Can a wheel reinvent itself while it's still rolling?
Sounds like an impossible task -- but you never want to say "impossible" to Asleep at the Wheel, the famed western-swing, boogie, and roots-music outfit that's, amazingly, still on the upswing. That's saying something, too, considering the group's been around for nearly 40 years, turning out an incredible 25+ albums while playing an unrelenting schedule of one-nighters that would make a vaudevillian dizzy.
"In terms of how many people we played for, what we accomplished, and how much money we made, well, we didn't make any money, this year was absolutely our best year ever," says Wheel founder and front man Ray Benson with a chuckle.
And even as the Wheel rolled on, the reinvention had begun. You could see and hear it in their live shows, where new vocalist Elizabeth McQueen invited comparison with the classic female vocalists of the band's earlier era, and fiddler-singer Jason Roberts gave the band a second male lead voice to complement Benson's immediately identifiable baritone.
These days, the reinvented Wheel is also rolling down a couple of new avenues. One involves to the critically acclaimed musical play, A Ride With Bob, which stars Benson as himself -- encountering the ghost of Bob Wills on a tour bus, Roberts as the young Wills, and McQueen as Minnie Pearl and other famed entertainment figures, with the rest of the band members featured as well. Originally designed as a one-off celebration of Wills' 100th birthday in '05, A Ride With Bob quickly took on a life of its own and, notes Benson, "it's absolutely a part of what we do now." Another success has been the adaptation of the Wheel's repertoire for pops symphony. Performances with Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth & Amarillo symphonies have drawn record crowds.
The Wheel's new look is also spotlighted in several new discs, the first called, appropriately enough, Reinventing the Wheel. The 12-cut celebration of American, particularly Southwestern, music features guest appearances by gospel's Blind Boys of Alabama (with a splendid reworking of the old Wills tune "The Devil Ain't Lazy") and banjoist Rolf Sieker, along with lead vocals by McQueen and Roberts as well as Benson, whose voice has been synonymous with Asleep at the Wheel for decades.
The second is 2009's Willie and the Wheel; a collaboration with Willie Nelson that was originally envisioned by famed producer Jerry Wexler in the 1970s. Unfortunately before they had a chance to cut it, Nelson had left Atlantic Records. But over the ensuing decades Wexler kept the idea alive and even gave Ray his entire collection of western swing vinyl that included his notes on song choices and treatments. In late 2007 the idea was revived and Jerry and Ray reconnected by phone. Always the producer with a vision, Jerry was involved in every way. He insisted that some of the tracks should include horns as well as a return to traditional fiddles and lap steel guitar associated with western swing. As the sessions concluded and Willie finished his vocals the tracks were sent
to Jerry. "To my delight and relief," says Ray, "he loved them." In fact, Wexler heard most of the finished tracks prior to his passing in August 2008. "Jerry wanted us to do this album and I'm glad we got to do it for him," says Willie Nelson. "And that he heard it before he passed on."
The success of the Willie and the Wheel album release was quickly followed up by a tour and even a taping of the 35th anniversary of Austin City Limits for PBS (for broadcast in Fall of 2009), a fitting double-bill as Willie had taped the pilot and Asleep at the Wheel appeared in the very first regular episode of the legendary live music television program.
And now in contemplating the 40th anniversary of Asleep at the Wheel in 2010, Ray remains focused on the original concept. "I carried the load for many, many years, but I've always just wanted to have a band, as opposed to Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel," Benson explains. "That's what we had in the '70s, a band, a revue kind of deal, which was the whole concept. But trying to replace a Chris O'Connell was very difficult. And then Elizabeth walks up, and boom: here's my girl singer. And then I kept pushing Jason, both through the play and through the band, saying, `Man, you've got talent. You can sing. You've got the golden ear, just apply it to your singing and songwriting.'"
Roberts, who's been the Wheel's full-time fiddler since early '96, welcomed the opportunity to be a part of the revamped, revue-style Wheel. "I think everybody got a chance to put their two cents in, and bring to the table what they had," he adds. "God bless Ray Benson for allowing us to do that.."
Adds McQueen, "One of the things about Asleep at the Wheel is that they always have great musicians. That's what they're known for. So for them to ask me to join and then to keep me in the band, and to let me step out a little more and stand in the shoes of Chris O'Connell and Maryann Price, who were amazing singers, that's an incredible honor. It's above and beyond my greatest expectations."
So, whether your next encounter with Asleep at the Wheel is at a dance or concert, or backing up Willie Nelson via the new disc, or at a live production of A Ride with Bob, you'll be witnessing something very special -- a band that's not only been entertaining audiences with its own genre-busting music for four decades, but also a group that's never been afraid to try something new -- including a reinvention, inspired by the past, that rolls joyously toward a long and shining future.
Asleep at the Wheel History 1951 Bandleader Ray Benson born in Philadelphia, PA. (March 16)
1970 Band forms in Paw Paw, WV. Play first "big show" opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna.
1971 Band moves to California at the invitation of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
Van Morrison helps the band to get first record deal by mentioning them in an interview in Rolling Stone Magazine - "there's some relatively unknown group around that I really dig. Asleep at the Wheel plays
great country music. They're really good musicians.
1973 Debut album Comin' Right At Ya released by United Artists
At invitation of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, band moves to Austin, Texas
1974 "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" from their second album Asleep at the Wheel is their first chart single.
Ray heads to Dallas to meet his idol, the legendary Bob Wills. At the last minute, the meeting is postponed because Wills is not well. Wills falls into a coma from which he never recovers. Ray ponders the conversation they would have had for the next 30 years.
1975 The release of Texas Gold on Capitol Records elevates the band to one of the most popular country acts of the decade, with "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" becoming a top-ten country hit.
Band stars on the premier episode of "Austin City Limits" television show (and has performed 11 times since then).
1977 Voted Best Country & Western Band by Rolling Stone
The Wheel awarded "Touring Band of the Year" by Academy of Country Music. Tours Europe with Emmylou Harris
1978 The sixth GrammyTM nomination turns out to be their first GrammyTM win for the country instrumental "One O'Clock Jump." The Wheel will go on to eight more to date.
Band appears in the film Roadie with Meatloaf, Blondie and Art Carney.
1979 Their first live album Served Live is recorded at the Austin Opera House
1987 The album 10 scores big with the GrammyTM-winning single "String of Pars."
1989 Against the advice of most music insiders, Ray establishes Bismeaux Studio in south Austin, initiating a successful recording and producing career not only for Asleep at the Wheel but also artists such as Don Walser, Sue Foley, Willie Nelson, Pam Tillis, Carolyn Wonderland, Aaron Watson, Suzy Bogguss, Dale Watson and many others.
1991 Ray directs the music and co-stars in the film Wild Texas Wind with Dolly Parton and Gary Busey. Ray serves as Executive Director and Co-Producer for The Kennedy Center's Texas Festival.
1992 Band featured on Route 66 Tour (66th Anniversary of Route 66)
1993 Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills for Liberty Records, including guest artists Garth Brooks, George Strait and Vince Gill amongst many others, is an instant hit, earning two GrammysTM and a live performance on the Country Music Awards telecast with Lyle Lovett.
1997 Old Silver Eagle tour bus retired with over 3 million miles.
1999 Ride With Bob CD is released by Dreamworks and includes guest performances by the Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Manhattan Transfer and others. The ensuing long form documentary The Making of Ride with Bob earns a regional Emmy Award. The album wins two GrammyTM Awards.
2000 Tour with Bob Dylan & George Strait Stadium Tours begin (2000-2001)
2002 Ray hosts the CMT special Stars Over Texas in Austin, going toe-to- toe with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.Band asked to give opening performance at inaugural Austin City Limits Festival and carry on the tradition annually.
2003 Ray releases his first solo record Beyond Time while at the same time managing to make two records with the band (Live at Billy Bob's Texas and Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo)
2004 Ray is named the official 2004 Texas State Musician
Asleep at the Wheel launches its Pops program in performances with Austin and Dallas Symphonies (and has since performed it regularly around the country)
2005 "A Ride with Bob: The Bob Wills Musical," co-written by Ray Benson and starring Ray and members of Asleep at the Wheel, debuts in Austin to coincide with Wills' 100th birthday. Through the year, further performances in 4 cities sell out and garner critical acclaim. (The Play continues to tour nationally, with over 70 performances to date)
2006 "A Ride with Bob" sells out the Kennedy Center, with President and Mrs. George W. Bush in attendance.
Bismeaux Records launches nationally with catalog releases of Asleep at the Wheel and Jason Roberts, as well as the new release of "Miss Understood" by Carolyn Wonderland.
2007 Band releases Reinventing the Wheel, their first feature CD in several years on Bismeaux Records.
Band hits the road for "Last of the Breed" Tour, featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price.
Performance filmed and broadcast nationally on PBS.
Ray serves as a judge on the ABC's "Six Degrees of Martina McBride."
2008 Ray Benson awarded the TEC - Les Paul Award by Mix Magazine honoring individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of recording technology.
Ray joins Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts for a musical tribute to Bob Wills on the 50th Annual GrammyTM Awards Telecast.
Presidential candidate Barrack Obama joins Ray Benson on stage for a performance of "Boogie Back to Texas" in Austin.
2009 Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel release "Willie & The Wheel" and earn a GrammyTM nomination for Best Americana Album, the first year this category is presented.
Americana Music Association honors Asleep at the Wheel with Lifetime Achievement Award in Performance.
2010 Asleep at the Wheel celebrates its 40th Anniversary.
Ray Benson is 6'7" tall and wears size 16 boots.
The roster of former and current members of Asleep at the Wheel is nearly 90 and includes many of
the finest musicians in the business who have gone on to perform and record with artists such as Bob
Dylan, George Strait, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Ryan Adams and many others.
Asleep at the Wheel has released 25+ feature albums (not including compilations, re-releases)
Ray Benson regularly provides voice-over talent for national advertising campaigns and radio station
imaging. Ray is also an active industry leader, serving as a Trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Chairman of the SIMS Foundation in Austin TX, and member of Board of Directors for several other Austin-based non-profits.