Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Asleep At The Wheel celebrates 50 years with PBS special

Sarah Asch
Austin American-Statesman
(From left to right) Sam Seifert, Ray Benson and Aaron Seifert in Switzerland on Asleep At The Wheel's European tour last summer. The brothers produced a TV special to honor the band's 50th anniversary this year that will air locally on PBS on Oct. 31.

For Sam and Aaron Seifert, creating a TV special to honor the 50th anniversary of Asleep At The Wheel means honoring the legacy of Austin City Limits and indeed the city of Austin itself.

As the sons of the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist Ray Benson, the brothers grew up surrounded by some of the biggest musicians in swing, blues and country. Their goal in producing this special, which will air locally on Saturday, Oct. 31, on PBS, was to showcase the band’s history through the decade starting with the band’s performance on the first episode of the first season of Austin City Limits.

Aaron Seifert, who has a background in audio production and who works as the band’s manager, pitched the idea for the special to showcase past performances by the band and the hand Austin City Limits had in creating the local music scene.

“The whole cosmic cowboy Armadillo era of the Austin music scene, that early to mid ’70s thing, that was kind of what created the whole live capital of the world,” he said. “You’ve got names like Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, Doug Sahm, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker. That was the local scene and that’s pretty incredible to think about on the national scale. Austin City Limits was the introduction to the world of what was going on at the time in what was a very small college town.”

The special pulls footage of the band’s performances on Austin City Limits over the years and includes songs like “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” “Miles and Miles of Texas” and “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” For certain songs, including “Take Me Back to Tusla” and “Choo Choo Boogie,” which were performed multiple times, the special shows a compilation of different performances of the same track.

The special will also include segments of an interview between Benson and Austin City Limits’ Terry Licona reminiscing about the band and the show in Studio 6A at KLRU. Aaron Seifert, who has a background in video, said the hardest part was choosing which of the over 70 songs to include and what to leave on the cutting room floor.

“We hope that people will discover new performances or new songs or new things that maybe they’re not aware of because the band’s been around for so long they’ve had many different decades of fans,” he said.

He said his favorite performance is a cut from the special “Swinging Over the Rainbow” in the early ’80s, which only aired a few times and probably hasn’t been viewed much by the public.

“It’s pretty much just a jam in the vein of old time swing music and so if you're interested in that kind of music it’s a very unique look at a very cool performance,” he said. “Just top of the line musicians and it’s something you can’t find anywhere else.”

Sam Seifert said he really enjoys going back to that first episode, and other early performances to see how different Austin City Limits used to be.

“Austin City Limits didn’t have that iconic backdrop back then,” he said. “It was a whole different thing. The crowd sat behind the stage on the floor. The demographic of the people attending were young hippies and you saw that mix and that cultural change. So I think as much as it is for us as a band celebrating 50 years, the historical significance to this town is showcased within these episodes.”

While the brothers know many of the viewers will be the band’s existing fan base, Aaron Seifert said he hopes his generation will check it out because they are familiar with Austin City Limits and discover new music.

“I hope my generation catches onto it and will start to kind of try to discover more of western swing, Bob Wills, old country, whichever pieces of this music speaks to them, because it is a wide range,” he said. “We think it’s a special look back at the history of Austin through the eyes of this band and as Austin continues to change it’s good to look back at the history and see where Austin City Limits and Asleep At The Wheel came from and see where they are now.”

Ray Benson, front man for Asleep At The Wheel, performs with Willie Nelson on Austin City Limits for the band's 25th anniversary in 1995. To mark the 50th anniversary this year, Benson's sons produced a PBS special honoring the band's history.