for new and renewed interest.

“I see more people of every kind being exposed to the swing genre that is 70, 80 years old via YouTube,” he says. “A lot of people see the freedom and nostalgia of it. It’s improvisational, and that’s an American musical tradition that’s unique and disappearing. The beat itself is what makes it so interesting. It’s very organic, but it’s also big city.”

Plus, these guys draw numbers by just plain having fun. Benson and Rausch’s playful banter practically levitated the stage at their July record-release performance at Waterloo Records. “I’m sure a big fan of Ray Benson and all those guys,” Rausch says. “We like each other. My dad was a musician, and he told me years ago, ‘You can’t make music with a guy you don’t like.’ That makes a lot of sense.”

___

Huey Lewis' Northern California band Clover frequently split bills with Asleep at the Wheel during the early 1970s. The East Coast native recalls his fondness for the Wheel and the days before his popular outfit Huey Lewis and the News dominated 1980s mainstream radio ("I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock and Roll").

American-Statesman: Describe the Northern California scene in the early 1970s.

Huey Lewis: It was very provincial, very local. (Clover) had a thing going in Marin County, and (Asleep at the Wheel) had a thing going in Berkeley. We'd open for them in Berkeley, and they'd open for us in Marin County. The idea was that we'd appeal to each other's audience, but I'm not sure that it really worked that way. The musicians became really good friends, though.

What were your early impressions of Ray Benson?

I love Ray. He's a great musician and singer, but he's also a great bandleader. Some people are one or the other, but being both is pretty rare. He gets the idea that to have a good band, it's not just about performing but the other nuances that go into keeping the circus alive and on the road. Ray sets by example.

Relatively few young bands were playing Western swing at the time.

(Commander) Cody was the first, and we were doing a little in Clover. Ray's a very bright guy. We had three singers, Cody had a couple singers, but Ray was focused. It was Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel. It was more of a professional outfit in a way. He was running a much tighter ship, needless to say.

You both came from the East Coast, right?

Oh yeah! I'd been at Cornell (University) in upstate New York. You know, Ray and I actually went to rival prep schools in New Jersey at the same time, so we had similar upbringings. We're both suburban kids who reinvented themselves. When I saw Ray and Asleep at the Wheel, it was the closest thing to authentic Western swing that I'd seen.

What kind of a friend is Ray?

He's the greatest. He has a heart as big as Texas, a sweet guy who sees the silver lining in everything. He's an optimist. Believe me, that helps as a struggling musician.

What's most similar about your musical tastes?

It occurs to me that oftentimes the music that Ray and I love is happy music made by people who have nothing. They're celebrating in the face of adversity to make themselves feel better. Ray's show will cheer you up. We can all use a cheer up.

How has Asleep at the Wheel managed to last 40 years?

I think their key to longevity is that they just do a real good job. There are a lot of things about being "hot" or "now" with records, but ultimately, if you're a good band and you go out there and play live, people enjoy that. (Asleep at the Wheel) is always worth the money. They're just ridiculously good.

___

"It's been a rollercoaster ride," Ray Benson says of Asleep at the Wheel's four-decade run. "We're talking hills and valleys. For this 40th anniversary show, there will be different decades of musicians and the arrangements have changed slightly. It'll be fun to see which ones they remember."

Founding band member Lucky Oceans shares his thoughts on rejoining the group Friday at the Long Center and Asleep at the Wheel's key to longevity:

"I look forward to hanging out with my old friends who I spent so many hours and days and weeks and month and years with traveling around the country and making music we really believed in and being crazy together. I look forward to laughing uncontrollably while recalling some of the things that we did. I look forward to applying all the life and musical knowledge I've gained back to playing with a band I left when I was 28. Everyone else will do the same, so it'll be great to watch the rehearsals and playing unfold.

"Ray is one of the best businessmen I know. Who else could keep a band together for 40 years playing such niche music? He dreams and schemes and never thinks anything will fail and goes headlong into anything he does. His connections, people skills and showmanship have kept the band going. The scores of great musicians who have played with the band have helped uphold its reputation, but Ray is at the center of it all. And having a name like ‘Asleep at the Wheel' has helped. Wonder who thought of that?"

___

Celebration concert

Asleep at the Wheel's 40th anniversary concert featuring Leon Rausch, Willie Nelson, Lucky Oceans and others

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $30 to $500, through Austin Lyric Opera: austinlyricopera.org, 472-5992