Live From the Center presents
Asleep at the Wheel
September 17, 2011
Can a wheel reinvent itself while its 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 thats, amazingly, still on the upswing. Thats
saying something, too, considering the groups 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 didnt 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 bands earlier era, and fiddler-singer Jason Roberts gave
the band a second male lead voice to complement Bensons immediately
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, its absolutely a part of what we do now.
Another success has been the adaptation of the Wheels repertoire
for pops symphony. Performances with Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth
& Amarillo symphonies have drawn record crowds.
The Wheels 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 gospels Blind Boys
of Alabama (with a splendid reworking of the old Wills tune The
Devil Aint 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 2009s 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 Ive always just
wanted to have a band, as opposed to Ray Benson and Asleep at the
Wheel, Benson explains. Thats what we had in the
70s a band, a revue kind of deal, which was the whole
concept. But trying to replace a Chris OConnell was very difficult.
And then Elizabeth walks up, and boom heres my girl
singer. And then I kept pushing Jason, both through the play and
through the band, saying, `Man, youve got talent. You can
sing. Youve got the golden ear just apply it to your
singing and songwriting.
Roberts, whos been the Wheels 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. Thats what theyre
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 OConnell and Maryann Price, who were amazing
singers thats an incredible honor. Its 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, youll be witnessing
something very special -- a band thats not only been entertaining
audiences with its own genre-busting music for four decades, but
also a group thats never been afraid to try something new
-- including a reinvention, inspired by the past, that rolls joyously
toward a long and shining future.